In the freshman composition class the assigned reading was Loren Eiseley’s “How Flowers Changed the World,” and the education was proceeding at a normal pace. Eiseley’s prose is college-level, and the freshmen were on their way to being college-level readers.

But Eiseley’s vocabulary also refers itself to a college-level science. “How Flowers Changed the World” originates in botany — specifically in the botanical idea that flowers are sex organs. The moment we got to Eiseley’s enunciation of the idea, there was a sudden loud noise. It came apropos, for the climax of Eiseley’s essay is another loud noise.

The noise that woke Eiseley in the middle of the night was the snapping report of a seed pod explosively discharging its seeds. For me and my drowsy students the noise was a scream.

It was coming from a girl in the class, and it had words explosively punctuated. The explosion went:

“Flowers are SEX ORGANS?!” 

“What did you think they are?” I Socratically replied.


And then the girl said, in the intonation pattern known as uptalk, ” . . . For decoration?”

This conversation took place a very long time ago — in the 1980s, I believe. But it has stayed with me as one of the happiest moments of my life as a teacher. In memory of that memory, then, this.


Game theory


In the middle of Loren Eiseley’s essay “How Flowers Changed the World,” the freshman comp class snapped awake for a moment when a girl hit a startling assertion and uttered a pretty little scream.

“Flowers are sex organs?” she cried.

“What did you think they are?” I Socratically responded.


And then the girl ventured: “For decoration?”


The woman’s denim pants from South Korea are purses for an invisible currency. Their decorated pockets hold nothing but an object of imaginative speculation. Playfully, they deploy optical illusion to shape an idea of the body they coyly hide.

Playfully, too, they are labeled with nonsense words and an anachronistic image from a symbol system which still retains prestige in its provincial borderlands.

Click to enlarge.

H. M. Regiment of Royal Korean Cowgirls.


The beggar is holding a sign which we can’t read at that angle.

“Beggar’s dog – Hoboken,” ca. 1910-1915
Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection

But we can be sure what it must say. Advancing on our sympathy behind the shield of his sign, the beggar is notionally selling pencils and shoelaces: things everybody needs, things with a value in any economic system. But in the trade zone behind the sign, what is transacted is only an exchange of money from one pocket to another. Except for that transfer, everything in this image is decoration. The beggar’s pencils are no more for writing with than a hedge funder’s bling watch is for telling time.

Making it playful, the beggar has alienated his tin cup from the transaction by hanging it around his dog’s neck. Accustomed to seeing pictures by the rules of narrative convention, we think of the dog as smiling. The dog is also wrapped in something gauzy. It may be something like a woman’s shawl; it may be a completely threadbare blanket. Presumably it is worn against the cold, but we are going to read it too as part of the game. Coming closer and closer to the outline of the dog’s body, it playfully beckons the decorative twists of the iron bars behind it into what might look like the final shape of a life.

That gauze, those iron helices, that dozing bald man, have become part of a pattern they can no longer outlive.