In order to capture its rare opening, the New York Botanical Gardens mounted a camera to live broadcast the development of the bloom. After several media features, thousands of New Yorkers eagerly watched the live video feed on YouTube, waiting for the corpse to open.
The corpse popped the evening of July 28. Along with the crowds of people waiting for the unveiling of the phallus, I stood in line for hours to catch a glimpse. Suddenly the greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens became the Villa of Mysteries that Lacan alludes to in his Ecrits1.
The flower was utterly bizarre. Alien and theatrical, it rose from the tropical greenhouse foliage. But most importantly, what a signifier! Amorphophallus. Amor-for-phallus. More of the phallus! Morgue for the phallus. For one night only.
We wait and wait for that thing we lack only to find in the end that it smells like rotting flesh. Yet when it comes to Amorphophallus, this is precisely what was desired. Properly speaking, there is no incarnation of the signifier of desire. Lacan departed from a history of analytic theory that understood phallus as organ. The phallus as a Lacanian figure wears many guises throughout the Seminars and in our clinical practices today. It may be an elusive centerpiece of desire in neurotic structure or the delimiting organizer adrift or foreclosed in psychosis.
The scientific name of the Corpse Flower, Amorphophallus Titanum, translates to: huge phallus without form. The sex organs of the flower, both male and female, are hidden deep inside the sheaths of the plants. The massive flower spike erected from the soil is only a lure, not the organ itself. In the imaginary-real biosphere of nature, the phallus is a mirage. The phallus flower offers the allure of the corpse. From the analytic vantage, the phallus operates as an index at the nexus of vitality and mortification. There is a strong relationship between tumescence and decay. Lacan describes well in Seminar X that man brings the setup and then loses it2. Lacan placed the accent on detumescence. Botanists in New York cultivated this phallus for 10 years to behold a 1 day inflorescence.
In ‘The logical and the Oracular’3, Jacques-Alain Miller returned to the Freudian Thing citing the ‘budding of lie’ to emphasize the strange relationship between the signifier and life: ‘the locus in which the symbol substitutes for death in order to take possession of the first budding of life’. Miller conveyed that life is ‘swollen’, and the signifier ‘expresses life at the same time that it makes it expire’. Amorphophallus titanum swelled majestically with the budding of life only to rapidly expire leaving behind the smell of a corpse which designates its name. At the New York Botanical Gardens we found the phallus as a flower and also a corpse.
1 Lacan, J. Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English.W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (January 17, 2007).
2 Lacan, J. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book X. Polity; 1 edition (April 14, 2014)
3 Miller, J.A. ‘The Logical and the Oracular’. In The Lacanian Review, Hurly Burly. New Lacanian School. 2016.