Dante’s Bushes and Lacan’s Lilies

Photograph by Charles Knowles.


 Michael Marder

October 6, 2015

One thing human beings cannot wrap their heads around is a vitality devoid of emotions. A life that simply lives without pleasure and aggressiveness, jealousy and happiness, is largely impenetrable to us if we try to approach it through the apparatus of empathy and projective identification.

Plato was still convinced that he could have indirect access to something like vegetal desire, which he deduced from the fact that plants wilted in the absence of water. Predicated on lack, desire, along with the frustration that its non-satisfaction provoked, was seen as the hallmark of life itself, of anything that or anyone who depended on uncertain sources of nourishment for survival.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy we glimpse the psychological underpinnings of the human self-comparison with plants and the terror it provokes. The sentient trees and bushes inhabiting his “Inferno” weep, moan, and emit “[t]hese loud, unhappy voices” (Canto XIII, 25-30).[i] From a broken twig, “words and blood,” parole e sangue, gush forth together (40-5). And the bush Dante addresses says in response: “Indeed your sweet words break me / Away from silence [non posso tacere]: let it not weigh on your ears / If I am enticed to prattle a bit, for your sake” (55-60).

It turns out that Dante’s infernal talking plants are the souls of those who, having committed suicide, are punished with vegetal incarnations for taking their own lives. If these plants are allowed to speak, it is because their bodies are but the vehicles for human spirits, pieces of sentient matter that trap the souls of sinners and cause them pain and suffering “in the poisoned shade of the bushes we are” (105-10). Simply put, hell, for Dante, is human thought, speech, and sensation trapped in the body of a plant.

Unlike ancient Greeks, who deemed reincarnation in a noble laurel tree or an oak to be one of the highest distinctions the soul of a hero could receive, Dante highlights the inappropriateness of vegetal corporeity to human emotions and modes of self-expression. What causes the most suffering to a sinner condemned to live as a bush or a tree, spitting out words and blood, is the unbridgeable gap between the capacities of her psyche and the limitations of her body, “the tangled, fractured shape it now was crushed to” (132). A veritable ontological abyss opens between the human and the plant, an abyss not spanned but, on the contrary, accentuated by the incarnation of the one in the other.

And this gap will remain open for centuries to come, partly due to the real otherness of the vegetal to the human, and partly due to the repression of the plant in us, that is to say, of the impersonal, non-objectivizing consciousness that typically goes under the name the unconscious. Jacques Lacan will maintain (and perhaps even widen) the ontological distance separating us from plants thanks to a casual interpretation of Matthew 6:28—“Consider the lilies that grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin”—in one of his seminars. In The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, he will note: “It is true that we can well imagine the lily in the fields as a body entirely given over to jouissance—each stage of its growth identical to a formless sensation. The plant’s jouissance. Nothing in any case makes it possible to escape it. It is perhaps infinitely painful to be a plant. Well, nobody amuses themselves by thinking about this, except me.”[ii]

Lacan is wrong: many others also amuse themselves by thinking about this. What is the image that he paints in the passage from his seminar? At first glance, the plant lives a life of sheer bliss. Its freedom from necessity, which in the New Testament is conceived in terms of an exemption from work, betokens a more profound reality of freedom from desire configured as lack. It is not that the plant is impassive in the state of negative liberty, however; its “body entirely given over to jouissance,” it lives beyond pleasure and pain in the absolutely positive state of extreme enjoyment (denoted by the French word jouissance), of which every stage of its development is an expression. Lacan calls this “a formless sensation,” devoid of an object, and therefore foreign to the very possibility of lack, of an object’s absence. “The plant’s jouissance”: is it something we, humans, can only envy, subject as we are to the pressures of necessity and lack? Is it the exact opposite of what the bushes and the trees experience in Dante’s hell?

Nonetheless, Lacan does not intend to leave his psychoanalytic interpretation of vegetal life at the level of an unattainable and enviable ideal. In two short sentences, he confines plants to an inferno worse than Dante’s. Delivered to the complete positivity of jouissance, the plant has no other choice but to follow its dictates: “Nothing in any case makes it possible to escape it.” There is no freedom from a freedom from necessity, from the unrelenting force of extreme enjoyment that totally enslaves the plant to itself. Uninterrupted by periods of lack, vegetal plentitude is a heavy, tyrannical burden. On the hither side of pain and pleasure, the lilies of the field are thrust into a state of extreme enjoyment and an equally extreme pain, in excess of the normal homeostatic model outlined by Freud. That is why Lacan says, appearing to contradict himself, that “[i]t is perhaps infinitely painful to be a plant”; the infinite quality of this pain directly corresponds to and emanates from the infinity of pleasure without lack. 

There is no easy way for humans to come to terms with the corporeity and psychic life of plants. Neither hell nor heavenly bliss, their life must be acknowledged as wholly other to human consciousness, but also, at the same time, as the other within us, undergirding all our ideation and conscious representation. Nothing short of this double, paradoxical affirmation will lead us back to the plants themselves, beyond the signs of monstrosity or divinity we impute to them.


[i] All quotations from The Divine Comedy are drawn from the Northwestern World Classics Edition, translated by Burton Raffel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010).

[ii] Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Book XVII, translated by Russell Grigg (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. 77.