To celebrate the release of Floraphilia, our latest insta promo video, Stephen Alexander has kindly shared his paper ‘Floraphilia: Or the Revenge of the Flowers’ which he gave to Treadwell’s Bookshop. Stephen offers a fascinating reading of Lawrence that anticipates much of the work that people like Annie Sprinkle are now doing under the title of ecosexuality.
Flowering plants don’t just grow in soil, they are also rooted in our hearts and blossom in our literature; from Wordsworth’s daffodils to Sylvia Plath’s poppies. We love flowers and our love itself is like a red, red rose, just as the columbine is the emblem of our foolishness, the marsh-lily the symbol of our corruption and the narcissus conveys our vanity.
To be indifferent to flowers is, my therapist tells me, a symptom of clinical depression and the beauty of flowers has long been an accepted cultural fact. In language as in art, we have formed an unnatural alliance with flowers and some, like Oscar Wilde, fervently hope that in the next life they might even become-flower: which is to say, beautiful, but soulless. Our affection, however, isn’t necessarily returned, because plants aren’t sentimental. And nor do flowers exist merely to serve the symbolic function we assign to them.
So whilst, on the one hand, I would like to speak about our erotic entanglement with flora, on the other, I want also to develop the idea of what might be termed the revenge of the flowers – that is to say, the manner in which they challenge the supposed superiority of animal life and conspire to eventually triumph over our attempts to create a fully idealized, humanized and mechanized world. For it is well to remember from the outset that not only are we individually destined to putrefy into plant food and thereby assist in ‘pushing up daisies’, but if collectively we continue along the same world-destructive and species-exterminating path then that nemesis of all human endeavour, the weed, might yet conquer.
For while the colossal power of man and his machines may seem to be absolute and supreme, it’s worth recalling that plants have ancestral reality and that we remain completely dependent on them to provide the air we breathe and the food we eat. We can pave the world over with concrete and tarmac, but in the absence of chlorophyll, we can’t use sunlight to photosynthesize nutrients directly from carbon dioxide and water and thus, in the final analysis, it’s grass – that most unassuming of all plants – that continues to provide the foundation for life on earth.
And so, although we like to think that we, as human subjects, are masters of all worlds, including the world of plants, and that gardeners, farmers, botanists, and genetic engineers today determine which flowers will be allowed to bloom and which will be pushed into extinction, this is really perhaps nothing more than an anthropocentric conceit. Indeed, it might even be the case that the reverse is true. In other words, that our life is not only dependent upon plants, but is in a very real sense also determined by them; that ultimately we are in much the same position as insects and other animals that serve simply to disseminate plant DNA. This sounds a little over-dramatic at first: provocative, but unconvincing. But doesn’t a bee also regard itself as the active and autonomous subject in a world full of seemingly passive flowers? “But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.”
Likewise, in a co-evolutionary relationship such as that between humanity and the potato plant, for example, conventional and convenient distinctions between subject and object become meaningless: we shape them and they shape us. The fact that humanity has evolved to become aware of its own activity “makes no difference whatsoever to the … potato taking part in this arrangement”. Just as long as we keep planting, picking, and peeling ’em and agreeing ‘Yes! We want fries with that’, then the spuds are satisfied.
It is perhaps, if you’re a humanist, a little disconcerting to think like this: to acknowledge that in comparison to the buttercup, the greatest monuments of mankind won’t last a moment and to concede that plants are just as complex and sophisticated – just as cruel and exploitative – as us. However, the undeniable truth is that they have been evolving for millions of years and have in that time been endlessly inventing “new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say one of us is the more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define the term” and on which advances you care to place a value. We can walk and talk, and that’s an achievement, but plants have a genius for organic chemistry and are expert at “transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture”.
To be clear, then, what I’m calling for in this paper is, if you like, a new kind of narrative about man and nature: one that moves beyond the three traditional narratives with which we are all too familiar. Namely: (i) the heroic narrative in which humanity is struggling against nature; (ii) the romantic narrative in which paradise is regained and man merges into some kind of spiritual unity with nature; and (iii) the eco-apocalyptic narrative which might best be characterized as an “environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays man back for his transgressions”. Contrary to these tired mythological storylines, I would like to provisionally sketch a speculative and realist narrative in which all forms of flora and fauna are regarded primarily as objects: not necessarily equal objects, but equally objects nevertheless, caught up in the same orgy of sex, violence, and random mutation that we like to call life.
On the Genealogy of Florals
In his best-selling (but irritatingly folksy and philosophically naïve) book, The Botany of Desire (2002), Michael Pollan provides a rather nice summary of how flowering plants, or angiosperms, came into the world and changed everything. I’d like, if I may, to read this account to you, before then developing some of the points he touches on in greater detail whilst taking this essay in an altogether different direction:
“Once upon a time, there were no flowers … There were plants … ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit. Some of them reproduced asexually, cloning themselves by various means. Sexual reproduction was a relatively discreet affair usually accomplished by releasing pollen onto the wind or water; by sheer chance some of it would find its way to other members of the species, and a tiny, primitive seed would result. This prefloriferous world was a slower, simpler, sleepier world than our own. Evolution proceeded more slowly, there being so much less sex, and what sex there was took place among close-by and closely related plants. Such a conservative approach to reproduction made for a biologically simpler world, since it generated relatively little novelty or variation. Life on the whole was more local and inbred.
