Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Garden of Manners

From Heronswood Nursery:
The Fortuneteller’s Garden

I wonder sometimes how spectators felt as they exited the Roman Forum, having observed, say, a Christian eaten by a lion, or two gladiators battling to a bloody death. Did they depart with hearts aflutter, exultant spirits and a bounce to their step? Did they head off to a tranquil taverna and bask in the glow of the day’s revelry?

The Roman spectators, I imagine, felt ghastly–as if part of themselves had been consumed by the lion, or conversely, they themselves had engaged in cannibalism. I imagine that they were enveloped in a dank cloud of shame and self-recrimination–the climate that holds when our lowest natures have been evoked.

I think I know the feeling. Today our media has become an electric Roman Forum, where notions of decorum and dignity have been supplanted by coarseness and brutishness.

On CNN, Fox news and MSNBC–all ostensibly dedicated to informing the public of the news of the world–one is treated instead to a daily carnival of grotesques, a daily food fight of ill-considered, ill-expressed opinions delivered with a shout. It matters not whether the views reflect those of the right or left. Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow all convey the same message: talk, don’t listen; defame, don’t defer; discord trumps discourse.

The American public has followed these talking heads into the Tower of Babel that is the new media. Glance at the readers’ online postings affixed to an article at the Washington Post or any major online media outlet, and the same willful crudeness and misapprehension is everywhere in evidence. Hiding behind the anonymity of a screen name, impervious to the consequences of their rudeness, I can hear America whinging.

It used to be said that Americans were rude when young, and polite when grown up. Europeans, by contrast, were polite children who grew into rude adults. I do not think that matters–or manners–remain that clear-cut today.

To the contemporary mind, manners can seem like an incursion on democracy, an arbitrary, restrictive code imposed from without that stifles expression and spontaneity. In this view, manners are inauthentic, insincere contrivances employed to indicate class or status–a velvet glove with which to club the less sophisticated into submission.

Some confuse manners with etiquette, its close relative. Writing thank you letters (Napoleon wrote,: “A letter not answered in five days, answers itself.”), properly setting a table and correctly serving tea are all fine things. One might observe all these niceties with utter fidelity and yet never rise to the magnificence of manners.

True manners are far from a cultural ready-made; they are in fact a triumph of the imagination. They stem from an understanding and respect for the feelings of others. They are the Golden Rule in action: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Too Biblical? I offer you Confucius, “Do not do to others, what you would not have them do unto you.”

The Republic of Manners is altogether democratic. Manners are oblivious to considerations of income, class and education. As any reader of history knows, Royalty and Aristocracy have supplied us with boors of legendary crassness and brutality. As any observer of mankind can attest, people of slender means, possessing little else, can be rich in sublime manners and unbought grace.

Which brings us, naturally, to the garden. The Garden of Eden, we recall, is where sin was born, when Adam and Eve defied God’s injunction and ate of the Apple of Knowledge. “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.” Bad manners are the bitter fruit of this mother of all faux-pas.

The garden also represents a perfect testing ground for manners. Here, so unlike cyberspace, every insult, every sin of omission and commission becomes a cause with palpable effect. Act thoughtlessly or impetuously and the effects of your action are readily reflected in the health of your plants and flowers. Nature is exacting in matters of etiquette; ignore this fact and your garden will devolve in a wasteland. The garden is not just a refuge from civilization; it is civilization’s sanctuary.

Thus, I give you The Garden Of Manners—as simple and effective a pre-school as these economically troubled times allow a young family. A Victorian writer wrote, “Let us repair to a cool place of retreat at the point of interrogation.” In these parlous times, let us pay heed. Ladies and Gentlemen, shall we take a look about the garden?

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