"If there were a party of those who aren't sure they're right, I'd belong to it." Albert Camus
Despite humidity and a frustrating lack of parking, I made my way to see the Amorphophallus Titanum (the “mishapen giant phallus”) or the “Corpse Flower” at the United States Botanic Garden. Renown for its wretched odor, comparable to the smell of rotting flesh, during bloom, I was disappointed that the scent of the plant wasn’t more repulsive during my visit. However, since it’s famous for its gruesome odor, I could not help but think about Georges Bataille‘s essay, “The Language of Flowers” wherein he indicates that flowers, far from being symbols of beauty or of certain virtues, are also symbolic of the more base and grotesque human states.
“It is interesting to observe, however, that if one says that flowers are beautiful, it is because they seem to conform to what must be, in other words they represent, as flowers, the human ideal… 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 ideas, it is the sign of their failure.”
-Georges, Bataille, Visions of Excess, 12.
From the manure pile the flower rose to amazing heights and to the manure pile of wasteful squander it returns. In the same way, love as desire rises and extends itself heavenward to the ideal of beauty, but in order to profane beauty, that is, to turn it to shit and to be extinguished in death–“a filthy and glaring sacrilege.” These oppositions between beauty and the repugnant, between the admirable stem of the flower and the ignoble (base) roots, between high and low, Bataille states, can be summed up in the statement “love smells like death,” (13). The endless movement between and around these inseparable oppositions is our “tragicomic” “death-drama”. If this is the language of flowers, how much more is this the case for the Corpse Flower, the tall flower (in some instances, over 12 feet tall) which, at the height of maturation, in bloom, gives off the scent of death then withers within 48 hours. Especially with a name meaning “the giant misshapen phallus,” the flower bespeaks the limits, and eventual futility, of human phallic assertions of ideality in world which might be more like manure piles than we care to admit.