Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pretty Poison

Un Fiore dal Giardino di Dott. Rappaccini—A Flower from Dr. Rappaccini’s Garden (inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story, Rappaccini’s Daughter) – Antique apothecary bottle; dried moss; dried sea holly flower; brass key; French green silk ribbon; vintage green tassel; genuine desiccated cicada wing; hand-tinted print of skull drawing by Henry Keen; (bottle is heavily scented inside with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s “Archangel Winter” perfume oil)

“Even the rose, beautiful and calm, is willing to draw blood in its defense.”

So goes the old adage.

And, in fact, plants can be quite a nasty bunch. From root to leaf tip, Mother Nature has equipped a surprisingly substantial sum of her flora with some of the most potent toxins on the planet. I’m not talking the itch of poison ivy here, folks, or the sting of nettles and the prickly annoyance of burrs, or even the sneezes and irritated eyes of the onset of allergy season. Nope, I’m talking about we’re-off-to-see-the-mortician type of troubles, trials, and tribulations.

We all know that marijuana (from the hemp plant), cocaine (from coca leaves), and opium (from poppy sap) can give you a great high. And we all know that hemlock, strychnine, and deadly nightshade are poisonous (hey, they didn’t call the last one “deadly” just for laughs, okay?). But have you heard about this catalogue of wicked weeds?

Castor Bean—three of these diminutive darlings are all that’s needed to plant you six feet under; and, yup, that’s where castor oil comes from, but all the poison’s removed in processing (even if it sure doesn’t taste that way).

Rosary Pea—a tropical vine with pale lavender flowers; it’s the seeds that are the danger—glossy, vividly red, with a single black spot, they have been said to resemble a ladybug. Despite their blessed moniker, one—and one alone—of these can kill, even inhaling the dust is fatal.

Gloria lily—a truly magnificent lily with petals the color of flame. The roots and stem are spiked with colchicine, also known as “vegetable arsenic”, one of the ghastliest poisons found in the garden. One dose and you’ll be singing “Gloria in excelus Deo” with the choir invisible.

Oleander—one of the prettiest flowers you ever did see, and what a fragrance, what colors—red, pink, yellow, and white! But your friends and family will be wearing black if you ingest any part. Chewing its leaves has become the most popular means of suicide by women in Sri Lanka.

And speaking of suicide, how about this: The Suicide Tree—a native of India, sometimes delightfully called the “pong-pong”. Its leaves are dark green, its flowers are bright white and smell as sweet as jasmine, but its nut contains a vicious surprise, enough toxin to send you to a funeral pyre in under a few hours. Its Latin appellation—Cerbera odollam—refers to Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades (need I say more?).

To conclude this brief, very brief, lethal litany, how about if I drop the name of a plant that has killed over ninety million people—yes, you heard correctly—ninety million people, and its called…tobacco. Guess that’s the real suicide plant, hmmm?

Of course, all of the above are the extreme, but take another look at those houseplants brightening up your kitchen, your deck, that windowsill—the philodendron is poisonous, so’s the dieffenbachia, and the rubber tree; not to mention that stunning peace lily your aunt sent you last December as a Christmas present. Christmas, that reminds me, be careful of that poinsettia, too, and that mistletoe, and those holly berries!

Food-wise, don’t go picking mushrooms in the wild—the small, brown cortinarius, the false morel, and the tiny, black and white inky cap will just slay you. However, it’s that innocuous, beige, medium-sized one over there you should look out for the most—the aptly-named death cap—and it’s caused almost one-hundred percent of all mushroom fatalities. Rhubarb’s poisonous (only its leaves) and the red kidney bean (when eaten uncooked). And in that nut bowl? Don’t eat raw cashews—those have been par-boiled—because they contain urushiol, the same irritant found in poison oak and poison sumac. Even that innocent baked potato next to your t-bone…it’s got solanine in it—a toxin that can cause severe gastrointestinal complaints and sometimes even coma—but don’t worry, cooking kills most of it.

