Bertha, The Child-Flower

Image by contest winner Mahendra Singh


Translated by Mary Ann Caws for her anthology Surrealist Painters and Poets

Just then there came towards us a woman looking like a robust peasant. She held before her, with both hands, a kind of rose-painted tray where a body of the same very vivid rose color stretched out, intriguing us with its half-human, half-vegetal aspect.

--Here are Catherine Seyeux and her daughter Bertha, said Boudet, calling the woman who came forward right away. Bertha, stretched out flat on the tray, was sleeping naked in the sun without her mother trying in any way to keep the burning rays from her. About six weeks old, the child had a disturbing, even upsetting appearance. Her skin, of an unbelievable delicacy and transparence, looked exactly like a flower petal and was the same vivid rose color. In her fabulous epidermis there ran a network of veins no less strange in appearance, whose greenish shade glinted like enamel, as you see in certain flowers. Her skin was diaphanous that the different bodily organs were visible through it.

Seeing a question on our faces that we hadn't expressed, Boudet explained to us how Catherine Seyeux had managed to engender such a bizarre creature.

For a long time Boudet had been haunted by the idea that he might artificially inseminate a woman with flower pollen. Many was the time he had attempted this with country women whom he had specially chosen as being both robust and prolific. But it was in vain that he had tried all sorts of different pollens, without ever obtaining any result.

One day, leafing through a newspaper, he saw the picture of a Texas peasant woman aged thirty-eight who had had not less than forty-five children, boys and girls. Since she was eighteen, she had given birth each year to two and sometimes three twins or triplets. In the picture you saw the smiling mother standing next to her husband and surrounded by her forty-five offspring, all in perfect health. The newspaper gave the name of the mother (a Texan name) and that of her village: Ar...

Astounded by such ease of procreation, Boudet could only think about trying his experiment on Catherine Se. who seemed to him to be likelier than anyone else to offer some chance of success. He wrote her, laying out in detail what he expected of her, and offering her magnificent conditions if she would consent to come to France to make herself available. Catherine showed the letter to her husband, who, although he was a farmer of some means, could scarcely remain indifferent to such a large sum of money, given the heavy expenses of his many children. He gave his consent to his wife who took the first steamer and arrived one fine morning at Boudet's house.

From the very first attempt, made with pollen from X., Catherine was declared pregnant, and Boudet was filled with joy and followed each of the stages of the pregnancy anxiously.

Finally, six weeks before this, at the normal time, Catherine had given birth to the fragile little girl whom we were looking at, and who was exactly midway between a flower and a child. It was impossible to put any clothing on her because her skin might have ripped apart at the slightest contact. In fact, so that her fragile body would be touched as little as possible by anything at all, Boudet had made a sort of tray to support her, which he had painted in a vivid rose color adapted to the skin color of the little girl whom they called Bertha.

During the daytime, they kept her always outside, as exposed as possible to the sun. Her vegetal aspect prevented any sunstroke and profited wonderfully from this exposure. Indeed, the slightest shadow cast over her head or her body brought about a shudder of discontent in the little being who calmed down and flourished as soon as she was completely exposed to the sun.

While Boudet was speaking, Bertha had been stirring about as if she was going to wake. She finally opened her eyes whose strange reflections reminded you a little of the enamel tint of her veins. Looking at his watch, Boudet saw it was time for her breastfeeding and asked Catherine to suckle her daughter in front of us so that we could see how lively and alert the little girl was.

Catherine opened her blouse, and holding the tray with one hand, carefully turned Bertha around so she would take hold of the breast with little hands and place her lips on it, which she did greedily.

Thanks to the transparency of the membranes of the strange creature, we could see how the very pure white stream of milk was flowing slowly into the esophagus and descending to the stomach.

After some moments, Boudet, judging we had sufficiently noticed how good was the child-flower's appetite, indicated that Catherine should continue her walk and beckoned us to follow him again.



detail


Raymond Roussel cut "Bertha, The Child-Flower" from the final manuscript of his masterpiece Locus Solus (1914), but here she blooms again. Earlier this month, Mary Ann Caws allowed me to reprint her translation of the story (now included above), which first appeared in her anthology Surrealist Painters and Poets. Not finding a suitable illustration, I decided to create the (first ever?) Raymond Roussel Illustration Contest.


Contest winner Mahendra Singh is an illustrator from Montreal "busily fitting Lewis Carroll into a protosurrealist straitjacket with matching dada cufflinks" on The Hunting of the Snark. You can see more of his illustration work here and here. For his winning entry he will receive a copy of Locus Solus (OneWorld reprint), a copy of Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology, and an oddity from my book collection.


I asked Mahendra to describe the methods and thoughts behind his piece:

The drawing was done in pen & ink on mylar, my usual MO, then colored in Photoshop. I made several decisions in the beginning, as I researched & pondered the assignment. First, I wanted to use a pen technique that was somewhat old-fashioned, even stodgy. This gave the feel of an Edwardian/Victorian illo, which is the fictional ambience of Roussel's work. He really is a pulp fiction writer, in the manner of Verne or H. Rider Haggard, except that his grammar is perfect and of course, he's utterly insane.

Second, I wanted the compositional style to be a bit dead-pan & uninspired, I didn't want to break the Rousselian atmosphere of bourgeois platitudes. So, no collages, no vignettes, nothing but a straight-on picture of an actual incident.

The woman was obvious, make her submissive to play up the lurking sense of whatever you call this kind of sexual pathology (vegefetishism?). The "plant" in her lap is pretty obvious, and the stamen bending over her made a nice, passing reference to her backstory. The gent with the moustache is Roussel, the other gent, I honestly don't know why I made Boudet into such a blatant freak. I sort of broke the deadpan pretense there but it seemed right.

The leash was critical for me, it balanced the stamen and more important, it gave a feeling of aggression and domination to the whole situation. To me, this story is very aggressive, more so than usual for Roussel. Catherine is a living seedbank and Bertha is a sort of vegetable Frankenstein, all of them at the beck & call of Roussel & Boudet.

Surrealism has a lot of concealed sexual aggression & that's always been part of its appeal to people, I think. I'm not sure if I'd classify Roussel as a Surrealist, he's not quite with the program, as they say. I think he was absolutely honest in his methods, he meant exactly what he wrote, to him there were no hidden meanings and he would have been shocked at this illo, I'm certain.


***

Second place goes to Marcus Parcus for his impressive triptych. I particularly love that Marcus tackled Catherine's forty-five happy children in Texas, and if I'm not mistaken he even plays off of Zo's illustrations for Roussel's New Impressions of Africa. (See also Marcus's Roussel portrait.)




Marcus Parcus





Rhonda Davies





Michelle Duckworth





Carson Ellis





Penny Davenport









Raymond Roussel aged three, on a swan