Imaginaire botanique/Botanical Imaginary

When I first spoke to a colleague about the SSHRC Insight Grant “Imaginaire botanique et la sensibilité écologique” that my colleague Rachel Bouvet and I had been granted in April 2017, she was reminded of a British film she had seen years earlier, The Day of the Triffids (1962). I had not heard of the film so I looked it up online and ended up watching the last five minutes of the movie when the male and female leads are fighting for their lives against the Triffids. What are these beings, you ask? They are not aliens from space. Nor some kind of terrible animal predator. They are large, mobile, carnivorous plants. This was not exactly the “botanical imaginary” I had had in mind when helping to put together a research project about the ways plants circulate in contemporary French and Francophone literature (for more information about the project, see the Imaginaire botanique website). And yet plants’ barely containable liveliness and overwhelming exuberance often do exceed attempts at taxonomy and data collection (even if this does not usually lead to life threatening situations!). While Rachel and I had been focussing on the ways plants travel around the world in novels, in science labs, on ocean currents, etc., it is clear that débordement is also very much a part of the botanical imaginary.

During a recent visit to the Herbier Marie-Victorin run by the Université de Montréal and housed in Montréal’s Jardins botaniques, I was trying to reconcile this notion of débordement with the rows of metal cabinets in which thousands and thousands of plant specimens are housed. The very animated director explained the herbarium’s system of classification, its recent reorganization to reflect genetic findings about plant families, and the careful work of digitization being done to create Canadensys – a free, online resource with information about plants, insects, and fungi in different regions around the world. On the surface, it felt like ‘vegetal being‘ — what philosopher Michael Marder identifies as a non-cognitive, dehumanized, pre-social plant way of thinking — had been completely suppressed in this sterile environment. And yet the veneer of verbal language, scientific taxonomies, and human knowledge did not completely cover the quiet presence of the dried plants, the paper, the glue, the humming of the computers and overhead lights. The excess of plant life was difficult to detect, but it was there in the seeds, in their potential fertility, in what Marder calls the ‘spectrality of the vegetal.’ As the herbarium director explained, it was the specimens with as much of the plant as possible (ex. flowers, stems, leaves, seed, and fruit) that were preferred for the collection.

This got me thinking about an aspect of the botanical imaginary that we had not considered for our SSHRC project, but that had begun to resonate with me: the gendering of vegetal life. At the ASLE conference in Detroit, MI, in June 2017, I heard Cate Sandiland’s wonderful presentation about the intersexuality of mulberry trees in a panel on Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. While quite critical of the novel’s deterministic representation of sex and gender, Sandilands called attention to the fluidity of the mulberry’s fertile flowers in a way that I had not thought about before (and this, despite the fact that I had enjoyed the fruits of a backyard mulberry tree for many years when I was younger!)

In my analysis of one of the novels included in our research project’s herbier corpus, I will  take up the question of gender and botany. Manuela Draeger’s (aka Antoine Volodine) Herbes et golem (2012) is a strange, hybrid text made up of three parts: the first and last are long lists of imaginary plant names recited aloud by individual female prisoners, while the middle section recounts the story of an imprisoned golem who refuses to give up the word that would transform him into a living creature. At first glance, Draeger’s literary triptych appears to lack internal consistency, but the themes of resistance, the power of language, repetition, and performance run through the text. In light of my interest in gender within the field of the botanical imaginary, I will be asking the following questions in my analysis: how does Draeger’s text create a space for women to perform botany as a practice of reciting and remembering? How does the text challenge normative discourses that use the sexualization of plants to uphold dominant social systems? How can the spoken word make flesh or give life when it is contained within the disciplinary institutions of biopower? While the book could be characterized as a kind of anti-herbier or non-herbier, I am intrigued by the way it resonates with Michael Marder and Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (2016), a connection I hope to flesh out later in my analysis.

In the meantime, I can’t help ending my post with a few of the herbes in Draeger’s book: “la consoleuse” [the consoler], “l’allumeuse-des-anges” [the angel-tease], “la chuintante-dorée” [the golden hushing sound], “la belle-gigote” [the beautiful squirmer, alternatively, the great legs]. I’ve tried to provide a few translations here, but many of the plant names are in fact neologisms that give rise to images because of sound rather than meaning. I can only imagine how difficult it would be translate the entire text given there are no Latin botanical names that could be used to bridge the language gap.