The world before flowers was sleepier than ours because, lacking fruit and large seeds, it couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures. Reptiles ruled, and life slowed to a crawl whenever it got cold; little happened at night. It was a plainer-looking world, too, greener even than it is now, absent all the colours and patterns (not to mention scents) that flowers and fruits would bring into it. Beauty did not yet exist. That is, the way things looked had nothing to do with desire.
Flowers changed everything. The angiosperms … appeared during the Cretaceous period, and they spread over the earth with stunning rapidity. … Now, instead of relying on wind or water to move genes around, a plant could enlist the help of an animal by striking a grand co-evolutionary compact: nutrition in exchange for transportation. With the advent of the flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world: more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.
The evolution of plants proceeded according to a new motive force: attraction between different species. Now natural selection favoured blooms that could rivet the attention of pollinators, fruits that appealed to foragers. The desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants … Beauty had emerged as a survival strategy.
With flowers came fruit and seeds, and these too, remade life on Earth. By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of the large warm-blooded mammals. Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule. Without flowers, we would not be.
So the flowers begot us … [and in] time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding in its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes. Now came roses that resembled nymphs … peonies bearing the scent of women. We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason, moving their seeds around the planet … For the flower it was the same old story, another grand co-evolutionary bargain with a willing, slightly credulous animal …”
So, to be clear, the angiosperms first began their evolutionary divergence from the non-flowering and fruitless plants known as gymnosperms around two hundred and twenty million years ago. But it wasn’t until some eighty million years later that flowering plants as we would recognise them today, characterised by their colourful floral effects and swollen, edible ovaries, fully blossomed into the world and superseded the gymnosperms as the dominant terrestrial plant form.
Interestingly, however, there is no continuous fossil record to show precisely where, when, or how flowering plants evolved from non-flowering plants and for Darwin the apparently sudden appearance of flowers into the world posed something of a problem for his theory of evolution; so much so, that he famously referred to it as an ‘abominable mystery’.
Mysterious or not, without flowers, an angiosperm would be just another green plant: all leaf and naked of seed. Arguably, the same is true of people: they either blossom into full being like a bright red poppy, or they remain closed up within a mass of foliage and growing fat like a cabbage. But sadly, many people seem to resent the shameless, scarlet flowering of poppies: perhaps it seems excessive in an age of austerity. Or perhaps there are health and safety issues over these tiny ‘hell flames’. Whatever the reason, most of us prefer fat green cabbages: you can rely on them. You can cook them. And you can eat them. But our great writers and philosophers teach us that life isn’t the same as self-preservation and that even reproduction isn’t the ultimate clue to being. What matters, in people as in plants, is precisely the flowery excess that accompanies reproduction. D. H. Lawrence, for example, writes:
“The excess is the thing itself at its maximum of being. If it had stopped short of this excess, it would not have been at all. … In this excess, the plant is transfigured into flower, it achieves itself at last. The aim, the culmination of all, is the red of the poppy …”
For Lawrence, there’s something contemptible about those individuals who never burst into flower, but choose instead to “linger into inactivity at the vegetable, self-preserving stage … like the regulation cabbage”. Better, he suggests, to become even a foul-smelling weed than to remain tightly enclosed within your own greenness, getting fatter and fatter whilst all the time turning rotten at the core.
Perhaps he’s right: I used to think he was right. But now I’m not so sure: now it seems to me that even cabbages have their place in the world and I have to admit that I find it increasingly difficult to establish the violent hierarchies and orders of rank that Lawrence, like Nietzsche, had such a fondness for constructing. Indeed, even to make the comparison between two different forms of being such as a poppy and a cabbage seems absurd and unnecessary. Why, we might ask, is it legitimate to sneer at those plants – or those beasts – which have collaborated with the process of domestication? Why celebrate and revere the wolf whilst denigrating the domestic dog? Or why, like Lawrence, rhapsodise about the scarlet poppy but hold the fat green cabbage in contempt? Domestication is about more than simply making wild things docile. And, actually, wild nature, if you like, continues to unfold just as splendidly in the cabbage or potato as in the poppy or rarest mountain flower – as it does in us and the grazing cattle. To think otherwise is simply another failure of the imagination and to fall into a simple-minded romanticism that equates the great outdoors with vital authenticity and civilization with the loss or corruption of such.
So, for now, let us return to our botanical musings; we can always come back to Lawrence’s philosophical moralizing a little later.
Flowers, then, as we have said, are the overtly – some might say obscenely – colourful sex organs of the flowering plant and are what distinguishes them from other, earlier forms of seed producing plant. And flowers have allowed angiosperms to largely dominate the earth by making them far more adaptable to many kinds of environment. Their stamens for example – i.e. the male organs of the plant, containing the pollen sacs – are not only better evolved for the process of pollination than the corresponding organs in gymnosperms, but they have also become modified to decrease the danger of self-fertilization, thereby permitting greater diversification and allowing angiosperms to fill more ecological niches.
The pollen grains, or sperm producing cells of flowering plants, are also much smaller than the gametocytes of the gymnosperms. This results in a significantly decreased period of time between pollination (i.e. the pollen grain reaching the carpel or, if you like, the cunt of the plant) and fertilization of the ovum. Obviously, this also has a clear evolutionary advantage. Once the ovum has been fertilized, the carpel and surrounding tissue develops into the fruit which is often attractive to and edible by a wide range of seed-dispersing birds and beasts.
