Rose of Eros…

Fleurs dans un vase en verre avec papillon et scarabée, sur un rebord en pierre (détail) - Nicolaes van Veerendael (1640-1691)

Fleurs dans un vase en verre avec papillon et scarabée, sur un rebord en pierre (détail) - Nicolaes van Veerendael (1640-1691)

The rose, ruled by Eros… by Isabelle Etienne

Queen of metaphors and comparisons, the rose can evoke all and symbolise all. In Click-Rose, poet Dominique Fourcade states « This Rose offers the option of broad spectrum symbolism that imposes its mark on nothing but marks everything. » The magical rose, a symbol of virginity, may very well have a strong presence in popular song, be a national emblem in numerous countries and even enjoy status as a political symbol, but it is by evoking carnal pleasure and feelings of love that its literary destiny has been set since Antiquity. It is Eros that rules the rose from the very outset and across all frontiers; Eros that seems to stamp its commandments in the hearts and minds of people. Hence Marcel Duchamp’s feminine alter-ego R(r)ose Selavy (a pun on « Eros, c’est la vie » Eros is life), that was adopted by Robert Desnos in his famous aphorisms and repeated in numerous musical works.

Greek poetess Sappho already exclaimed in the seventh century BC that: « If Zeus wanted to give flowers a queen, then the rose would reign supreme over all flowers. » From Romance of the Rose to the Name of the Rose; Ronsard’s Odes to the Little Prince; the famous quatrains penned by Persian poet Omar Khayyam to the collection entitled Roses by Rainer Maria Rilke and Paris, My Rose by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet; from Marcel Proust to Jean Genet…history heard Sappho’s words loud and clear. Whether East or West, in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman and Chinese poetry the rose is at the epicentre of clusters of signifiers that very few words can claim to have, and which are scattered like stardust across the history of literature – sometimes even playing against type. Flowers for Baudelaire for example should be exotic and rare, and for the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), roses seemed pale and wan by comparison.

We shall never tire of exploring the destiny of the rose, this queen of the poetic and literary floral universe that even sprinkles its magical dust in the heart of philosophical thought. So we can see how the two lines by Angelus Silesius impressed a number of thinkers and influenced Martin Heidegger’s philosophy: « The rose is without ‘why’, it blooms because it blooms, It pays no attention to itself, – it asks not whether it is seen? »

Here are two short evocations that testify to this proliferation or pollinisation of the literary motif of the rose. The rose, the most beautiful of things, lay at the base of Marot’s Blason du beau tetin (Blason about a beautiful nipple):
Plump nipple, whiter than an egg,
Nipple of brand new white satin
A nipple that makes the rose ashamed…
Nipple more beautiful than anything else

The poet refers to a rose whose perfection can only be rivalled by part of the female anatomy, and woman herself, the absolute object of desire.

As the reader ambles down Proustian trails, he or she will stumble across a hundred floral references as this theme certainly occupies a special place in his work and in joining the concepts of feeling and memory. So the rose (colour, fragrance and subtle floral offshoots) symbolise sensual awakening in Proust’s floral universe (purple and lilac symbolise seduction, the ‘inverted’ fire and erotic revelation indicated by orchids, etc.), the very evidence of desire, and the memory of roses almost automatically accompanies any mention of Albertine (whose cheeks are « uniformly pink verging on purple; creamy; like glossy, waxy roses » and « taste like roses »). Albertine is the most often quoted character in the Recherche, when it comes to the theme of desire and love experienced by the story-teller.

« And so the anticipation of the joy of meeting a new young girl via the young girl who had first introduced me to her, the latest one being like one of those varieties of roses that you get from another species of rose. And by climbing up this flower chain petal by petal, the delight of getting to know a different rose made me look back at the one to whom I owed the pleasure… »

Young girls are even described as « Pennsylvanian rose bushes », or « stems of roses »: the rose as a theme peppers the text, its fragrance emanates like a symbol, being a nod to the narrator’s desire as well as revealing its wake; the colour palette of all shades of pink being within itself an endless enigma. As a musical and pictorial reference, this tiny section of Vinteuil’s sonata « opened up his soul, just like the perfume of roses wafting in the humid evening air has the power to automatically dilate our nostrils ».


Isabelle Etienne