Friday, July 21, 2017

Pea and not-pea

This charming Klee-like drawing is the dance of the "upper internodes of the common pea" over the course of 12 hours "traced on a hemispherical glass and transferred to paper" by Charles Darwin's son George and reproduced in "On the movements and habits of climbing plants" (1865). Actually, it's even more charming than that: it seems to be political theorist Jane Bennett's hand-drawn copy of the dance of the pea (the original is Fig. 6 here, and you can find many more of its ilk here), and appears in the second of my vacation booksEntangled Worlds, p 101!

Bennett is exploring the "onto-sympathy" which seems to happen between human beings and plants, inspired by Henry David Thoreau's mystical encounters with leaves and pine needles around Walden Pond, as well as by Henri Bergson's idea of "élan vital." Onto-sympathy is her coinage for what draws out the subjective sentiment of kinship and the literary technique of simile in Thoreau: a larger (I would say "impersonal") cosmic tendency for bodies to follow attractions, to (mis)recognize, and to form affiliates (94).

I'm not sure I entirely buy it, though I appreciate the effort to acknowledge some kind of something between us and plants. It's not just, though she mentions it also, consuming plants, which involves their becoming us and us becoming them, but an effort to articulate what we share with plants on their terms rather than ours: gravitation, corporation, annunciation (92). (But she's on another planet than the shared flourishing of plant and human people of Robin Wall Kimmerer.) And I got lost in her musing that some sort of "rhythm" of "shapes" is revealed in Thoreau's "psychedelic" thinking that the body is just as much a product of "drops" as a snow-melting railroad embankment. But the familiar passage in Thoreau she cites moves me deeply, though into the inanimate, the mineral, not the vegetal, which seems to me to strive against the gravitational, upward rather than down... Thoreau's sand drops:

flow down the slopes like lava.... Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace.... exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. ... What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body.... The nose is a manifest congealed drop of stalactite. The chin is a still larger drop, the confluent dripping of the face. The cheeks are a slide from the brows into the valley of the face.... Each rounded lobe of the vegetal leaf, too, is a thick and now loitering drop .... the lobes are the fingers of the leaf. (97-98)

Bennett might point to the half way of the laws of currents and of vegetation, and be right. There's something marvelous in the way eroding sand finds the same shapes, often on vast scales, of growing plants. (The reason, of course, is in physics though, isn't it?) Maybe there's something in the cyclical life of at least those plants that put forth leaves and lose them again each year that is half way between the uninterrupted cycle of the current and our own single pass through existence as animals...

This picture from an airplane window is a decade old; I'm glad to have a chance to reconnect to it, and its onto-sympathetic inspiration.

Jane Bennett, "Vegetal Life and Onto-Sympathy,"
in Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms,
ed. Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Fordham, 2017), 89-110

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