I was yearning to see the flowers that I love most this time of year--peonies--and it was a particularly lovely spring day, so my husband and I took the subway to Brooklyn to visit the botanical gardens there. Perhaps because it had been a rather cool spring, it turned out that we had arrived too early; the feathery blooms of the peonies were still tightly bound up in perfectly rounded, silky orbs. I was disappointed, but not for long, since the timing of our visit happened to coincide with the precise moment of the efflorescence of the garden's amazing lilac collection--one of the true glories of spring that, even though we are faithful visitors to the garden, we have never had the good fortune to see. From a distance, some lilac bushes looked as if they had received a divine chromatic dusting ranging in hue from pale purple and soft lilac to rose, mauve, and wedgewood blue. As we made our approach, we also saw bushes with flowers so thick and dense as to take on the appearance of clusters of sponges or, better yet, of coral reefs but the colors claret, purple, violet, magenta. When we moved off the path to get nearer to this inviting presentation of what nature served up to our senses, I didn't know which bush to take in first. It is hard to say which was the more intoxicating--the color of the pyramid-shaped blossoms or their fragrance. But then the one only served to intensify the dizzying sensation of the other.
For a moment, I felt as if I were losing myself in the heady atmosphere of the fresh and sweet fragrance, only to be called back to myself by my husband, who was directing my attention to a profusely perfumed bush whose heavy doubled flowers seemed to pattern out like a pointillist field of subtle yet distinct daubs of color. As we adjusted our eyes to the details of the bush, my husband, whose visual sensitivity is far more heightened than mine, revealed for me the hidden order of color: The top part of the flower--which, when viewed close up, looked like tight bunches of waxy little berries--was actually composed of buds swelling with a deeper shade of blue than the cluster of star-shaped florets dangling below them--some soft blue and partially open; others fully open and lavender. For the next hour or so, we moved from bush to bush, sometimes alone, sometimes coming together, lost and ecstatic in the sheer variety of the lilacs blooming.
It was late afternoon in the middle of the week, so we had the luxury of having the garden almost entirely to ourselves. Perhaps because of this feeling of intimacy, or perhaps because the experience was so exhilarating, strangers--and they were always on their own--kept exclaiming, as they occasionally walked by us, "Isn't it beautiful?" To which we immediately and enthusiastically gave our assent. These exchanges made me think of the eighteenth-century writers on beauty, who were the first to wonder about the delight that comes from contemplating beautiful objects, especially those found in nature. I was just beginning to remind my husband what Kant had said about people only being able to appreciate beauty in the company of others when another stranger expressed her pleasure in the lilacs to us. Again, we met her enthusiasm with our own.
As the three of us stood transfixed under the clear, cool light of the early May sun that made the colored blossoms around us practically vibrate with intensity, she proceeded to tell us that most of these lilacs were only as old as the nineteenth century, that the only reason they existed at all was because of the patience and dedication of one French family of nurserymen, the Lemoines. She told us that the first modern varieties were hybridized during the Franco-Prussian War in Nancy by Victor Lemoine, perhaps the greatest plant breeder the world has ever known, himself from a long line of nurserymen that stretched back generations. The first year of his efforts to produce a race of ornamental double lilacs, Lemoine, ably assisted by his wife, crossed more than 100 flowers, only to produce a mere 7 seeds. The stranger assured us that this small harvest was nevertheless enough to ensure the success of their hybridizing project. She also told us that the Lemoines were known to plant as many as 10,000 seedlings so they could select maybe 1 or 2 choice specimens. What would they do with the rest? They plowed them under. And with this last piece of lilac lore, our garden expert suddenly bade us farewell, giving the full force of her attention over to a lovely singled-flowered bush, milky white with buds the color of heavy cream and sulfur, just to the right of where we were standing.
Ten thousand seedlings to produce one or two perfect plants! Could that possibly be true? From our own experience, we knew that the making and sustaining of even small roof-top gardens required extraordinary care, so she might not have been exaggerating when it came to what was involved in hybridizing cultivars. As we walked past our new acquaintance, who had now turned her nose back to her botanizing, reabsorbing her senses in a cluster of fragrant flowers, my husband remarked on the intensity of her attention, and we both agreed that almost everyone we had seen that day seemed equally absorbed by the details of whatever wonder of nature they had before them. "Far more attentive," I couldn't help adding, "than people in museums or galleries looking at art." It seemed a terrible asymmetry that an artist spends weeks, sometimes months, even years, making a painting, but a spectator often takes it in with a single glance. I reminded my husband of a lecture we once heard about museums having done studies of visitors' viewing habits only to find that the typical viewer spends on average eleven seconds in front of any given work.
