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  • Lex van der steen

The Flower Lover

I want to tell you about a conversation I had with a painting. On the painting, The Flower Lover by Valerius De Saedeleer, one can see a house, or rather, one can see the top part of a house, surrounded by green. A big hedge stands in front of the house, hiding most of it from the spectator.

At first I assumed that the house is depicted from the front, with a public street laying before it. I probably did so because most of the space in front of the house is empty. It took more than a month of regularly seeing a postcard with the painting on it, which hangs on my fridge, for me to realize that the area in front of the house (from the viewpoint of the spectator) is actually the backyard. Taking a good look at something, apparently, requires time.

It is within this time of attentive observation that a little conversation took place between me and the painting. Actually, the conversation is still going on as I am writing this text. Because I misheard the painting, at first I thought that the house was covered from the street by use of plants. The plant lover was in a little world of her own, a world of plants, I thought. I believed that the shielding of the house was only a side of effect of the love the plant lover has for her plants. This would line up with a basic idea of love where that which is loved is made, as much as possible, immediatly present and nearby.

However, now that the empty space from which the house is separated by a big hedge is actually the garden, I have some questions. Above the hedge one can see the top parts of a few windows. What is immediatly clear is that the people that would be standing inside the house cannot see the garden from inside, because the hedge is blocking the view. As I mentioned, at first I believed the house to be shielded from the street, but in fact it is shielded from its own garden. How can this be harmonized with the fact that, as the title of the painting suggests, the house in question belongs to a flower lover? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the garden was visible from the inside of  the house, rendering it always close by? Does the flower lover not want to see the flowers as much as possible? And, perhaps more striking: why is most of the garden empty? Yes, a few flowers are depicted at the very front view of the painting, and the empty area of soil is clearly surrounded by flowers and other types of plants. But the largest part of the garden is just empty soil. Why? Does it not make much more sense to depict the garden of a flower lover, well, full of flowers?

I have no interpretative sources from which to answer these questions. I do, however, have these questions. The questions that the painting evokes are not a mere lack of information, a lack of answers. They are, in themselves, positive facts about the painting. Are many philosophers not the same? Or other types of artworks, like movies? Evoking questions but not quite answering them, it cannot therefore be said that they do not exist, that the philosopher has no practice or the movie no plot (it functions, you could say, like Heidegger’s nothing, which I explained in this essay). The combination of the title of the painting (The Flower Lover) and the actual painting, with the covered house and the empty soil, direct my mind in a certain direction by evoking certain questions. It signifies, but it does not signify in the way a word like ‘garden’ does, which has a clear referent (that to which a sign refers).

The philosopher Charles Peirce (1839 – 1914) distinguished three types of signs: icons, indeces, and symbols. Icons are signs that “functions as an image when we fail to notice the differences between it and the event it represents. It means due to a certain kind of absence of attention to difference” (Kohn, 2013, p. 31). Icons are images or sounds that are similar to the thing they refer to. Examples of iconocity are the stick figure on the bathroom door, or the twig-resembling body of a walking stick, or a fart sound made with your mouth. Then there are symbols, which basically correspond with the representational system associated with the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Symbols concern those signs that have a completely arbitrary relation to their referent and whose meaning can only be understood by its relation to other signs. For example, the word ‘tree’ can only be understood, and only functions through, its relation to other words like ‘plant’, ‘forest’, ‘leaves’, ‘trunk’, etcetera. Symbols, therefore, concern human language.

The third type of sign that Peirce distinguishes, and in which I am most interested here, are indeces. An index, according to Peirce, functions because it has a real causal connection to its referent. It is something that refers to something else that is not direclty present. In his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn gives the example of hunters shaking the stems of woody vines or lianas in order to scare monkeys out of their current spot in the trees (hoping to move them to a more open spot). The shaking lianas or vines are a sign for the monkey, insofar the monkey interprets it to signify potential danger. This differs from mere cause and effect insofar the monkey enacts interpretation. The shaking does not necessarily have to refer to potential danger. Another example of an index could be paw prints in soil or snow. One interprets these shapes in the ground as referring to a certain animal, which often needs to be guesed at.

Absence is constitutive of signs insofar they are something else than their referent. Differently put, a sign is not what it signifies, and this is what makes it a sign (it would, otherwise, ‘just be itself’). And with indeces, that which is referenced can be unknown. I can encounter traces in the snow without knowing what animal or thing left them there. Or, imagine being in your house and suddenly hearing a strange sound without knowing where it comes from. These are like questions without answers. But, as I mentioned before, these questions do not indicate a mere and radical nothingness. With traces in the snow one can often see whether it comes from an animal or not, or one can often suspect correctly whether the unidentified sound in the room comes from a mechanical device or from something less technological. To put it in terms of question and answer: the question itself, and perhaps also its context, are itself an indication of what the answer can be. Kohn emphasizes that, specifically in the case of indeces, signs tells us something about actuality and potentiality: “The constant play between presence and these different kinds of absences gives signs their life. It makes them more than the effect of that which came before them. It makes them images and intimations of something potentially possible” (Kohn, 2013, p. 37). Indeces, and questions alike, refer to a potentiality, but a potentiality with a certain character, so to say. This character entails the transcendental conditions of that which might be.

I would like to suggest that there are, within the picture that the painting presents, several indices at work. The postcard, which I can hold and turn around, offers me an experience in which the painted picture and its title compose a single totality. And as such a world is opened up for me in which I can step and read, conversate. In contrast to Peirce’s definition of indeces, there is no actual causal relation between the depicted house, hiding within the green, and that something which made it ‘happen’ (not the painter that painted the picture, but the flower lover and her choices that ‘resulted’ in the hidden state of the house), or that which could happen afterwards. The painter painted a world, and within that world ‘indices’ are at work. These can never be ‘real’ indices since the depicted world is not real. Nevertheless they speak to me, or whatever real person is looking at this painting. As such, in my conversation with this painting, my world and that of the flower lover overlap.

Similar to how the linguist Émile Benveniste believes that subjectivity is constituted in language, Kohn believes that the mind is constituted in and by semiosis (which, in contrast to Benveniste, he understands to be more broad than human language). Kohn writes that “Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis” (Kohn, 2013, p. 34). We, our-selves, are constituted in semiosis, in language, in reading and communicating. Perhaps, I am wondering, it makes sense to say that this reveals something about love: in choosing the other, we choose to perpetually read this other, to be read by this other, to interpret this particular other and to be interpreted by this other. In this reciprocal act of reading and being read, the lovers transform each other, insofar they are constituted by this act of semiosis. Insofar the lovers are lovers of each other, their love is a symbiosis in semiosis.

The flower lover is the one that is in conversation with the flowers. She is interpreting them, asking questions about them. Why is the house separated from the garden, at least visually, and why is the largest part of the garden filled with empty soil? The painting evokes these particular questions in me because of its title and because it depicts a garden and a house. I’m asking after the flowers because I expected to see a garden full of flowers, or at least more of them. Insofar the painting realizes a different world within which indices are at play, which nevertheless reach into my world by making me ask questions, by engaging me in interpretation, it turns me into the flower lover. In the act of asking questions, which is inherent to being part of the semiosis in play in the painting, I, the observer and interpreter, inherit a certain subjectivity, a certain self. Where are the flowers? When will they come? The painting is dipping me in the potentiality of its world, of being a flower lover, of being this flower lover with this garden. Perhaps then the hedge that blocks the view is not that important, since the flower lover, or at least one of them, is not inside the house. It is me, the observant, the interpreter, the questioner.


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