This essay by art historian Alexander Nagel, originally published under the title “Snuff Flowers” in the volume, Heide Hatry: Not A Rose, was among 101 texts by invited intellectuals, writers, and artists responding to photographs ostensibly of flowers but actually of sculptures crafted by Hatry from offal, sex organs, and other residues of dead animals. Hatry’s photographs are also the subject of a current exhibition at Stux Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, New York, through June 29. Not a Rose is published by Charta (2013: SBN-13: 9788881588435, $49.95, gallery price during show $35)
Meat flowers are slow and difficult-to-digest food for the age of open-access porn. The vagina used to be a rarefied thing; elaborate protocols were required to open those veiled gates. Even prostitutes and porn were something you had to go and get – there was a protocol in going to the bordello, or to the burlesque show, or, in more recent times, to the magazine and video store. The risk in the expedition, the confessional moment of purchase, the zinging pulse on getting the brown bag safely home: all that drama is gone. Even ten years ago, dial-up connections were slow and video clips were short, teasers designed to get you to purchase the “real,” full-length version. Now the Internet has flooded the market and people watch as much and as long as they want. We are truly awash in visible sex – a world-historical event if ever there was one. When sex is an extension of the internet our sex is not the same. This may be the Internet’s most far-reaching impact on our lives.
Which means we are finally in a position to appreciate what Death and the Maiden really means. In Hans Baldung’s 1518 painting in Basel, the young woman is blooming, the draperies around her unfurling like the corolla of a flower. It is not that she is a flower who has attracted the ravenous creature; it is her ravishment that turns her into a flower. Her flesh is white but for the blush in her face, corresponding to the flower’s pollen-powdered stigma. Where else would Death sink his teeth in? More than merely powerless against him, she seems almost to open herself to him, and that may be the true cause of the horror on her face – has there ever been a better depiction of it? The draperies are in two pieces and cannot ever have served as a garment; they are curtains to be opened and they open just to the point of revealing her sex. We know that when Death’s teeth pierce her flesh the curtain will be rent and the holy of holies will be revealed for all to see – and that cannot be a good thing. Baldung leaves us at that exquisite point of anticipation, forever implicated, thinking about it. And we’ve thought about it. A lot. And now we’ve hit play.
In 1843–1844 Nathaniel Hawthorne created another meat flower intimate with death, Dr. Rappaccini’s daughter Beatrice, raised among the most poisonous plants of his garden and drawing from them an intense bloom of life, health, and energy, “all of which attributes were bound down and compressed, as it were, and girdled tensely, in their luxuriance, by her virgin zone.” In this technological adaptation of the theme, Death is the Maiden. Everything she touches dies on contact, but the young scholar Giovanni – allowed into her garden and exposed in small doses to her breath – becomes inured to her. Sparklingly toxic himself, he ends up able to kill flies by breathing on them.
Ideal conditions for an exclusive relationship, one might think, but instead a cure is attempted, and it can only be fatal poison to this “victim of man’s ingenuity and thwarted nature.” The story is an allegory about sex and science and it makes for good reading now, amidst genetic engineering, sex changes, plastic surgery, steroids, and performance enhancers, which are changing sex and, if Hawthorne’s prophecy is right, killing it. “Rappaccini! Rappaccini! Is this the upshot of your experiment?” In 1851 Hawthorne’s second daughter was born and he called her Rose.
The diabolical Rappaccini had a real-life angelic Doppelgänger in Gustav Theodor Fechner, a physicist who had a mystical experience in October 1843 (perhaps the very month that “Rappaccini’s Daughter” was composed) when he walked through his garden and, soaking in the beauty of the flowers, believed he could see the flowers’s souls glowing back at him. From then on he became a passionate advocate of the idea that plant-life was animated. Famous and controversial in his lifetime, he was soon to be sidelined by the march of science. Let’s call that the path not taken.
The vagina is not a flower anymore. Or rather, “the vagina is a flower” is no longer a workable metaphor. This is a death, and paradoxically it is a death that threatens to kill the age-old association of sex and death. The vagina has lost its teeth. Hatry’s meat flowers short-circuit the metaphor and serve as its fitting epitaph. The birds and the bees know to keep away, but the flies will come.print