Have something to drink with dinner? How about an absinthe—the favored libation of all those French decadents of the 1890s—which contains wormwood and is guaranteed to drive you nuts (they say Van Gogh cut off his ear while under its influence). Or how about a shot of zubrowka, a Polish vodka flavored with bison grass, the natural source of the blood thinner coumarin (too much and you’ll be pouring out all over, but you’ll probably be dead drunk first). Afterward, how about a sip of Sambuca, made from elderberries, which contain cyanide when raw (apple seeds and peach pits contain cyanide, too, but who eats those?).

And, lastly, let’s cast an eye over that bountiful bouquet of blooms in the center of your dining table. Larkspur, lily-of-the-valley, sweet pea, hyacinth, hydrangea, delphinium, lupin, foxglove, and even that tulip…you got it, all poisonous.

So, now that I’ve probably scared you out of ten years’ growth, let’s move onto this month’s fable—and it’s a lethiferous little tale…

Padua, Italy—a long, long time ago…

Giovanni, a young medical university student, takes lodgings in an ancient manse, his windows overlooking a fantastical walled garden. The plants within are striking in their lushness, their beauty, and their strangeness—none more so than a shrub thriving in a marble urn, one abloom with vibrant purple blossoms. Giovanni observes as the garden’s caretaker, Dr. Rappaccini, meticulously cultivates his greenery. He also sees the way Rappaccini approaches his unique flora, with care, with caution, with concern, as someone would approach a wild animal, afraid that it might bite. But it is the plant with purple blossoms that Rappaccini tends most warily, with gloves, with a mask protecting his nose and mouth, until one day the doctor avoids the shrub altogether, calling out for his daughter.

And so appears, Rappaccini’s daughter, Beatrice—a dazzling young woman, more lovely, more salient and strange than any of the flowers in that already strange garden. It is into her hands that Rappaccini places the plant. The girl seems to suffer no ill effects, in fact she looks after it with a special affection, no gloves, no mask, calling it “sister”, while breathing deep of its sweet, and evidently, hazardous perfume.

Day after day, Giovanni watches Rappaccini’s daughter, fascinated, enthralled, and soon, in love. To woo her, on his way home from school, he buys a bouquet. Rushing to his room, he flings open his window and gazes down upon that Eden, and the Eve therein. Beatrice is just plucking one of those peculiar purple buds, and as she does, a droplet of sap from it falls upon a bright orange lizard sunning itself on the grass. The animal twitches, spasms, and dies. A moment later an insect buzzes about Beatrice’s head, only to fall lifeless at her feet. All this right in front of her would-be suitor—but Giovanni sees not, his eyes marvel only at her. It is then that Rappaccini’s daughter glances up; their eyes meet. She offers a coy smile at the smitten young man’s attentions. He tosses her the bouquet, smiling as she picks it up, that smile fading as he swears that those fresh flowers immediately start to wilt, to wither…but, no, how ridiculous!

But it is not ridiculous—much to Giovanni’s horror.

For Rappaccini’s daughter—the fair Beatrice—is poison, poison in human form—a toxic creation of her father’s infernal botanical experiments, her touch, her breath, fatal to any living creature—a girl who only wants to be loved, not feared.

Needless to say, all does not end well, and Rappaccini’s garden becomes a gravesite.

Plants will out, I suppose—life flourishing from death.

And Rappaccini’s Daughter has flourished in the one-hundred and sixty-eight years since its original publication. It has been the basis for Irish poet, John Todhunter’s 1891 verse-play, The Poison-Flower, A Phantasy, in Three Scenes, as well as Octavio Paz’s 1956 theatrical work, La Hija de Rappaccini. It’s been filmed twice, first in 1963 with Vincent Price in Twice-Told Tales, and again in 1980 as part of PBS’ The American Short Story program. It’s become an opera three times, in 1925 as The Garden of Mystery by Charles Wakefield Cadman; in 1983 as Rappaccini’s Daughter by Margaret Garwood, and in 1991 as La Hija de Rappaccini by Daniel Catán, and it has even inspired a comic book character, the notorious Poison Ivy, one of Batman’s most formidable foes.

Not bad; Nathaniel Hawthorne should be proud—hawthorn: a genus of shrubs and trees in the rose family.

And, just in case you were wondering…

…no, it’s not poisonous.

