or On Second Thought, It Isn't U at All
When I met one of my dearest friends of all time at a summer science program many years ago, she presented me with this card:
Now, I don't remember feeling strongly about orange one way or the other at the time, but apparently, to some 16-year-olds, the fact of orange can be way beyond the pale (so to speak). In a life where not much of consequence has happened—or perhaps where you don't yet have enough context to embrace the events of consequence—orange can seem important, and if you don't like it, you might feel compelled to take steps against it.
I haven't questioned this particular friend lately about the role of orangeness in her life (note to self: call WB), but I'd be willing to bet that her attitude these days is more live-and-let-live. She always did have a good head on her shoulders as well as a boundless capacity to see the humor in things, and if she does still have a problem with orangehood in general, she probably expresses it with her tongue even more firmly in cheek now than she did then. Any confusion of taste and principle will be tempered with a strong dose of irony and a twinkle.
I've been thinking more since my last post about snobbery, reverse snobbery, social class, the teaching of Classical music history, and marigolds. All this was prompted by a garden essay I read not too long ago that made a snarky comment on growers of orange marigolds. The comment (as I remembered it) radiated class consciousness in ways that surprised me from this author, who has always struck me as being a pretty independent thinker. So I returned to her work this week—an essay called "Blues," by Eleanor Perényi, anthologized in Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden—and was pleased to discover that she had been rolling her eyes at others who considered orange marigolds to be vulgar, or, as she put it, "non-U." I hadn't come across the "U/non-U" distinction before, but it resonated loudly; even though the parameters may have changed since the 1950's when the terms were coined, we still have plenty of ways of distinguishing between upper class (U) and middle class (non-U) values today.
Perényi was writing in the 1970's, so it's possible that orange marigolds have become U again in the last 40 years and I missed it; but trust me, if they have, something else has taken their place as being too, too tacky. I think the real question, however, is not so much "Are they U?" or the reverse-snob version, "Aren't they wonderfully non-U?" Instead, the real question is, "Are they you?" Us and Them almost always have some hint of class about them, but You and Not You? I think that's a gap that can be bridged.
This brings us back to the teaching of music history. (Really.) What an education in any of the arts does best, I think, is to teach people how to disagree. So few objective standards exist that we are always coming up against the "barrier" of taste. Crusading to have the works we don't like eliminated (The Society for the Prevention of Bruckner Symphonies, perhaps) isn't really an option (in a free society, at least); whitewashing all differences in a way that pretends to be respectful ("Everyone's entitled to their taste") but that really refuses to engage other opinions, doesn't satisfy. The civilized arts—among which are music and pleasure gardening—are in part about civilized behavior, including the ability to explore taste and distaste with those who disagree.
So I won't reverse-snob our orange marigolds today. Instead I'll point out what I love about them: the delicately etched curves of the petals, like the whorls inside a seashell;
their luxuriant, flamenco skirt ruffles;
the way they stand their ground in the brightest sunshine instead of fading meekly before it, and sing out with full voice from shade; the vibrancy of a color as pure and unshadowed as stained glass, but with the softness of skin;
the scrollwork libraries of the buds, where the petals are not interleaved but rolled; the way they unfurl individually, so that each petal looks almost like a rosebud.
Those are some of the reasons that orange marigolds are me.
Are they also you?