We had just paused on a hillside where, on both sides, rows of tree-form wisteria were in full, luxurious flower. "Aren't they beautiful! I wish mine would bloom like that," another enthusiastic stranger was addressing us. "Are they Chinese or Japanese? The racemes of the Chinese are usually shorter but fuller, as they bloom all at once, and, in my opinion, they're more beautiful than the Japanese variety." Then, from her large canvas bag, she pulled out a sketchbook, explaining, "The only way I know how to make this moment last is to slow it down by drawing it." We sympathetically concurred with her and, as we reluctantly made our exit out of the garden, we couldn't help wondering if everyone we met that day had somehow been turned into Victorian naturalists.
On the subway home, I noticed a young man completely absorbed in a very hefty biography of Virginia Woolf, which reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a dear friend who has written a number of first-rate biographies. I told my husband that my dear friend and I had talked about the amount of time that goes into creating vanished worlds and the lives that were once conducted in them, the years of reading and thinking and imagining and writing and rewriting and editing and rethinking required to bring some significant and representative piece of that world and person's life back for readers who know little or nothing about him or her. We had both been struck by the asymmetry of how much a biographer had to know in order to tell the story--the years spent trying to recover and then express the shape and feeling of another person's experience, his or her very consciousness, over the course of a lifetime--and how little actually ended up in the pages of the finished book--the physical manifestation of all the years at work--which, in turn, could never be met by the amount of time anyone spent reading the biography.
My friend and I had felt uneasy with this calculation, since it wasn't as if we thought readers should have to do all the work required of the biographer in order to get an accurate feeling for the person, just as I was grateful that the Lemoines--and not I--had planted 10,000 seedlings to produce that 1 perfect lilac, the ancestor of so many of the beautiful, fragrant lilacs that we had just been enjoying. And then my husband reminded me of a concert we had attended in the fall, where a harpsichordist gave inspired performances of rather obscure, but truly beautiful, sonatas by Scarlatti. When she finished and the audience begged for an encore, she played the last piece of the program again, which had been an exhausting, tour-de-force performance that demanded much hand-crossing, rapid repetitions of notes, and arpeggios that traversed the entire keyboard. Before she played, she announced half-jokingly that since she had spent so many hours practicing the piece and we had heard it only once, she wanted to see if she could conjure it up again. Here, it seemed to me, was another instance of the temporal asymmetry of creation and appreciation, but with the added complication of the time spent by the musician in practice for a live performance of a piece of music that lasts only a very brief span of time. But then my husband pointed out that it wasn't that the time it took for Scarlatti to compose the sonata needed to be met by the hours the harpsichordist practiced it; or that the duration of her preparation needed to be met with the equal duration of the audience's attention. Rather, the time Scarlatti spent composing the sonata, joined with the time the harpsichordist devoted to mastering and then conjuring it not once but twice that evening was met with the depth and intensity of our aesthetic experience, the memory of which was still vividly with us.
This seemed right to me, except that when it came to music, I was not the most prepared of listeners. Just as I knew I never saw as much or as deeply as my husband did when looking at nature or at art, I no doubt missed a great deal listening to music when compared to someone with a more sensitive ear. Appreciation or understanding was indeed a very vexed thing, which made me think of what Lionel Trilling had written about the subject in his intellectual biography of Matthew Arnold. By this time, we had reached home, and I went straight to my bookshelf to find the passage I was thinking of:
The breach between those who have a lesser degree [of
understanding] and those who have a higher is perhaps one
of the tragic problems of the race. The religious leader, the
political thinker, the teacher, the artist everlastingly communicate
their vision--their high intensity of understanding--and they win
assent, but always at a lower level and consequently, therefore,
to a different thing than they had intended. Their true vision,
they know, the actuality of their passion, can never be truly
reproduced; the result of their communication is inevitably a
greater or less distortion.
Arnold, even though he is ignorantly dismissed today as an "elitist," had the "democratic insight," as Trilling put it, that "a human value exists in the degree that it is shared, that a truth may exist but be unalive until it receives assent, that a good may have meaning but no reality until it is participated in." As I finished reading these sentences to my husband, I felt myself returned to our walk through the garden earlier that day, to all those occasions where complete strangers, enchanted by the beauty all around them, felt compelled to seek our assent, the way their pleasure increased our own and ours theirs, and how, in that moment, we created a shared world between us, but also with Victor and Madame Lemoine, and with all the unnamed gardeners who have tended and continue to tend the lilacs in Brooklyn.
Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).
By Rochelle Gurstein