By Clare Davidson, The University of Western Australia
The circular lip ran down the length of my finger, leaving it hygienically sealed in white latex. I sidled up to the orchid – its internal organs, lips and stigma on vulgar display – and gently caressed the pillow-like folds of the silken purple and white Rorschach blotted petals with my digit. All around the room people tended to other plants, with varying degrees of awkward bewilderment and willing participation.
This was the foyer for ‘Ecosexual Bathhouse’, an immersive exhibition found down an alleyway at the back of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art as part of their ‘Reckless Acts’ program in January 2017. The confronting and tongue-in-cheek show celebrates the verdantly venereal, and as viewers delve further inside the exhibition they encounter sprouted knickers, a bath of damp earth, a Kinseyian volume of live insects and naked human-flesh. When a large creamy yellow stick insect delicately measured her way up my arm, dragging her pendulous abdomen behind her like a heavy seventh leg, the beautiful boy who was caring for her popped out his ball-gag to tell me she was pregnant. Later I was welcomed, by a girl in lingerie, into a misty dreamscape of sparkling hearts and a veiled boudoir decked out with leafy green branches. I don’t get out much these days, but this all felt strangely familiar to me. In the program, artists Loren Kronemyer and Ian Sinclair refer to the Ecosex Manifesto, a text that outlines the intent driving the ecosexual movement: to reconceptualise ‘earth as mother’ into ‘earth as lover’, promoting positive sexuality and sustainable interactions with the environment along the way. Visiting ‘Ecosexual Bathhouse’ was the first I had heard of this self-proclaimed sexual orientation. But I had been reading some old books – The Parliament of Fowls in particular, but also struggling a little through Alan de Lille’s De plantu naturae and even a few pages of Cicero. Enough to put anyone to sleep really. Or at very least send them to a weird-sounding, gated fringe art show.
In Chaucer’s poem, as we pass through the Temple of Love the art on the walls offers a painted pedagogical iconography of famous lovers. We follow the dreamer into the garden outside and encounter the Goddess Nature who is ‘right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kynde, devyseth’, resting upon a mound of flowers in a glade, surrounded by a bower of intertwined branches. Multitudes of birds – all the birds of the earth, ordered from those who hunt to those who eat seeds – have gathered in her presence to pick their mate, just as they do every year. A competition develops amongst the eagles, the highest ranking birds, as three male suitors vie to win the love of the most perfectly formed female eagle. She cannot choose one for her mate and so Nature suggests that all of the birds hold counsel on the predicament. In the squabbling cacophony that follows, the agenda of the eager bird parliament – love – is much debated but not entirely ambiguous. It is inherently conceptualised as reproductive, of kynde, and dictated by nature. It may at times be fyn amor (a superlative emotional experience as well as bodily one), but it is always founded on a reproductive partnering between like types.[i]
The manifestation of human sexual practice in the workings of nature is prevalent in the literature of the Middle Ages. In Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy, Kellie Robertson explains that the teleological processes that can be observed in nature were conceived as not only revealing the divine order of the world, but also the inner workings of the human. Robertson argues that this rhetorical register is later linked to the development of Darwinism, or ‘sexual reproduction replacing God as final cause’.[ii] By adopting an evolutionary narrative of biological necessity, natural reproductive desire and survival of the fittest, modern-day scientific discourse offers a new ethics of sexual love, but one that, like the Christian Middle Ages, is fundamentally dependent on Cicero’s notion that ‘true law is right reason, in harmony with nature, diffused in everyone, constant, eternal…’.[iii] In The Parliament, as Chaucer’s little Middle English earth spins and pulsates in preludious and evergreen harmony, natural reproductive order is shown to be abundant, enduring and in keeping with divine providence. Although a taxonomically delineated ethical understanding of ‘natural’ love is present in the literature of the Middle Ages, this is a rather separate issue from the more frequently contended notion that sexuality was considered fundamentally unethical. In the right circumstances, venereal activities and even pleasure in these activities were condoned from a philosophical perspective as part of divine providence and for the propagation of species.[iv] Within scholastic discourse the ethical appraisal of venereal actions was not concerned with the physical motions, but with the associated mental processes that governed, or rather, failed to govern, the body that experiences desire. Does medieval theory then, imply that the intense feeling of desire, or lust, is not intrinsic to sexual intercourse? Strangely enough this may be supported by current understandings of the brain. Drawing attention to the constraints of a biological discourse that defines ‘sexual appetite’ as universal, William Reddy cites experimental neurological research to hypothesise that sexual desire is a culturally developed emotional state.[v] When ‘sexuality’ is identified as a cultural practice, the pleasure, the intrigue, the taboos that surround it are likewise called into question. Which only makes the fact that people might derive the very Ovidian kind of erotic pleasure from caressing trees, as ‘Ecosexual Bathhouse’ suggests, all the more fascinating. But even a sexual practice that takes pleasure in occupying the margins of human experience, one that is professedly ‘transgressive’, adorns a text that implicitly conceives sexual appetite to be a natural biological pursuit. The political implications of this culturally entrenched discourse of desire will be discussed in Part Two.
After Daphne metamorphoses into a tree in order to escape him, Apollo ominously satisfies his desire by embracing her new arboreal form.
Clare Davidson is an Associate Investigator (UWA node) with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800), and a sessional lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She was recently rewarded her PhD on the rhetoric of physiological and mental arousal in fourteenth-century Middle English literature. Her continuing research explores aesthetics, reading practices and the history of the body.
[i] According to Helen Cooper, fyn amor specifically describes: ‘the emotions as well as the body, and, with the emotions, the potential for the infinite linguistic and rhetorical exploration of that surplus that is the special domain of love-poetry’. Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 221.
[ii] Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), p. 3.
[iii] Hugh White, Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 17.
[iv] Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), p. 79.
[v] William Reddy, The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900–1200 CE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 16.