Belladonna, n.: In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
                                   —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Un Fiore dal Giardino di Dott. Rappaccini is a stoppered clear glass bottle containing clumps of yellowing moss, a pale purple sea holly flower, and an admonitory black and white image of a skull. Fastened to the bottle’s neck by a green-gold tassel and a darker ribbon are a skeleton key, the transparent wing of a cicada, and a card bearing the titular inscription, in Italian, “a flower from the garden of Dr. Rappaccini.” In Hawthorne’s tale, Dr. Rappaccini is a respected if reclusive scientist, a cultivator of poisons “more deleterious than nature”. The bottle thus appears to be a sample of the doctor’s potent wares, best kept behind lock and key. The pink label and shiny ribbon code the vegetable venoms as feminine, as they are gendered in the story: Rappaccini’s blooming daughter Beatrice is as poisonous and unwitting as his jewel-like flowers; she personifies them. Ryersson’s arcanifact might thus appear to be a portrait of the cloistered Beatrice, unreachable without the key to the garden or coin for the apothecary. Hawthorne’s story has been read as a retelling of the expulsion from paradise, where woman is an alluring but sinful—and thus deadly—physical creature tempting an ideal male into a loss of virtue. The glass bottle, then, might function as not a Pandora’s but a Beatrice’s box, safely containing (for now) her relics. The curious tassel, which does not appear directly in the story, might confirm such a reading. The closest thing to a tassel in Hawthorne’s tale is the “girdle” that keeps the pulsing vitality of Beatrice’s “virgin zone” in check, “bound down and compressed.” The tassel as sexual muzzle is not, historically, far-fetched: tassels have functioned both as talismans and as mnemonic devices for the faithful: The Book of Numbers urges the devout to wear them as reminders to avoid harlotry. And Rappaccini’s flowers are linked to harlotry, adultery, and sin literally and figuratively in the text: products of “the adultery of vegetable species,” they seem to invite human transgression and indeed are already “the monstrous offspring of a man’s depraved” and implicitly sexual “fancy.” After paying an old servant, Giovanni forces himself “though the entanglement of a shrub” into the secret garden in a spatial enactment of the prostitution Rappaccini’s flowers, and his daughter, incite. 
   But are these plant samples really the fragments of a floral femme fatale? Giovanni believes the blossoming Beatrice’s perfumed breath and words have been “steeped” in her own heart, but the reader learns that Dr. Rappaccini, “as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic,” concocted the floral scent that “embalms” her words with their “strange richness.” The doctor is himself the source of the wicked “charm” that pervades Beatrice and the plants, draws Giovanni to the garden, and inspires the jealousy of Rappaccini’s old adversary Prof. Pietro Baglioni, who vows to rescue Giovanni from the sinister and rapacious Rappaccini’s clutches. Baglioni, whose fingers and fancies are imbued with “some vile apothecary drug,” gives Giovanni a “vase” that is in fact a “vial” of one of his vile drugs—a supposed antidote meant to put a stop to Giovanni’s doting on Rappaccini. When we consider that “tassel” was slang for undergraduates in Hawthorne’s time, Ryersson’s assemblage brings the professorial rivalry over a comely (if vain and shallow) student into sharp focus. The plants in the bottle, then, might be relics of Giovanni as easily as Beatrice; they both killed insects with their breath (as the cicada wing cautions). Ryersson’s allegorical assemblage thus offers an inversion of the expulsion allegory: rather than emblematizing woman’s sin expelling man from paradise, it might be seen as showing men safely bottled up where they can’t hurt anyone! The moss in the bottle suggests a further interpretation. Hawthorne wrote “Rappaccini’s Daughter” while living in his “old manse,” where he wrote the other stories that feature in his 1846 collection Mosses from an Old Manse. The mosses collected within it are stories, allegories; Ryersson’s bottle, then, holds not only pieces of an old man’s mosses (Rappaccini’s), but, as a recollection of a story, mosses from Hawthorne’s old manse as well. The florally named Hawthorne troped his tales as creeping plants; Un Fiore dal Giardino di Dott. Rappaccini, however, suggests that the story itself—proliferating interpretations—is more perilous and uncontrollable than its characters, that literature is a dangerous drug indeed. 

                  —Alison Syme, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto Mississauga and author of A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art