But it’s not just the fruit that attracts the attention of dumb animals. If plants frequently use chemicals to repel creatures that might do them harm, other substances are designed to do just the opposite: i.e. to delight and arouse by stimulating and gratifying the senses. Plants intoxicate with beauty, mind-altering chemicals and the promise of food. It was a strategy that seduced the birds and the bees: and it was a strategy that seduced us. Whether we like to admit it or not, people are effectively exploited by angiosperms in the process of seed dispersal in much the same way as many flowering plants use insect sex-slaves to do their dirty work. We might even ask: did mankind invent agriculture, or did the grasses themselves put us to work, enticing us to cut down the forests so that they might spread across the face of the earth?
Again, if this question sounds a little preposterous or absurd, I’m actually being quite serious here. Certainly, if nothing else, I think we might all agree that insects are frequently exploited, enslaved and even sometimes eaten by flowering plants, so maybe I should begin by saying a little more about the erotic phenomenon of entomophily before then examining the mutually abusive, mutually beneficial relationship between man and flower.
Pollination, quite simply, is the botanical term for fucking. It is the process by which one plant receives the pollen from another. Ideally, this pollen will be from a plant of the same species so that fertilization can readily take place and viable seeds form, but it might be noted that plants generally are far more promiscuous and quicker to successfully hybridize (or cross-breed) than animal species. Some angiosperms are pollinated abiotically by the wind, some by water. And some rely upon small animals, such as bats or hummingbirds. But the majority, around 80%, enlist the help of roughly 200,000 different types of insect. It is, if you like – and somewhat paradoxically – a perfectly natural form of artificial insemination.
To be strictly accurate – and contrary to what I said a moment ago – insect pollination is more a form of paid sex work, or prostitution, rather than slavery; because when plants are fucked by insects the latter usually get something sweet in return for their services: namely, nectar. Like us, and, indeed, many other animals, insects love sweetness and the desire for nectar or fructose has been an important factor in evolution; unsurprisingly when one considers that sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy. Thus, in exchange for a little sweetness, animals have provided a means of sexual transfer and allowed plants to extend their range.
However, this is not to say that the insects are entering into the relationship with full consent (whatever that might mean in the world of bugs and bees and cigarette trees) and most seem blissfully unaware that they are playing such a crucial role in plant reproduction.
Further, there are times when male insects are sexually duped by a plant with sex organs that have evolved to look like the female of their species. Some orchids, for example, have parts that look uncannily like bees or flies, depending on the species in question. The insect is attracted not by the pretty colours or the alluring scent of the flower, nor even the promise of a sugary drink, but by the prospect of being able to mate. Desire, then, as Michael Pollan argues, is inherent within the very nature and purpose of flowering plants and the relative lack of glamour by comparison amongst the non-flowering plants is doubtless tied to the fact that their reproductive strategy doesn’t rely upon the seduction of other species.
Amusingly, Pollan also informs us that the Victorians believed this game of mimicry was intended to scare away insects, so that the flower could, like the Virgin Mary, immaculately conceive or self-pollinate. As he points out:
“What the Victorians failed to consider was that the [orchid] might resemble an insect precisely in order to attract insects to it. The flower has evolved exactly the right pattern of curves and spots and hairiness to convince certain male insects that it is a female as viewed, tantalizingly, from behind. Botanists call the resultant behaviour on the part of the male insect ‘pseudocopulation’; they call the flower that inspires this behaviour the ‘prostitute orchid’. In his frenzy of attempted intercourse, the insect ensures the orchid’s pollination … effectively disseminating the flower’s genes, if not his own.” 
The French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari discuss this in A Thousand Plateaus, with particular reference to the case of an orchid and a wasp. However, they argue that it should be understood in terms of becoming based on a series of ‘deterritorializations’ and subsequent ‘reterritorializations’ and not in the more conventional terms of mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc. suggested here. They write:
“The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion … But this is true only on the level of the strata – a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all … but a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.”
You might be asking by now what – if anything – this aparallel evolution or game of becoming played out between two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, has to do with us. And how are we implicated in the sex life of flowers, other than economically, for example (and it deserves to be noted that the free pollination of flowering plants by insects saves the human economy billions of dollars each year).
Well, for one thing, if insects do most of the pollinating work, so too do people play a not insignificant role and for many species of flowering plant “the great love of their lives now is humanity”. However, we are as Michael Pollan rightly points out, a perverse species and our love has frequently driven the evolution of flowers “toward the extraordinary, freakish, and precarious beauty of a Madame Hardy rose or a Semper Augustus tulip”. Such flowers carry in their form, colour and scent our ideas and desires. And so if our love is like a red, red rose, so too is a red, red rose, reflective of our love and ready to mutate like femininity in any direction, no matter how extreme or ludicrous, simply to please.
It might appear that we are screwing with nature, but of course, the willingness of flowering plants to participate within our mad games of fantasy and desire has proven a highly successful strategy for survival and success and there are certainly a lot more flowers in the world today, than there were before men took an interest in them: “For a flower, the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.”
And thus, although we self-importantly regard cultivation as something people have done to plants, it is also just as much a ploy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires – including our most excessive notions of beauty – to advance their own interests. Plants have done what they needed to do; i.e., exploit the world in which they find themselves growing. Thus mutations “that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment that’s been shaped by human desire.” By being so adaptable, so promiscuous, and so perverse, plants outlived the age of the dinosaurs and they will doubtless outlive the age of man.
