Irigaray’s Water Lily

APRIL 21, 2014


Among non-human forms of life, the vegetal stands out in the writings of contemporary French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. “All my work develops as a plant grows,” she has admitted in a recent letter to me. This will not have been the first time when plants have provided Irigaray with a model for thinking, living, and cultivating subjectivity. A recurrent image, which crops up time and again in her writings, is that of Buddha contemplating the flower. The image of thinking attuned to the sensible,

Buddha’s gazing at the flower is not an inattentive or predatory gaze […]. It is both material and spiritual contemplation, furnishing thought with an already sublimated energy. […] Indeed, Buddha contemplates the flower without picking it. He gazes at what is other to him without uprooting it.[1]

Buddha’s gaze, respecting the integrity of the flower, could be symbolic of Irigaray’s philosophy that proposes to bridge matter and spirit, nature and culture, without betraying either the one or the other. Material-spiritual contemplation is a part of cultivation, which cares for whatever or whoever grows: the flower as much as the one who gazes at it.

The image of contemplation we are now contemplating is certainly not frozen; the flower does not appear as a still life. At the height of non-domineering attention, Buddha’s gaze accompanies the growth of the flower without indifference, grows with it, and welcomes it in all its otherness (unless the flower is not altogether foreign to him, considering his history of incarnations). Cultivation, then, is not the molding of nature in accordance with the predetermined parameters of reason, or, worse yet, the violent uprooting of what grows by itself. Quite the opposite, it is the culturing of nature, for instance, by putting ourselves in its service, protecting, sharing and promoting the myriad of growths that comprise it.

But what is this flower that invites such intense contemplation? Before hinting at its species, Irigaray relates Buddha’s teaching that encouraged each one “to awaken his own skin,” just as Buddha “breathes and even laughs, with all his skin.”[2] She has not mentioned plants yet, but the unstated premise is clear: in order to be initiated into this essentially superficial way of breathing, supplementing the activity of the lungs, we must seek guidance from vegetal respiration. Totally exposed to the atmosphere, which they replenish with oxygen, plants breathe throughout their entire extension and, most of all, through the leaf. Inhaling with the skin, perceiving the world with our whole bodies, we grow a little plant-like. “If we were more attentive,” Irigaray adds,

we would be flowers capable of opening ourselves to the light of the sun, and also of love, and of reclosing ourselves in the interiority or the intimacy of the heart, as can be observed in tantric iconography, where the nymphaea opens or closes in accord with places of the body and the movement of energy, of breath.[3]

Nymphaea, or the water lily, makes its fleeting appearance, bordering on a spectral apparition.

The most iconic portrayals of Buddha depict him as sitting in the corolla of a lotus flower, which resembles a water lily despite certain undeniable dissimilarities between the two, especially in the carpels, the flowers’ female reproductive organs. (One of the outmoded botanical designations for lotus is Nymphaea nelumbo.) But nymphaea is precisely not a lotus. Its name alludes to the nymphs, Greek nature goddesses dwelling in and caring for a particular locale. The word origin of nymphaea points back to the Greek nymphē, “a bride,” or literally “a veiled one,” and contributes to the formation of the Latin nūbere, “to take in marriage,” the source of the English nuptials. Transgressing traditional boundaries, it is a flower that fuses the vegetal, the human, and the divine.

As a “bride,” the water lily is a symbol of femininity. Its aquatic environment is distinct from the purported stability of the soil, in which most other plants are rooted. Like air, liquid cannot be arrested in the molds of identity, and it cannot be divided against itself, in the manner of a furrowed earth. It is as prone to transformation as the feminine in Irigaray’s thought.

Ultimately, the water lily instructs us on how to breathe, how to be attentive and exposed to the world while keeping close to “the interiority or the intimacy of the heart,” where we can re-gather ourselves. The exteriority of the skin and the interiority of the lungs are the mutually complementary organs and figures of breath. Between East and West, woman and man, the one and the other, the rhythmic vacillations of the flower opening and reclosing are indispensable for the cultivation of subjectivity receptive to the world. That is the lesson of the water lily.

