1. 00:16 4th Nov 2009

    Notes: 9

    wild thoughts of savage pansies

    With the news that Claude Lévi-Strauss died three days ago at the age of 100, I’ve been following a minor detail down the rabbit hole of translation and primitive categories. As is often remarked, the title of Lévi-Strauss’s most famous book, The Savage Mind, is a bit funny in the original French: La Pensée Sauvage, which also may be translated as “The Wild Pansy.” We might chalk this up to the fuzziness of cognates in translation, but there is more at work. As Lévi-Strauss knew, there is an traditional, likely ancient folk association between pansies and thought. After Hamlet’s driven Ophelia away, she appears before Laertes mumbling strains from an old ballad (Act IV, Scene 5):
    There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”

    It’s said that Lévi-Strauss in fact suggested using the phrase “Pansies for Thoughts” as the title for his book in English. Shakespeare’s plays are dotted with such evocations of the folk wisdom of flowers, which have been held up as proof of the Bard’s humble origins; a Francis Bacon or an Earl of Oxford might have known the classical names of plants, but the peasants’ categories would have been beyond his mien.

    The meanings of flowers are documented at great length in Victorian “floriographies,” or flower languages, which elaborate the passions, attributes, and states of mind symbolized by dozens of varieties of wild and cultivated trees, shrubs, and herbs. The Ash Tree represents Grandeur, or Prudence; the Bee Orchis, Industry; the Chickweed, Rendezvous. One could compose a message to one’s beloved in the form of a bouquet—although by the time the dear one would have decoded the terms, the posie would have withered away. The floriographies all include a flower that arouses the curiosity of someone looking into traces of reading and writing throughout the culture: a flower called the Abecedary, symbolizing Volubility.

    The (far more common) non-floral use of the word abecedary is in connection with alphabets written out or printed and illustrated for children, a usage which dates back to the Middle Ages, and covers alphabets reproduced on hornbooks and school slates and carved into headstones. The floral meaning of abecedary isn’t documented by the Oxford English Dictionary, even though it’s in alI the floriography volumes—at least the ones I’ve checked thus far in Google Books, including the most famous one illustrated by Kate Greenaway (published in 1885; alas Kate made no illustration of the abecedary flower). The fullest explanation appears in The Language of Flowers (1835):
    Volubility, Abecedary. This plant is a native of the island of Fernalus; when you chew its head, or roots, the tongue feels a stimulating sensation, that gives it a singular fluency. This plant is employed in looseing children’s tongues, whence comes its name abecedary, or children’s grass.

    A flower that gives a singular fluency: that’s one for my garden, to bloom between the poppies and the morning glories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s as though in a Structuralist move the Victorian floriographers had identified the need for a Volubility flower, a  necessary node in the paradigm of the flowers pertaining to the quality of comprehensive and compulsive loquacity, which they answered with a postulated blossom named (naturally enough) for the alphabet.

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