And, in the meantime, they will doubtless continue to tease and to fuck with us just as we fuck with them. Indeed, mightn’t it be the case that hay-fever or pollinosis is a type of reprisal? For what is the allergic reaction to pollen suffered by many millions of men, women and children each spring and long into the summer months other than a sexually transmitted disease? We are, quite literally, pestered and assaulted by flowering plants that unrestrainedly allow their sperm-producing cells to be carried by any passing breeze into the eyes, ears, nose and throat of any passing person. The irritation caused as our body reacts to defend itself from what it perceives to be a threat, is arguably a sign that there remains a primal hostility between flora and fauna.
As with herpes, there is presently no cure for hay fever. However, an article in The New Scientist three years ago suggested that ‘organic masturbation’ with fruit and vegetables might alleviate the problem. It turned out to be an April Fool’s Day joke. But, many a word spoken in jest … The revenge of the flowers starts with a runny nose – who’s to say in what humiliating circumstances it might end?
Birkin Among the Flowers
And so, let us turn our attention then to a very strange scene from a very disturbing novel, Lawrence’s Women in Love, in which the central male protagonist, Rupert Birkin, has just been given a bash on the head by his girlfriend Hermione, with a stone paper-weight. Don’t ask why: it doesn’t really matter, does it? Hermione recalled afterwards that “she had only hit him, as any woman might do, because he tortured her”. So fair enough, I suppose. But the blow was a serious one and as he fled the scene Birkin was barely conscious. Nevertheless, he managed to make his way “out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills”, where many flowers and trees were growing, and spots of rain were beginning to fall. Lawrence continues:
“He was happy in the wet hill-side, that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, then lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.
But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees, that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges – this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!”
“Really, what mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman – not in the least. The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad.
It was quite right of Hermione to want to kill him. What had he to do with her? Why should he pretend to have anything to do with human beings at all? Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.
It was necessary to go back into the world. That was true. But that did not matter … He knew now where he belonged. He knew where to plant himself, his seed: – along with the trees, in the folds of the delicious fresh growing leaves. This was his place, his marriage place. The world was extraneous.
He climbed out of the valley, wondering if he were mad. But if so, he preferred his own madness, to the regular sanity. He rejoiced in his own madness, he was free. He did not want that old sanity of the world, which was become so repulsive. He rejoiced in the new-found world of his madness. It was so fresh and delicate and so satisfying.
As for the certain grief he felt at the same time, in his soul, that was only the remains of an old ethic, that bade a human-being adhere to humanity. But he was weary of the old ethic, of the human being, and of humanity. He loved now the soft, delicate vegetation, that was so cool and perfect. He would overlook the old grief, he would put away the old ethic, he would be free in his new state.”
“He wondered again how much of his heaviness of heart, a certain depression, was due to fear, fear lest anybody should have seen him lying naked with the vegetation. What a dread he had of mankind, of other people! It amounted almost to horror, to a sort of dream terror – his horror of being observed by some other people. If he were on an island … with only the creatures and the trees, he would be free and glad, there would be none of this heaviness, this misgiving. He could love the vegetation and be quite happy and unquestioned, by himself.”
I don’t know about you, but every time I read these passages, or hear them spoken, they strike me as not only profoundly queer but absolutely astonishing – far more disconcerting than the later passages in the novel describing acts of sexual shenanigans between Birkin and Ursula. So, let’s begin to think through what they might tell us and how they might relate to earlier ideas discussed.
It might reasonably be suggested that what’s primarily going on here is that Birkin is in the process of forming what Deleuze and Guattari termed a rhizome, or an unnatural alliance between himself and the vegetal world, similar to that formed between the wasp and the orchid or, if you prefer, the owl and the pussy cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. It’s a deterritorialization of sex from its traditional object and aim; a setting free of desire to roam and eventually reterritorialize on all kinds of new things, in all sorts of strange new ways. Indeed, the great and intoxicating truth that Birkin demonstrates is that we can form loving relations not just with anyone – but anything and everything.
At this point, the objection is often raised that whilst this makes for fairly entertaining theory, it doesn’t really provide a legitimate or satisfactory form of practice. And someone usually says something along the lines of: ‘Yes Stephen, I can see how sex with plants might be some people’s cup of tea – but it’s not really a form of love though, is it?’ And they’re right: it’s not really love. At least not in the conventional and orthodox sense of the word, which is to say love that has been sanctioned by God and which involves the right persons doing the right things at the right time in the right place with the right organs etc. – a model that is so restrictive and so reductive that it makes one want to immediately run outside and commit acts of erotic atrocity like Diogenes in the market place.
However, let it suffice for me to point out to those law-abiding individuals who think that love should circulate exclusively within a system of moral legislation, that were it not for Eve daring to consort with serpents and eat of whatever fruit she pleased, then none of us might have attained to carnal knowledge, or experienced the full range of earthly delights. Ultimately, love is tied to transgression and to crime – not to obedience or conformity with social convention.
In fact, one might argue that the furthest forms of love are precisely those branded as paraphilias in which strange connections are sought out and one dreams of establishing an inhuman relationship with alien forces, or heterogeneous terms and territories as Deleuze and Guattari would say. Quite clearly, in this scene Birkin is caught up in a process of becoming-plant via a series of perverse participations, none of which involve imitation or identification. It’s a question of extracting from his own sex the particles that best enter into proximity with those emitted by the plants and which produce within him a micro-florality.