[1] Irigaray, I Love to You, pp. 24-5.

[2] Irigaray, To Be Two, p. 59.

[3] Irigaray, To Be Two, p. 59.

Derrida’s Roots

Image by Mathilde Roussel

APRIL 1, 2014


IMAGINE the following scene. Seventeen-year-old Jackie is seated on a bench in Algiers’ Laferrière Square immersed in the “ecstatic bedazzlement” of reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. At times, he would tear his gaze from the book, raising his “eyes toward the roots, the bushes of flowers or the luxuriant plants, as if to verify the too-much of existence, but also with intense movements of ‘literary’ identification: how to write like that and, above all, not write like that?”[1]

The scene is full of mirrors. On the one hand, the excess of human existence is reflected in the luxuriance of vegetable growth, as ecstatically bedazzling as the book and its subject matter. On the other hand, the young Jackie literarily identifies with, and instantly rebels against, the style of the French maître.

The teenager reads two things at once: the text composed by Sartre and the world of plants, which supplements the existential insights of Nausea. The Book of Nature and a book of philosophical literature absorb him, vying for his attention, which is, as always, torn between two objects and thus, at the height of its concentration, slips into distraction. Despite Jackie’s impression that he has found a confirmation of existential excess in the exuberance of plants, to read one of these is to neglect, if only for a split second, the other. It is impossible to establish an absolute correspondence between the terms in a comparison, brought together, here and elsewhere, by a fictional “as if” (“as if to verify”). The process of verification, aiming at verity, is fraught. The mirror is broken, even when it seems to be reflecting most faithfully.

Come think of it, the mirroring effect is more than double. Besides Sartre’s text, the existence of plants, and the reader on the bench, there is also Jacques Derrida who retrospectively reflects on the bench episode and we, the readers of another book, namely Negotiations, with its flashbacks to the time in Algiers, where Derrida’s roots are to be found. Reflection — spatial and temporal, physical and intellectual — both separates and interrelates the reflecting and the reflected. The marginal, auxiliary, contextual complexities of the reading scene parachute us right into to the thickets of deconstruction.

Not all the mirrors are set up on the same level, though. The quasi-cinematic sequence, commencing with the traveling shot of the gaze, reveals that the reader of Nausea, who looks up to and at the same time distances himself from Sartre, also looks up to plants. Strangely, he raises his eyes to the roots of the square’s lush vegetation. A position at once humble and subversive, this is the deconstructive stance par excellence. To assume it is to underlie and undercut what is deconstructed, not by taking the place of the foundation, of the ground, or of the soil that sustains concepts and systems of thought, but by pointing out how the foundation destabilizes itself all by itself and thus proves to be unfounded, abyssal. Such is, no doubt, also the preferred standpoint of twentieth-century French poet Francis Ponge, who was the subject of a little-known book by Derrida: to place oneself in one’s writing practice a little below the surface, and, from there, to stretch up and down simultaneously. In a word, to become a germinating seed of sense.

Derrida would agree to turn himself — his work, his words, or his neither-words-nor-concepts (e.g., différance) — into seeds solely on the condition that the passage from sowing to germination is not assured. Instead of inseminating meaning, deconstruction disseminates it, “spills” it “in advance,” spreads it for nothing, without the expectation of yields or returns.

In most cases, Derrida will encrypt at least as much as he makes appear in his writing and, occasionally, he will conceal bits of meaning in the very moment of disclosing it. This strategy, which we might mistake for capricious extravagance, sheds light on the routine operation of any text, where countless semantic bits are hidden (including from the author herself). Deconstruction plugs into the unconscious stratum of textuality, where words, phonemes, and expressions unexpectedly and surreptitiously work as shibboleths — restricted passwords or codes. Their sense is not merely buried in the semantic ground like a seed or a root, whose hiddenness facilitates the rest of plant growth. It is (or it could be) lost on us, irretrievably. To the excess of existence and of vegetal growth in the Algiers episode we must add the excess of meaning that borders on meaninglessness.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 264.