Aromatic flowers are practically synonymous with perfume. Aside from their beauty, their scent is what captivates our imagination. As such, flowers have long been viewed as symbols of love and their scent, the vehicle of this emotion. Perfumers have been keen to capture this aphrodisiac quality so that our bodies could readily be adorned with their aura. While flowers have long conveyed meaning (i.e. red rose=romantic love, narcissus=egoism, etc.) it was the Victorians who perfected a language of flowers, so they could convey a sentiment or message without words.
In his essay, “The Language of Flowers” George Bataille critiques this sentimental approach to flowers and proposes an alternative interpretation that is modern, complex and perplexing. While he acknowledges the aphrodisiac qualities of flowers, he proceeds to deconstruct their ideal beauty and reveal their sordid nature. Beneath the colorful corolla lies “dirty traces of pollen” and a “satanically elegant” stamen. The external beauty of flowers distracts us from recognizing their perverse “hairy sexual organs”, far from the human ideal as espoused by the great philosophers and their categorical imperative. For Bataille, flowers are oppositional in that they interpenetrate reason with bestial unreason. In his previous essay, “The Solar Anus”, Bataille states that the communist worker appears as ugly and dirty as “hairy sexual organs” to the bourgeois. So by undermining the western obsession with the ideal, there is a politicizing aspect to his critique as well.
Bataille’s language is obscure, almost poetic, yet some of his statements border on the hilarious: “flowers do not age honestly like leaves, which lose nothing of their beauty, even after they have died; flowers wither like old and overly made-up dowagers, and they die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds”. He follows that thought with the tragicomic opposition of the “death-drama” carried out between the earth and sky where we learn the “banal truth” that “love smells like death”. By extension, since flowers embody love, they too, smell of death.
Bataille was trained as a medievalist librarian and worked at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris until 1942. He must have come in contact with seminal texts, in particular those of the alchemists. Much of his writing is infused with alchemical imagery and shrouded by enigma. Certainly his emphasis on the dissolution, death and putrefaction of the flower seems like a direct reference to alchemical transformation, or at least a part of it: “after a very short period of glory the marvelous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming, for the plant, a garish withering.” He describes the roots of the plant as “swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin”. The roots, he continues, “represent the perfect counterpart to the visible parts of a plant” and are base in the sense that they are connected to what is evil. He even conjures up the satanic image of the mandrake root, the mystical plant of alchemists. It is easy to recognize the roots of a plant as oppositional, but Bataille demonstrates that flowers inherently represent those qualities as well.
What is Bataille seeking to achieve by tearing down the image of the flower as noble and showing it to be putrid and base? There are so many layers to this essay: philosophical, political, psychological and religious. Bataille seems to be lashing out at all of these “establishmentarians”, but to what end? In the last sentence of the essay, Bataille references the Marquis de Sade who had the most beautiful roses delivered to him only to “pluck off their petals and toss them in to a ditch filled with liquid manure.” Like Sade, Bataille is “substituting natural forms for abstractions” because even elevated thoughts, like flowers, can end up getting dragged through the mud. Bataille was interested in this type of “heterogeneous matter”, subjects so repulsive as to defy all convention. In the manner of a true alchemist he brings together the oppositional realms of the very high to the very low.
It is interesting to note that “The Language of Flowers” was published in Documents (Documents 3, June 1929), an art review founded by Bataille and other surrealists like Andre Breton, who criticized Bataille publicly for this essay and his reference to Sade, labeling him an “excremental philosopher”. While this essay could be viewed within its surrealist context, it seems more fitting to position Bataille’s oeuvre in relation to its alchemical roots. Bataille was the first philosopher whose work was written using suggestive language, rich allegories and word play instead of abstract, analytic and discursive methods that filtered out the brute physicality of the world. This was the method of inquiry employed by alchemists before the advent of scientific methodology. At times Bataille’s texts read like a riddle, cryptic and coded and highly evocative of an alchemical image that encodes knowledge. Bataille seems to have deliberately chosen to write his philosophy through an alchemical lens that obscures the idiom and makes his work that much more layered and complex, offering alternate paths of interpretation.
For perfumers, “The Language of Flowers” confirms the notion that floral notes are not always pretty and limpid, but can hide a dark, fetid side that lends them complexity like the indole found in jasmine, the animalic musk in rose and the earthy-rootiness of orris. It works the other way too; where one senses a hint of floral sweetness in hyraceum, castoreum and ambergris. An undercurrent of this theme is the connection between the world of perfumery to that of alchemy through the transformation of plant matter into aromatics. The image of Sade tossing fresh rose petals into a manure ditch, this alembication of high with low, combining beauty with baseness is the essence of perfumery.
We remain captivated by the sillage of these thoughts.