Monday, February 25, 2013

In general, cactus blooms are the most beautiful in the world if you except a few parasitic plants - Stifter in the greenhouse

Inorganic nature, provided it does not consist of water, produces a very melancholy, indeed oppressive impression upon us when it appears without anything organic…  [W]e derive a high degree of immediate pleasure from the sight of vegetation, but this is naturally the greater the more abundant, manifold and extensive – that is to say left to itself – the vegetation is.  The immediate reason for this lies in the fact that in vegetation the law of gravity seems to have been overcome…  (Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin Classics, p. 161)

And conversely rocks make us sad because they have succumbed to gravity.

Indian Summer is a novel that finds great pleasure in both plants and rocks.  I wonder if Adalbert Stifter had read that passage of Schopenhauer’s.  It was published in 1851; Stifter’s novel in 1857, although I assume they were both responding to scientific currents of the day.  Still, this is funny:

“Form is inextricably bound up with material.  Stone is serious, it strives upward and can’t be bent into the softest, finest, most supple figures.  I’m referring to building stones and not marble.”  (359)

Stifter's speaker, the “host,” is referring to Gothic architecture, actually.  Stone escapes gravity when assembled into a Gothic spire.

Early in the novel the narrator, Heinrich, encounters a giant greenhouse cactus, a Cereus peruvianus, that is being neglected.  He suggests it be moved to the Rose House greenhouse, which it is (the host buys it – no conflict, not in this book), and twenty pages later “the Cereus, which had to twist and wind itself along the ceiling of the greenhouse at the Inghof, now could grow straight again.  I wouldn’t have imagined that this plant was so big or that it would grow so beautifully.”  (185)

The cactus theme recedes – or I have forgotten its appearance – for a time, but it returns with one of my favorite lines in the novel: “In general, cactus blooms are the most beautiful in the world if you except a few parasitic plants and a very few other individual blossoms” (349).  Yes, Heinrich, of course.  The cactus is healing, and has changed color, from “yellowish” to “a dark blue-green which now covered the entire plant like vapor.”  Perhaps it will bloom.

Of course it does, but not until the very end of the novel, at Heinrich’s wedding.  The gardener has “’retarded it by cold’” so that it would bloom as a wedding present – “’It can unfold in just the next five minutes’” (472).

The blossom had already opened by the time we got there.  A large splendid exotic blossom.  Everyone was unanimous in its praise.

“So many people have the Peruvianus,” Simon said, “since it isn’t rare at all, but even though they can get its stem to grow tall and mighty, very few can get it to flower.  Few people in Europe have ever seen this white blossom.  Now it is unfolding, tomorrow it will be gone with the break of day.  Its very presence is a treasure.”  (472)

There are a few more symbolic utterances to go before moving to the next page when – this is very exciting – the zither theme finally resolves!

Schopenhauer wants the vegetation to be abundant and left to itself.  Stifter argues for a single flower cultivated by an expert hand.  Similarly, the sheer cliff and bare rock are aesthetically and emotionally exciting for Heinrich (“the winter is also very beautiful”), but the Gothic church or marble statue is even more powerful.  In Indian Summer, life fulfills itself in the workshop and the garden.

I have omitted the workshop side of the argument.  It is mostly about restoring antique furniture.  You might guess that another wedding present is a particularly meaningful piece of restored furniture.  Yes.


  1. So the blooming cactus is a triumph of art and aesthetics? The transplanting of it from the greenhouse to the perfect and beautiful rose house is pretty heavily symbolic. What's going on with the characters to parallel this activity? Anything? Is Heinrich the twin of the cactus, or doesn't the story work that way? Is the temporary nature of the cactus bloom significant in re Heinrich's story? Etc. Yes, I should just read the book myself, I see that. Especially since you cheat us out of the resolution to the zither theme.

    "Stone is serious" is terrific. I hope I remember to steal that.

  2. The cactus parallels Heinrich in that the growth of both is slow and organic, but benefits from intense nurturing. Although I hope poor Henirich's growth was not deliberatley stunted by cold.

    Stifter is insisting on the value of a variety of kinds of beauty - the eternal, the recurring (roses), but also the ephemeral, like the cactus flower. The zither music, improvised, is also ephemeral. The well-lived life includes all of the types.

    Ah, I see, it is also a form of renunciation. This is a Goethean theme. Some things you preserve, some you let go. It sounds so shallow when I put it that way.

    Yeah, "Stone is serious," I love that.

  3. It's maybe simple, but not necessarily shallow.

  4. "The cactus where your heart should be has lovely little flowers."
    Okay, Magnetic Fields lyrics aren't exactly relevant, but they went through my head while reading this.

  5. Literary texts, in song or fiction, about cactus flowers are rare enough that they are inherently relevant to each other. So say I.

  6. I've read a story about a night blooming cereus. Now I'm having a hard time placing it and a quick search reveals a story collection by that name and a lot of bloggers with stories about their night blooming cereus parties, none of which looks quite right. Hmmmm. If I discover which is was I'll send you a link, as I recall the story being lovely* despite (or becasue of) the obvious symbolism.
    *I know you don't like lovely or beautiful for non-visual arts, but I still think it was lovely.

  7. It's almost a genre, isn't it? The symbolism would be hard to tamp down, even if you wanted to.