Matisse, an avocado, and the world

IT started as a pit. An avocado pit, to be exact. My friends Don and Mary Grant, his-and-hers journalists, shared an office on the fourth floor of the United Nations Secretariat Building. Mary was an amateur gardener, frustrated by Manhattan's lack of friable topsoil. (She was later to be evicted from an apartment on First Avenue for growing corn in tubs on her fire escape. When overwatered, they dripped on her landlord, who apparently had never been swayed, like other New Yorkers, by the romance of corn in ``Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'.'')

One day the Grants shared an avocado for lunch. On impulse they stuck the pit in a windowsill pot where a geranium was languishing.

Even that old beanstalker, Jack, might have been surprised at the outcome. The avocado sprout soon ousted the geranium, then outgrew several pots. Before long it was touching the ceiling of the Grants' office. It began to clog an air vent.

Fearing Paul Bunyan would be called in, Mary sought a foster home. She donated the zooming adolescent tree to UN Secretary-General U Thant's office on the 38th floor. Its new station was the reception area, where it had more room to grow and a magnificent Matisse tapestry, ``Le Ciel,'' for company.

And so, as the Brothers Grimm might conclude, all who came to see the quiet Burmese schoolteacher who lived in the room next to the avocado forest got to gaze upon the tree and upon the Matisse. And, if they didn't live happily ever after, at least the foreign ministers and heads of state, the viziers and ambassadors, had a moment of calm before they stepped next door to report on wars, famines, threats, ultimatums, and assorted disputes.

I mention the tree (long since departed) and the Matisse (now in the Secretary-General's conference room), because I found they helped give a certain sense of perspective when one went to talk with the putative chief public servant of mankind. Elsewhere in the UN building there is often a mild feeling of frenzy. This is compounded from too many documents to read, too many speeches to hear, too many crises to monitor, too long a wait for instructions from distant capitals, too many evening diplomatic rec eptions to attend, and -- overhanging all -- the problem of doing all this through gridlocked Manhattan.

The tree and the Matisse were soothing. If they are gone today, their function is still served by other means. Today one is apt to be soothed by the Secretary-General himself. It's not that Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, the hard-working Peruvian leader, doesn't know the tough business he's in. He is a consummate diplomat who maintains an encyclopedic knowledge of world problems and personalities. But he is also one of those wonderful Latin American intellectuals who are apt to spend a while chatting about

French literature or Bach, if a visitor shows any sign of such cultural inclination in addition to the business at hand.

At rare moments he may in fact listen to some Bach in his wood-paneled office. Perhaps Glenn Gould humming and grunting as he passionately triphammers the very essence of Johann Sebas-tian from the dense flights of sixteenth notes in the Goldberg Variations.

How very different have been the five men who occupied this office:

Blunt, straightforward Trygve Lie of Norway, sturdy as his stocky frame, the man who picked the wall covering of anchors that decorate the Security Council chamber. Not a bad symbol for what the Council is supposed to do when the gales of conflict (and rhetoric) blow. The world needs an anchor to get it through such times, before it can again sail forward to new economic growth or cultural renaissance.

Dag Hammarskjold of neighboring Sweden: ascetic, demanding, intellectually precise, scrupulously moral, at times inscrutable. Altogether an improbable cool northerner to play the most dramatically southern role in UN history, an Icarus flying too close to the Rhodesian-Congo heat.

U Thant, the very scrutable Asian who followed. The Burmese school-teacher who never lost his gift for listening to and instructing the envoys of powers great and small, somehow without alienating the superpowers. He meditated every morning at home before facing the rigors of world conflict. This left him poised and practical, not vague and mystical. His only Goldberg variations were those of Ambassador Arthur Goldberg.

Kurt Waldheim, tall, courtly, modern enough to have been head of the UN's outer space committee before assuming the top job; Austrian enough to seem always in tails, even when engaged in some impossibly hot mission to avert tragedy in Iran or Southeast Asia.

And P'erez de Cu'ellar, already described: Latinate rather than Scandinavian in training but with some of the introspective depth of Hammarskjold, less of the latter's penchant for risking great-power ire while clad in the nonbulletproof jacket of the UN Charter.

There they are, five men who once were schoolboys in different climates, different cultures, different continents. Just as the continents were once theoretically one -- Pangaea -- before the earth's plates moved upon the magma, so were their cultures' tribal ancestors once one.

Now we are hundreds of tribes grouped into 160-plus states; five or six populated continents; dozens of (shifting) alliances; myriad trade patterns; scores of religions and sub-religions; an array of permanent suntans and un-tans, of hairdos, noses, postures, eye colors, traditions; assorted ideologies (each feeling itself most advanced, the most religiously rigid proclaiming itself antireli-gious); and, most dismaying, a Babel of tongues, suspicions, and weapon-fashioners.

From that Babel we struggle backward toward Pangaea. Or forward toward a safe combination of competition and cooperation. We need both for progress.

We pluck these men (when will there be a woman to tend the avocado tree of peace?) from one region after another and give them the hugely demanding task of keeping order in the human family. Then we hand them all the exceptions that make up the small print in their contract:

-- Policing to do but no police patrols (UN peace forces) allowed in big- and middle-power backyards.

-- Mouths to feed, children to educate, drought to alleviate, but pursestrings held tight.

-- International bureaucratic waste cited (sometimes accurately) as the reason for tight pursestrings, but demands made by member states to employ more of their nationals in key posts.

-- Peacemaking, fact-finding, and mediation to undertake, but don't intrude on important members and their client states.

Stalin asked disdainfully how many troops the Pope had. Compared to the chief civil servant of the planet, the Pope has, if not more troops, more uniformed agents, more independence of authority, more control of purse.

Do we, in fact, want these leaders the nations elect every five years to have authority? The record seems to tell us ``most of the time, no.''

Their usefulness often appears to come about only in a negative way. Nations (peoples and their leaders) don't quite trust an international consortium to police, bargain, mediate, etc. They fear that (choose one): The superpowers may run the world as a condominium serving mainly their interests. A majority of other powerful states will trample on the weaker minority. A cabal of lesser states will somehow manipulate votes to undermine the treasure of the powerful states.

So, generally, they prefer to do their own separate negotiating. Only when the situation becomes grave in the extreme, when no nation or group of nations seems able to wheedle or ram through a solution to warfare or hunger, does the joint action of the nations easily flow through the headquarters they have pledged themselves to use.

Here we are, 40 years, five secretaries-general, two generations further along in the human adventure from the time when Roosevelt, Churchill, and, yes, Stalin backed this universal machine for keeping the world from war and other hazards. It's easy to label Roosevelt a romantic and Stalin a cynic. But Churchill, John Bull personified? The tough growler who didn't want to yield India from his empire or Eastern Europe to Stalin's. He thought the machinery could be made to work.

The question remains whether a generation that never experienced the killing of more than 57 million individuals in two world wars can feel any sense of urgency about the not-quite-parliament, not-quite-policeman, and not-quite-referee that was set up to prevent nuclear and lesser wars. It is also a question of whether that new generation will care enough to want to improve the world body, remedy its defects, reinvigorate its workers.

The avocado tree is gone from the 38th floor. Perhaps a new generation may plant its own seeds of support. The general secretary we jointly employ to take the dictation of the world needs such support if he is to help keep all the ambitious executives who run its branches working together in reasonable harmony.

That's something for Mr. Reagan, Mr. Gorbachev, and all the other branch managers to think about.

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