Bad memory, bad banking & robbing your neighbour
Caoilinn Hughes on the inspiration for her debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp
Caoilinn Hughes: This is how inspiration works, in my experience. Ideas are taken and they are transformed – hopefully into something new and worthy
When I was eight, I sold a “potted plant” to our neighbour, a 55-year-old farmer, for 50p. It was the branch of a birch tree stuck into some mud. That he paid me for it, without a wink, served as a warning – of what, I wasn’t sure. He knew that I knew that he knew. Was the dupe him or me or neither or both?
In the acknowledgements to my forthcoming novel, Orchid & the Wasp, I thank Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose conception of the orchid and the wasp inspired the book. It’s true that the title helped propel me through several difficult years writing, but – four years after starting the book – I had forgotten how much I owed them, in homage. Returning to their text just now, it turns out that I paid too much.
In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, philosophers Deleuze and Guattari refer to the relationship between a wasp and a rare type of orchid that resembles a wasp. Besides mimicking its physiology, the flower emits mock female wasp pheromones. When the wasp tries to mate with it, pollen latches to his head or rear-end. The wasp eventually gives up, aware of his new burden but unable to shake it off. Soon he’s lured by another orchid, and so becomes the pollen-bearer. The wasp gains nothing in this interaction. Deleuze and Guattari use this relationship to describe the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of each species, proposing that both species are transformed without being assimilated – rather than simulating the other, the orchid achieves a state of becoming-wasp, and the wasp, becoming-orchid:
“The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. […]It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc.). But this is true only on the level of the strata – a paralellism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp.”
Proust, too, used this orchid-wasp relation (Proust used a bumblebee) for its analogous potential, in the first chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah, but in a different, equally unparaphrasable way to do with the unconscious and double capture and the laws of fertilization … but it becomes a strange (and, for me, uncomfortable) digression on homosexuality. The protagonist observes that the sexual union of the two men in the first chapter was non-elective, as is the bee’s union with the orchid’s pistil:
“Admittedly, every man of the kind of M. de Charlus is an extraordinary creature since, if he does not make concessions to the possibilities of life, he seeks out essentially the love of a man of the other race, that is to say a man who is a lover of women (and incapable consequently of loving him); in contradiction of what I had imagined in the courtyard, where I had seen Jupien turning towards M. de Charlus like the orchid making overtures to the bee, these exceptional creatures whom we commiserate are a vast crowd, […]and commiserate themselves for being too many rather than too few.”
Deleuze, elsewhere, describes the orchid-wasp relation as a “disjunctive alliance”, a “wedding against nature”, which is odd, to say the least; using nature to illustrate an unnatural phenomenon!
When I first skimmed A Thousand Plateaus, I was capturing and transforming almost everything I came into contact with for a novel that was developing in the dark room of my mind. The beginning phase of a book is a dizzy, disorienting, insecure period for me, and I like to know as little as possible for as long as possible – I have almost no creative or intellectual interest in writing a story if I know where it wants to go. But, awkwardly, I also need to accrue a critical mass of fascination and occupation with several seemingly-unrelated things, so I become predacious and improvident during this conception stage.
On some level, I took from Deleuze, Guattari and Proust the latent rejection of capitalism being written into theories of evolution, and I gave credence to the possibility of “becoming”; however, the character I was developing kept wriggling out of the philosophers’ ephemeral, reciprocal, intricate, rhizomatic interpretations of the orchid and wasp, and wanted to keep only its simple ecological utility.
The wasp gains nothing. This was one of the few examples I knew of of a non-symbiotic system in nature. Forget becoming-orchid, becoming-wasp; this was using-wasp, using-wasp, the-poor-wasp. How had this trait survived evolution? Wasn’t David Attenborough always describing a little bird that sits on a doe’s back, eating ticks from her pelt? Wasn’t he always implying that mutualism and commensalism are prevalent in nature?
As chance would have it, I was also reading about the Libor scandal at the time (the collusion between major banks to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, by which banks illegally profited from trades and/or appeared misleadingly creditworthy), and was trying to ascertain to what extent any given individual might have been effected (likely unbeknownst to us/them) via savings, mortgages, pensions, student loans, derivatives, holdings and so on. A decade passed between when the Libor manipulations began (according to a confessional trader in the Financial Times) and when criminal investigations got under way. Settlement payments to resolve rigging accusations from banks including Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and HSBC are in the billions. And yet, the wasp still flies from flower to flower, falling for duplicitous interest rates, I mean pheromones.
The orchid and the wasp became a useful shorthand for referring to non-mutualism in nature. With it came the question: is it really exploitation if the loser isn’t aware of his loss? On personal, familial, national and societal levels, this question pervaded my thinking. I conceived of an orchid-type character from a downwardly-mobile broken home who perceives individualism to be superseding mutualism, who believes meritocracy to be a grievous fallacy, who is willing to go to some lengths to protect her (to her eye) exploitable loved ones.
Only, by the time I had written the novel, I had forgotten to whom I owed which ideas. I assumed they belonged – as so many things seem to do – to the bank or some dead men.
This is how inspiration works, in my experience. A notional token becomes its own currency. The ideas are taken and they are transformed – hopefully into something new and worthy. All going well, they grow roots and shoots of their own, unlike the tree branch potted in soil. If someone gives you 50p for them, you’re flying.
Orchid & the Wasp is published by Oneworld Publications on June 7th. Its Galway launch was last night; it is launched tonight in Dubray Books, Grafton St, Dublin, at 6.30pm, and tomorrow in Waterstone’s, Covent Garden, London, also at 6.30pm. It is reviewed in The Irish Times this Saturday