If, usually, when we love, we do so in order to seek out ourselves, that’s almost certainly not the case here. For Birkin is not depositing his sperm amongst the foliage in the same way as he might come inside a woman and one suspects that he isn’t even that concerned with his own functional pleasure or the banality of orgasm. What really excites Birkin, even more than the delicious touch of the plants on his bare skin, is that he might enter into a new way of being and release the flows and forces and strange feelings presently overcoded by his humanity. Or, put more simply, that he might blossom and unfold into his own poppiness. The problem with having a human being as a lover, is that their body often doesn’t serve to set anything free; rather, it gives impersonal desire personal expression and in this way it acts as a zone of containment, or a point of blockage – a dead end if you like, no matter how you choose to penetrate it. In other words, the anus is a cul-de-sac and the vagina is a freshly dug grave.
Of course, there is, I admit, something utopian in this belief that we might discover via molecular-desire and floraphilia a new world in which we each contain an infinite number of impersonal selves and the anthropomorphic representation of sex is shattered once and for all: a future in which love will no longer mean boy-meets-girl, but boy becomes-girl, boy becomes-animal, boy becomes-plant, etc. And these days I have a lot of reservations about advocating a libidinal revolution and promoting a politics (or a botany) of desire. But, even after the orgy, I think it remains true to say that perversions make happy – and, indeed, help us become more sensitive and sophisticated individuals.
However, this is not to argue that the only way to form an intimate relation between yourself and the world of plants is to roll around naked like Birkin in the wet hill-sides, saturated with a mixture of pollen and semen. Nor does it mean having to masturbate with the contents of your vegetable drawer. For art also serves as a method of becoming. Thus it is that when Van Gogh paints sunflowers, for example, “he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as a man, and the sunflower, as sunflower”. The canvas itself acts as a ‘zone of proximity’ wherein something is exchanged between them: the artist becomes-object, just as the object in turn becomes pure line and colour.
For clearly painting is not simply an attempt at representation. And Van Gogh was not looking to produce an image of the sunflower with photographic accuracy – we have cameras for that and they can visualise and record the world in far greater detail than even our greatest painters. But what they can’t produce is the vision on the canvas which is “utterly intangible and inexplicable, the offspring of the sunflower itself and Van Gogh himself … forever incommensurable with the canvas or the paint, or Van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism”.
That’s the power of painting: it gives us this third thing, which, in this case, is a kind of human-flower hybrid that blossoms in the fourth dimension as a form of perfected relationship and becoming “where no Kodak can snap it”. And for Lawrence, our life hinges upon this “achieving of a pure relationship” between ourselves and the world around us. That, he says, is how we ‘save our soul’ and enter into the kingdom of bliss – by coming into contact with other people, animals, trees, flowers, stars and things of every kind; an infinity of perfected relations, large and small, with animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, real and virtual objects.
But it’s not easy to come into touch in this way: to form a new relation with the world is bound to be painful, if only because it involves the breaking of old connections and loyalties “and this is never pleasant”. But there you go: just as our strength merely preserves whilst it is our sicknesses that advance us, so too do we live in bright red splendour like the poppy via acts of infidelity and not by staying true to old attachments like a fat green cabbage forever stuck in the same old cabbage patch. In the end, it’s Judas and not Jesus who will save us; because what threatens us most in this life is not sin, but boredom.
Closing Remarks on the Revenge of the Flowers and the Bio-Chemical Paganism of Plants
I’m well aware that most philosophers, remaining theo-humanists at heart, don’t much care for flowers, unless they’re the never-fading flowers of an ideal heaven, or the immortal pensées of some great thinker.
They don’t mind the thick leafy stems of plants; for these are at least suggestive of strength and phallic dignity and reach up towards the sun. But they don’t like “the insane contortions of tendrils” that twist and twine and “bear witness to the fact that all is not uniformly correct in the impeccable erection of plants”. Nor do they like thinking of the “roots swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin … loving rottenness just as leaves love light”.
But most of all, they hate flowers: they hate their scent, they hate their sex, and they hate the fact that their beauty is somehow tied not to the uprightness of stems, but to rootedness in the dark earth and richly perfumed eroticism. Give the most beautiful roses to a philosopher and they are likely to strip the petals and discard them with contempt into the nearest ditch or latrine, as if the very sight of something that expresses such wanton loveliness is more than they can bear.
With barely suppressed rage, they annihilate the transient and temporal beauty of flowers: ‘Look!’ they cry, as they frantically pull away the petals like madmen: ‘Look how ugly and vulgar these flowers really are! How immoral and deceitful!’ And, in a sense, they’re right. For if most people continue to believe flowers to be beautiful in a noble-classical sense, this is only because they have become accustomed to seeing them from the perspective of a particular artistic ideal, or in conformity with a certain convention of beauty. In other words, flowers have become a kind of mannerism with us. But look more closely, beyond the cliché, and it soon becomes evident that “most flowers are badly developed and are barely distinguishable from foliage; some of them are even unpleasant, if not hideous. Moreover, even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centres by hairy sexual organs.”
