• John Diamond-Nigh

The flowers of our better nature

Weird topic. But yes, guys can like flowers. One night Lynne and I had stopped to buy flowers on a small street in Paris, close to our apartment. As we pondered our selection, a forty-something bon vivant entered the shop, puce cigarette in hand, Armani suit–the works; he affectionately kissed the florist and proceeded to buy half the flowers there. When they were assembled into a huge sheaf, he made his exit quoting Max Jacob on love. A few minutes later, we left with our dozen ranunculus blooms, only to see the man and his towering fountain of flowers ahead of us. He had stopped and was urinating with classical aplomb, into a nook in the wall. Zipping up just as we approached, he motioned for us to stop, and plucking out a few choice lilies, handed them to Lynne with an extolling murmur. French gallantry.

One cannot teach art history without flowers crowding the picture: In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were endowed with complex, often cryptic symbolism. The gothic rose window is called a rose after Mary, the dame of Notre Dame. There is a ravishing suite of tapestries, also in Paris, called The Lady and the Unicorn: they are jam-packed with flowers, each blossom standing both as a botanical representation and a moral metaphor. Deciphering them can be as uphill as Kabbalism.

Matisse: was there ever an artist more in love with flowers? Or think, more recently, of O’Keefe, of Mapplethorpe for whom flowers are veiled exponents, in a puritanical world, of sex.

But ours, right now, is hardly a flower world. Sex is declining. Beauty itself (or that bigger academic word, aesthetics), is militantly out of favor. As a journalist friend observes, the media for decades has simplified and exaggerated things into states of personal, political and cosmic conflict. Marxism framed the dichotomy as oppressor and oppressed. It sells more papers. It endows revolutions with zeal. Our present condition, she believes, was ordained by TV forty years ago. It just took forty years to get to this point of implacable clash.

Which makes me want flowers even more. Flowers recall, for those who care to look, an alternate world of decency––that favorite word of the French novelist Albert Camus. And also of audacity.

Ask me if I’d like to have lunch with a man watching football or a man with a peony on his desk––no contest. One will talk about beer; the other about roping horses in Mongolia. (OK, OK, not quite fair.)

I love space; you know that by now. I love furniture, art, people, chat, cats—all taking their place in the geography of a room––but flowers are the indispensable thing, a syllable of grace in a ragged world. A nerve, a decency, a solace. Once I ran out at midnight just for a certain shade of delphiniums. They helped me sleep so much better.

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