Conditions of the Botanic Gaze
Some questions for the botanist: Who do you need to be, what do you need to know or have done, and what else do you need to be doing in order to see plants properly?, i.e., see them with the kind of sympathetic attention they demand? What are the practical conditions of the production of a botanic gaze? Jean-Jacques Rousseau and J. W. Goethe tell us many things about plants, and, I want to suggest, this is one of them—the delineation of two botanic ways of life.
There were plenty of intellectual influences that made possible Rousseau’s botanomania, but what really seems to have allowed it to flourish were the conditions he encountered during his two-month ‘exile’ on the Île St Pierre on Lac Bienne, when he ‘bid the world farewell’. The story Rousseau tells of his passion for botany is a story structured by categories of being ‘removed from men’, of being ‘safer’ from society, of ‘concentrating all my desires’ within determinate limits, and consequently of being ‘free’ to dream, to contemplate and, above all, to embrace idleness. In The Confessions, Rousseau define this type of idleness as a prelude to his account of caring for and about plants:
The idleness I love is not that of an indolent fellow who stands with folded arms in perfect inactivity, and thinks as little as he acts. It is the idleness of a child who is incessantly on the move without ever doing anything, and at the same time it is the idleness of a rambling old man who mind wanders while his arms are still. I love to busy myself about trifles … in short, to fritter away the whole day inconsequentially and incoherently, and to follow nothing by the whim of the moment.
The very next word of the Confessions is ‘botany’—Rousseau continues,
Botany… was exactly the kind of idle pursuit to fill the void of my leisure; leaving no room for the wildness of the imagination or for the boredom of total inaction. To wander carelessly through the woods and fields, and mechanically to pluck here and there… to observe the same things thousands and thousands of times and always with the same interest, because I always forgot them each time: that was the way to pass eternity without the possibility of a moment’s boredom.
Rousseau’s botanic gaze is an aesthetic experience in a precise sense: it involves the sacrifice of conceptuality to the free play of the imagination in which cognitive pleasure is decoupled from determinate cognition. Some knowledge of plants is necessary, but too much kills the non-specialist intelligibility necessary to allow one to keep seeing plants as if for the first time—in wonder and without measure. The botanic gaze is grounded in both novelty and repetition. And this is an aesthetic experience that is nevertheless still compatible with the practice of botany as a science, for even in this state, Rousseau ‘dissects’ plants and ‘wanted to leave no single blade of grass unclassified’.
In his Reveries, Rousseau returns to the themes of peace, isolation and freedom in confinement out of which his botanic practice emerged. His attention to plants was born of ‘living within defined limits’ and ‘dedicating [himself] to idleness’. No longer ‘constantly stirred up by passion’ and distracted, no longer subjected to ‘the yoke of fortune and men’, Rousseau found himself ‘calm’, ‘untroubled by passion’ and subject to a ‘movement which does not come from outside’. In short, Rousseau was ‘freed from all the earthly passions that the tumult of social life gives rise to’. Here the Rousseauean botanic approximates to a secularised beatific vision, one coupled with both aseity and even ataraxia. Botanic idleness gives rise to a self-sufficient joy that is complete in each moment—‘a state where the soul can find a position solid enough to allow it to remain there entirely and gather together its whole being, without needing to recall the past or encroach upon the future, where time is nothing to it.’
Goethe’s liberation into botany has, at first blush, a number of analogies to Rousseau’s. For Goethe too, botanic practice—and the vision of the Urpflanze—became possible through an escape from worldly responsibility and entry into a state of leisure. In 1775, Goethe had found himself stuck under a pile of administration as Privy Counsellor at Weimar—‘falling from one confusion to another’, as he put it. And from these duties he very literally bolted one day, taking the opportunity to flee to Italy for asylum. He is clear, ‘Now I need to be at leisure… All this and much else impels me to lose myself in places where I am totally unknown.’*
However, while Rousseau’s leisure comprised a self-limitation in one enclosed geographical space free from distractions, Goethe’s leisure was a flight into travel, into distraction, into the pleasure of passing people and passing things. Rousseauean botany was produced out of a stasis gained after years of distracted flight from one place to another; Goethean botany was produced out of the rejection of stasis. On his Italian journey, flashes of inspiration pass Goethe by and they can only be clutched at briefly, before other stimuli, other forms of inspiration, other subjects rise up. ‘Haunted and tempted by so many spirits,’ Goethe embarks on a visit to a botanic garden ‘with the firm intention of meditating further upon my poetic dreams’; however, ‘before I knew it, another spirit seized me’—the spirit of botany and the realisation in Palermo that ‘all is leaf’. Goethe feels this ‘vision’ as ‘an obsessive passion’, but in the very same breath also notes that ‘although this interest had seized me, body and soul, it was out of the question to pursue it methodically after my return to Rome’—other interests, other obsessions, other ‘spirits’ call him: ‘Poetry, art, antiquity, each claimed my whole attention and I have never spent more operose and exhausting days in my life.’
The point is that botanic insight occurs here because of, not in spite of the heterogeneous claims on Goethe’s attention. The above describes a Goethean way of life that stands as a precondition of the kind of attention he was able to give plants. Both Rousseau and Goethe look at plants in an asylum, a refuge—Rousseau’s refuge is a geographical prison that paradoxically liberates him from distraction and dispersion into a blessed idleness; Goethe’s botanic refuge is a Faustian restlessness, vagrancy and continual state of distraction.