Continuing and developing the argument that all flowers are flowers of evil in their weird and twisted imperfection (characterized brilliantly by Ruskin as their ‘Gothic’ nature), Bataille writes:
“Thus the anterior of a rose does not at all correspond to its exterior beauty; if one tears off the corolla’s petals, all that remains is a rather sordid tuft. Other flowers, it is true, present very well-developed and undeniably elegant stamens, but … it becomes clear on close examination that this elegance is rather satanic: thus certain kinds of fat orchids, plants so shady that one is tempted to attribute to them the most troubling human perversions. But even more than by the filth of its organs, the flower is betrayed by the fragility of its corolla: thus, far from answering the demands of human idealism, it is the sign of their failure. In fact, after a very short period of glory the marvellous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming … a garish withering. Risen from the stench of the manure pile – even though it seemed for a moment to have escaped it in a flight of angelic and lyrical purity – the flower seems to relapse abruptly into its original squalor: the most ideal is rapidly reduced to a wisp of aerial manure.”
This, if you like, is the first aspect of the revenge of the flowers: they undermine and mock our emasculated idealism with their obscene reality, reminding us that beauty and desire have nothing to do with permanence or purity. For despite what our poets and philosophers and grandmothers would desperately wish them to be, flowers are not ‘the faded expression of an angelic ideal’, but, on the contrary, “a filthy and glaring sacrilege”.
Equally galling to our transcendental philosophers, is the fact that the flowering plant blossomed long before man and will continue to blossom long after we have vanished from the face of the earth; that even the common dandelion has more endurance – and thus, for an idealist, more value – than any categorical imperative. What? A cactus will outlive Kant!
Do our modern philosophers secretly realise for all their insistence to the contrary, that the thing-in-itself, including the flower-in-itself – which is really only to say the flower as it exists outside of human consciousness – blooms just as gaily in the world without a Latin name attached? I think they do. But you’ll never get them to admit it of course, for such is the depth of their correlationism.
This is the second aspect of the revenge that flowers: they make those who continue to posit Man at the centre of the universe and as the measure of all things feel secretly stupid. For flowers – like the insects that pollinate them – do not need us and they malevolently reveal the presence of a world that requires neither human understanding nor, ultimately, any form of sentient observation to keep on turning.
Personally, I like to know this: to know there is a world out there; a real world with flowers in it. And I think it’s important not only to acknowledge this, but to live accordingly; which means endeavouring to meet the flowers on their own terms, rather than transplanting them into our all-too-human world as cut-and-dried objects of knowledge to be placed under a microscope, popped into a vase, or poetically assimilated.
The latter, is precisely what Wordsworth was guilty of. He just couldn’t help anthropomorphizing the primrose for example and making it part of his own life. In other words, due to his inherent idealism and desire to smelt the world into Universal Oneness, Wordsworth “ousts the primrose from its own individuality”. He doesn’t allow it to have its own peculiar primrosiness; instead, it must be identical with him and all nature indeed must be romanticized and made ‘Sweet-Williamish’ as Lawrence jokes. As a rule, we should always beware of people – and particularly poets – who claim to love flowers, small animals, babies, or beautiful sunsets. For more often than not it simply means they are looking to impose their own ego over things that can’t answer back. And that’s not love: that’s just impertinence.
What then is love? There are many possible answers to this question and I’ve already offered one or two earlier in this paper. But surely the most important aspect of love is the attempt to know things as things in themselves and not as things for us, or as things as we would like them to be. We have to learn to let things come to presence and accept the singular reality of their being, as well as the ‘untouched chaos’ that functions as an imperative within them, bubbling up like a volcanic core. So, yes, we can go forth in desire to the flowers – as Birkin went forth – but becoming-plant is never a question of trying to incorporate their lives into our own selves with a kind of egoistic and anthropomorphic lust.
Plants have always had a magical, and, indeed, sacred reality: they can nourish, they can heal, they can poison, they can intoxicate, but most of all they can teach us something of import about the world – as indeed, they can teach us something of import about our own experience of the world; namely, that what superstitious persons and folk psychologists amusingly think of as ‘spiritual’ knowledge or insight, is entirely a material effect of bio-chemistry.
This is not necessarily to denigrate the experience or call the religious faculty into disrepute, but simply to agree with Aldous Huxley that “‘In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely ‘spiritual’, purely ‘intellectual’, purely ‘aesthetic’, it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of their occurrence.’”
In other words, as Baudelaire recognised, all visions of paradise are artificial. And, this being the case, I can see nothing wrong with those who choose to systematically modify their brain chemistry with alcohol and drugs, rather than utilize more tedious methods involving fasting, chanting, and prayer. To glimpse pink elephants dancing across the ceiling is no less meaningful than to see a host of heavenly angels gathered on the head of a pin. We might, if you like, refer to a ‘flat ontology’ of virtual objects in which gods and demons, unicorns and leprechauns are all equally present and correct.
Of course to certain minds “the use of drugs for spiritual purposes feels cheap and false” – and doubtless this is in part tied to the fact that drugs are largely derived from the realm of plants. For as Michael Pollan writes, the fact that we can “take a leaf or flower and use it to change our experience of consciousness suggests a very different sort of sacrament … at odds with our loftier notions of self”. He continues:
“Plants with the power to revise our thoughts and perceptions … challenge the cherished Judeo-Christian belief that our conscious, thinking selves somehow stand apart from nature, have achieved a kind of transcendence.
Just what happens to this flattering self-portrait if we discover that transcendence itself owes to molecules that flow through our brains and at the same time through the plants in the garden? … Does it mean that spirit too is part of nature?”
