Flowers with no Meaning

17 January 2021 by Julie Whyman

When floral meaning is so much part of our cultural make-up, it is often impossible to identify where denotation – the literal meaning of a word – ends, and connotation – or the idea or feeling the word invokes – begins.  Given that symbolic codes are woven into any potential narrative, is it even possible to suppress their voices long enough to see other alternatives?  Is it conceivable that those of us subject to unconscious association can move to a point where we do not assume automatically that the lily means ‘purity and innocence,’ the rose ‘passion or love,’ or the pansy ‘think of me’?

Can we override our natural inclination towards definition, and embrace the concept of flowers being no more than wisps of allusion?  

It is my contention that our search for meaning is destined to fail for it is inevitably  “little more than an accident of nature, which one exploits according to wit, often discovering significance where none was originally intended”?(Gombrich, 1985, 3)

Let us begin with the notion that the flower sprouting in marshland could be suggesting the power of the regenerative process, but it does not mean anything; the dehydrated flower in a vase on a hot summer’s day could  indicate neglect or thoughtlessness, but it does not mean anything; the trampled flower in the middle of a busy thoroughfare may conjure reflection on the fragility of the human experience, or the transience of beauty, or the disregard of nature, but does it mean anything at all?

In Jacques Derrida’s essay, “Parergon”, he promotes the essayist and poet, Francis Ponge’s view that if we want to be free from constraint, we have first to liberate the flower, for:

The flower is one of the typical passions of the human spirit. One of the wheels of its contrivance.  One of its routine metaphors. One of the involutions, the characteristic obsessions of that spirit. To liberate ourselves, let’s liberate the flower. Let’s change our minds about it.

Ponge in Derrida, 1978, 103.

If we are to liberate the Pre-Raphaelite flower, then first we have to free ourselves from the compulsion to attribute fixed meaning.  That is easier said than done, however, for how far is it possible (even if it is desirable) to untangle the interwoven mass of floral significance to reveal distinct stems of possibility? This is especially so given that the flower occupies a space somewhere between frivolous confusions of irrelevant and unrelated notions, and mysteriously planted signposts.

Paradoxically, if we accept Ernst Gombrich’s hypothesis that images “occupy a curious position somewhere between the statements of language, which are intended to convey a meaning, and the things of nature, to which we only can give a meaning”, there can be no certainty that prescribed meaning has any meaning at all (1985, 2). Yet, although this is a pivotal problem, the seemingly compulsive drive to decipher hidden meaning continues to inform our viewing experience of Victorian paintings where flowers appear, and subsequently, this trend influences contemporary progeny in a not dissimilar manner. 

Over the next few months, I aim to move beyond an examination of meaning towards an exploration of Derridean potential. ‘Meaningless’ here denotes no preconceptions of thought, no quest, however well-intentioned, to unravel surreptitious meaning and no confinement to a particular agenda. Acknowledging that at least six senses are at work when viewing any artistic expression, I add layers of potential, accepting that when we “look at a picture, even for a second, many more things happen than we may consciously realise or care to think about”. (Anand, 1978, 17)

Further reading:

Mulk Raj Anand, Seven Little-Known Birds of the Inner Eye (Rutland and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1978).

Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. by Richard Miller (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991) for discussion on post-structuralist symbolic code, and the voice of the symbol.

Francis Ponge in Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

E. H. Gombrich, Symbolic Images. Studies in the Art of the Renaissance II, 3rd. edn. (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1985).