Blog Post

On Meaning and Flowers

One of the pleasures of teaching is the ability to linger at length with students on questions such as this: « Pourquoi donc y a-t-il des fleurs ? » [Why on earth are there flowers? Philippe Jaccottet. Cahier de verdure, 1990 : 106].

In Cahier de verdure, a book of poetic prose punctuated by a few aerial poems, Swiss poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet describes a few moments of ephemeral existential bliss: visions of the natural world so simple that they suggest a sense of harmony and even benevolence inherent to this earth. Not much storyline here, or even a sense of historical location. No psychological drama, no political message, almost no character or metaphor either (another collection of his is called Paysages avec figures absentes [Landscapes with Absent Figures]: Jaccottet’s life-long work has been to erase all trace of human interference from his poetry, be they in the form of psychological projections or rhetorical artifice). Jaccottet writes about a bush of peonies encountered on a walk in Lausanne, muses about the specific rhythm of a river, gushing across rocks and yet imbued with a certain kind of nonchalance, about the arch of a cherry tree bending from the weigh of its fruits one summer afternoon. Moments, sights, singular and ephemeral, glimpses of something like reality itself, bared from the names, symbols, or qualities that culture, language and memory cover them with. Poetry at its roots: trouvar, trouver, to find, discover or here uncover.

Jaccottet’s texts in prose try to do just that: to find words that could translate a few visions, without adding to them too much meaning, too much human static. His prose offers not “Visions,” but the slow humble almost tedious process of eliminating one inadequate image after another, of putting aside after weighting them words too loud, too rich, too meaningful. And in the text I first quoted, as he tries to find a phrase that would express the surprising mix of banality and grace he had discovered in a field of prairie blossoms, he stumbles upon this question: « Pourquoi donc y a-t-il des fleurs ? »

That question (and whether and how that question makes any sense) struck me as quintessential… and struck my graduate students as pointless. Those were students in literature or Art History, versed in poetry and literary analysis, open-minded enough to bear with me as we read through Mallarmé’s prose poems or René Char aphorisms (see if you can: “Derrière l'œil fermé d'une de ces Lois préfixes qui ont pour notre désir des obstacles sans solution, parfois se dissimule un soleil arriéré dont la sensibilité de fenouil à notre contact violemment s'épanche et nous embaume.” Char. Feuillets d’Hypnos, VI), students eager to question and to understand. Yet, and maybe because they were so well trained in translating literary texts into smart and sharp meta-analysis, some had a hard time accepting that poetry could be interested in flowers as flowers. In their constant quest for interpretation, they were forgetting that literature might be about opening a space of contemplation.

So I gave an unusual assignment: go spend an hour with a tree or a river, alone (they all chose trees—a river might have required to actually venture somewhere a little too close to that weird space called Nature). The results were, well, unconvincing to most of them, and slightly depressing to me: some admitted to spending the time planning their next hours, days, lives, in their heads; some fell asleep, and one was honest enough to describe it as one of the most boring hour of her life (we are still in excellent terms).

My students’ drive for interpretation could not be satisfied by the hypothesis that Jaccottet might be genuinely interested in simply describing real flowers, mountains or cherry trees: that flowers could, in a text, be something else than a trope, an allegory or a symbol. And no experience could convince them either that the question why flowers exist might matter.

I will come back later to the reasons why I believe that Jaccottet’s seemingly naïve question about the existence of flowers is neither trivial nor naïve. For now, I am concerned (i.e. worried) about what kind of aesthetic experience we (literary scholars, the institution, maybe the culture as a whole) are foreclosing and what other we are encouraging. At the risk of sounding reactionary, romantic (fleur bleue as the French would say) or worst, I can’t help wondering if we are not training our students to shut down from their reading (and everyday life?) experience anything that cannot be readily (or circumvoluted-ly) translated into Big Concepts.

I wonder too if we have not lost the meaning of past texts, and potentially a range of human experience that contemporary life has obliterated. When we read classical or Renaissance poetry, what do we read under the words « rose » or « ombelle » ? A trope, not a flower. What did Ovid, Ronsard, Hölderllin read ? How much sensual richness have we lost ? Poetic images are less and less mental images, and more and more just words on the page, or links pointing to other texts.

If the aesthetization of language has been one definition of literature, many spiritual and literary traditions as well as individual authors have sought to wield a more transparent medium in service of other kinds of epiphanies: epiphanies solidly, if magically, anchored in the real. So: courses in sensibilité and sensuality anyone?

PS: and of course please tell me: why on earth do flowers exist?

Cecile Alduy's picture

« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945

A prescient definition of blogging, no?

Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.