I think it does mean this: that is to say, I think it means that the visions that result from hallucinogenic drugs, for example, are evidence not of supernatural realms and other dimensions, but simply of powerful and seductive plant chemistry. Now, whilst it’s obviously true that “no entheogenic plant or fungus ever set out to make molecules for the express purpose of inspiring visions in humans”, nevertheless, the moment that shamans and wise-women discovered just what these molecules could do, “the plants that made them suddenly had a brilliant new way to prosper” and to fuck with us: for what ultimately is Dionysian intoxication other than nature overpowering mind and a way in which man is reconciled not with heaven, but with the earth once more?
The Judeo-Christian tradition – which is as much an anti-natural creed as well as a supernatural faith – has always understood the danger posed by plants to its own authority: “for they threatened to divert people’s gaze from the sky, where the new God resided, down to the natural world all around them”.
This then is the final revenge of the flowers: and it is, I think, something for which we should be thankful: they cause us to dream – but at the same time, paradoxically, they disenchant us and, quite literally, bring us back down to earth and to the here and now. The notion that spirit “might turn out in some sense to be matter (and plant matter, no less!)”, obviously threatens a long established and long-cherished dualism, but to be pagan is to affirm this idea with a happy heart and to worship forever the goddess Flora.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we capture Lawrence’s relationship with nature or the ‘violent hierarchies and orders of rank he had such a fondness for constructing’. In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here.
OTHER PROMO VIDEOS
Notes and References
 Although this paper is concerned with floraphilia rather than floriography or the secret language of flowers, it is worth noting how this Victorian method of coded communication between illicit lovers in which a wide variety of plants enabled individuals to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken has continued to this day – albeit in a restricted, clichéd and commercialized manner. Interestingly, as Michael Pollan points out, flowers “have always borne the often absurd weight of our meaning-making”, but they have arguably solicited such, as signifying “is precisely what natural selection has designed flowers to do”. In other words, flowers acted as “nature’s tropes long before we came along”. See The Botany of Desire, (Bloomsbury, 2003), p. 75.
 By ‘ancestral reality’ I refer to a reality that is anterior to the emergence of humanity. The term will be readily understood by those who are familiar with the work of Quentin Meillassoux. The point being made is not simply that plants have existed for a long time prior to mankind – and may well continue to exist for a long time after all traces of humanity have been eradicated from the face of the earth – but that this tells us something of importance long-denied within modern philosophy; namely, that reality exists mind-independently. Whether we like it or not, we don’t need to be on the scene for dandelions to evolve and flower quite happily. I will say more in relation to this (for some very obvious) point later in the essay. For those who are interested in Meillassoux’s ‘speculative materialism’ and his challenge to philosophy in the post-Kantian tradition, see After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2008).
 Plants belonging to the grass family are by far the most important to us, providing as they do the basis and the bulk of our diet as well as livestock feed. Such plants include rice, corn, wheat, oat, barley and rye. And flowering plants also provide us with many non-edible resources that are central to the human economy, such as wood, paper, fibre and, of course, numerous drugs and medicines.
 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. xii.
 Ibid., p. xiii.
 Ibid., p. xvii.
 Ibid., p. xxiv
 Ibid., pp. 116-119.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 11-12.
 Ibid., p. 12. For those who are interested, Lawrence continues his attack on cabbages and people who have fallen into the condition of cabbages (i.e. fat self-sufficiency and self-conscious egoism) in ‘The Crown’. See Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
 As Michael Pollan notes, although many flowers, like the lilies, possess both male and female organs, they go to great lengths to avoid pollinating themselves and thereby defeating the floral point, which is the mixing of genes that cross-pollination ensures: “A flower can avoid self-pollination chemically (by making its ovule and pollen grain incompatible), architecturally, (by arranging stamen and pistil in the flower so as to avoid contact), or temporally (by staggering the times when their stamens produce pollen and their pistils are receptive).” See The Botany of Desire, p. 78.
 More recently, human activity has come to play a crucial role in pollination and plant evolution. Indeed, some flowers are now so reliant upon agricultural and horticultural practices and techniques that they couldn’t survive without us. However, I am certainly not suggesting that there is anything ‘wrong’ or even ‘unnatural’ about artificial selection. In fact, we might ask whether there has ever been such a thing as natural selection. Even if the answer to this is yes, the fact remains that today “the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred” thanks to the global presence and dominance of humanity. Today, even the weather is an artefact and for a great many species of both plant and animal ‘evolutionary fitness’ has come to mean “the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force”. The whole world has been domesticated and inasmuch as it still makes any sense to speak about the ‘wilderness’ or ‘untamed nature’, the latter is entirely dependent upon us for its preservation. See Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. The lines quoted are in the Introduction, p. xxi.
 Although the majority of visiting insects do not usually pollinate flowers with purposeful intent, there are exceptions to this. The yucca moth, for example, which services – unsurprisingly – the yucca plant, deliberately transfers pollen from anther to stamen. And it does so from biological imperative; for it is crucial for the yucca moth to ensure the survival of the yucca plant, as not only does it deposit its eggs in the yucca flower, but the yucca moth caterpillars feed exclusively on yucca seeds.
Because the yucca flower, due to its unique design, can only be pollinated by the yucca moth, both moth and flower are thus completely dependent upon one another and have an exclusively symbiotic relationship. Most flowering plants, however, are not so fussy or faithful and happily allow themselves to be pollinated by all kinds of creepy-crawlies, or lovers who come on gossamer-wing.
 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 76.
 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (The Athlone Press, 1988), p. 10.
 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 79.
 Ibid., p. 84.
