Academic journal article The Space Between

"A Flora Specific to Modern Wars": The Rhizomatic Feminine Rhetoric of Flowers

Academic journal article The Space Between

"A Flora Specific to Modern Wars": The Rhizomatic Feminine Rhetoric of Flowers

Article excerpt

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the poppies from John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" (1915) become perhaps the most visible commemorative symbol of wartime sacrifice.1 Yet little attention has been paid to the role of gender in the writing and rewriting of floral symbolism during and immediately after the Great War. Transnationally, flowers (and the corollary floral images of leaves, stems, buds, and trees) enable both men and women to write with image what might otherwise be difficult to express in words. Usually overlooked, women's writing often fits the ironic, sentimental, and propagandistic paradigms which Paul Fussell argues that male poets such as McCrae help establish. At the same time, women layer on traces of gendered experiences as nurses, mothers, wives, lovers, and combatants in their depictions of flowers. Rather than focus on the differences between men's and women's writing, however, this study focuses on the subject position of women as they challenge with botanical metaphors the heroic commemoration of violence during and immediately after the Great War. Women's dynamic use of the flower exposes the competing and intertwined subterranean roots of the flower as a symbol of remembrance. In the international corpus of poems, short stories, and memoirs surveyed for this study, women use flowers to create a rhetoric of grief to communicate visions of visceral horror on the battlefield and at the home front. However, flowers also appear as markers of lament, exile, shock, and warmongering. Writing through floral images allows women of all nationalities, and on both sides of the war, to express their grief, angry protest, experiences of the grotesque, and excitement for battle against and alongside more dominant literary strands of somber heroism on the battlefield.

More specifically, this study exposes the rhizome of diverse, intersecting, and contradictory subterranean roots of the symbolic flowers women use in writing about World War I. In botanical terms, rhizomes are the subterranean stems of plants. Their roots, shoots, and nodes are perhaps best known in literary criticism as metaphorical tools for apprehending multiplicities and for surveying and mapping realms, thanks to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's landmark study A Thousand Plateaus (1980). As this study considers the multiple literary implications of the botanical image of the flower, it is useful to invoke Deleuze and Guattari's well-established metaphor of the rhizome as a representation of language. They write: "Language stabilizes around a parish, a bishopric, a capital. It forms a bulb. It evolves by subterranean stems and flows, along river valleys or train tracks; it spreads like a patch of oil" (7). For a great variety of women writers during the 1910s, language stabilized around an enduring, enigmatic symbol: the flower. The bulb that language formed for them was often quite literally the bulb of a flower, pushed to the surface in verse and in brushstrokes by roots which bent and extended from one nation's soil to another's, on the same plateau. In Deleuze and Guattari's conception, a plateau is a "continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end" (22). It hosts multiplicity, a diversity of life and experience. Borrowing Deleuze and Guattari's terms, this study draws attention to the vibrations through the ever-growing network of roots. It works as a seismograph for the feminine rhetoric of flowers, measuring the vibrations of literary blossoms upon the plane of floral imagery.

While it is undeniable that the particular cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic context of each woman discussed in this study remains distinct, it is equally important to acknowledge the commonality of women's experience as second-class citizens across national borders during the 1910s. As Virginia Woolf writes in her discussion of women's participation in war in Three Guineas, men fight

. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.