Flowery Language

RICHRAD W. MANNING

August 30, 1991|By RICHARD W. MANNING

Perhaps one way to arrest the current trend toward using abusive language -- symptomatic of culturally imploding societies -- is to surround people with lots of flowers. Not to the extent that, say, the Romans did while suffocating themselves in rose petals, but at least to the degree of exploring more subtle ways of expressing ourselves and modulating our voices, particularly in the presence of flowers.

In almost any neighborhood bar, for example, inevitably there will be two guys sitting eight inches away from each other arguing with and bellowing at one another, like musk-oxen in rutting season, about sports or politics, with each statement prefaced by or ending in four-lettered expletives. Coarse language is not uncommon these days even in university corridors, tennis courts, tapes of presidents' conversations or in our own homes. Flowers don't like it.

Remember the popular theory several years ago that we should talk gently to our flowers and plants if we wanted them to grow in beauty and abundance? It probably wasn't a good idea then and not practical now, at least in local bistros, especially since the simple act of breathing on a nearby potted plant by a few half-potted patrons would be likely to wilt cactus.

As is often the case with almost anything ''new,'' the ancient Orientals seem to have already discovered it. In the new wing of the Walters Art Gallery, the Hackerman House, where a beautiful treasury of exquisite Oriental Art awaits the visitor and where untoward language is as rare as the many objets d' art, one can enjoy porcelain vases, lacquered vessels, jades, silver and bronze designs, all celebrating the poetry of nature and the aesthetic fragrances of peonies, cherry blossoms, magnolias, wisteria, omodaka and, of course, lotus flowers.

People can be found wandering from display to display in reverent contemplation. As though in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, they speak only in hushed soliloquies of admiration. But even they are admonished by the distant voice of Confucian wisdom, reverberating through the centuries, back to nearly forgotten societies.

For there in the cloistered silence of the past, one can read on a simple placard from a 16th-century treatise on flowers in a display case of Chinese art the following: ''Enjoying flowers with tea is the best, enjoying flowers with conversation the second and enjoying them with wine the last. Feasts and all sorts of ordinary, vulgar language are most deeply detested and resented by the spirit of flowers. It is better to keep the mouth shut and sit still than to offend the flowers.''

Richard Manning is an artist who is quiet when he paints flowers.

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