 Whilst it’s true that the majority of flowers have both male and female organs, in the human imaginary we tend to assign them a single sex, according to whether their forms suggest notions of masculinity or femininity. However, for one reason or another, most people seem to regard most flowers as being ‘female’ and therefore to equate the cultivation of flowers with the construction and imposition of female gender identities is not outlandish – although clearly in need of much closer interrogation than I can give it here.
 Ibid., p. 86.
 Ibid., p. 89.
 Those who suffer from hay fever do so due to the fact that they are hypersensitive to the protein molecules released by the pollen grains. These molecules are understood to play an important role in communicating with the pistil (i.e. the female part of the flower); allowing the pollen to first ‘identify’ itself and thence to seek ‘consent’ for fertilization (i.e. to effectively play a game of molecular seduction). Although I do not have the opportunity to comment at length on the manner in which plants communicate amongst themselves, I would like to stress that they can do so. Further, I am tempted to posit, like Lawrence, the existence of what he calls ‘sap-consciousness’. This is not to say that plants are conscious as we are conscious, or that they can think conceptually in terms of ideas: they are essentially mindless. I agree, however, with Deleuze and Guattari who argue that the plant “contemplates by contracting the elements from which it originates” in a process of pure sensation: “It is as if flowers smell themselves by smelling what composes them … before being perceived … by an agent with a nervous system and a brain”. In other words, consciousness “is a faculty of feeling coextensive with the tissues” of living organisms. Whether such hylopathism can legitimately be pushed all the way towards an out-and-out panpsychism, in which even inorganic matter can be said to have some level of sentience, is debatable. See Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson, (Verso, 1994). The lines quoted are on p. 212.
 See The New Scientist, April 1st edition, 2009. The humorously-intended article which I have not so much summarized as imaginatively adapted for my own purposes in this paper, is available on-line at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16872-masturbation-could-bring-hay-fever-relief-for-men.html
 D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 106.
 Ibid., p. 106-07.
 Ibid., p. 107-08.
 Ibid., p. 108.
 The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was one of the founders of Cynicism. He was a controversial figure in Athens, not least of all because of his penchant for masturbating in public in order to challenge social and cultural conventions and embarrass Plato.
 As Deleuze tells us, there is an entirely false bond established between desire and pleasure and the latter is ultimately that which interrupts the former and acts as an extrinsic limit upon it. If you wish to construct a plane of consistency within desire, then you must find a method to defer the moment of orgasm (though of course, you’re under no obligation to want to construct such a plane).
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Art and Morality’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 168.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.
 Ibid., p. 174.
 I said we’d return to the moralizing and this game of dualist opposition.
 Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, in Visions of Excess, ed. Allan Stoekl, (The University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 13.
 Arguably, Michael Pollan is guilty of writing about flowers and beauty in this all too conventional manner in The Botany of Desire. He insists that flowers epitomise beauty for mankind and that by studying our ‘ancient attraction’ we might learn something about what he calls the ‘deeper mysteries of beauty’. Such writing betrays the fact that despite his attempts to resist and challenge a ‘blinkered humanist perspective’ and to write a work from a plant’s eye-view, ultimately Pollan’s attempt to develop a posthumanist philosophy fails for precisely the reason that Ian Bogost points out – namely, it is not posthuman enough. If and when Pollan does grant an apple or a potato a degree of subjectivity, he does so only in order that he might then mobilize them into his critique of modern industrialized practices of monoculture and genetic modification. Such a critique “serves and recommends cooperative practices of biodiversity, a value whose explicit purpose is to extend human life and well-being” and to keep in place all the old clichés to do with beauty and desire. See Ian Bogost; Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 8.
 Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.
 Ruskin, who had a significant influence on Lawrence’s thinking in this area, stressed the ‘unnaturalness’ of nature and its unfinished, savage and spiky, non-ideal character. A typical passage might be the following taken from his seminal essay ‘The Nature of Gothic’:
‘Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom […] is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty.’
For a discussion of Ruskin’s work in relation to Lawrence’s, see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993), and Amit Chaudhuri’s D. H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’, (Oxford University Press, 2003), in which the above passage from Ruskin is quoted p. 209.
 Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 I am referring here once more the work of Quentin Meillassoux, mentioned in a note at the opening of this paper. His term ‘correlationism’ refers to any current of thought which maintains that there is a permanent correlation between thinking and being and the belief that we only ever have access to this correlation and never to either term considered apart from the other. As Meillassoux also points out, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that “every philosophy which disavows naïve realism has become a variant on correlationism”. See After Finitude, p. 5.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 334.
 I am grateful to Graham Harman for this idea of objects having a molten inner core and that this is the place “where reality unfolds” – not the mind of God, or the human imagination. See ‘Physical Nature and the Paradox of Qualities’, in Towards Speculative Realism, (Zero Books, 2010). The line quoted is on p. 133.
 Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954), quoted by Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 185.
 A flat ontology refers to any ontology that rejects the real/imaginary, or natural/cultural distinctions and treats all objects – physical or virtual, material or abstract – on an equal footing. As indicated earlier in the text, I am happy to endorse Ian Bogost’s maxim that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The concept is developed at some length by Levi Bryant in his work on Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and those who are interested might like to read The Democracy of Objects, (Open Humanities Press, 2011). Ian Bogost’s discussion of the principle and his subsequent development of it into what he terms a ‘tiny ontology’ can be found in his Alien Phenomenology.
 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 186.
 Ibid., p. 193.
 Ibid., p. 157.
 Ibid., p. 190.
 Ibid., p. 186.