Whilst in my teens I read Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. I was struck by the novel in general but was particularly intrigued by a certain passage which relates how hero’s path to ultimate destruction was accelerated by the corrupting influence of an unnamed book. Gray, as you may recall, purchased multiple copies of this terrible volume and had them bound in various materials of different shades and hues so a copy would always be at hand which cosmetically corresponded to his current emotional/physical situation. It was not so difficult tracking down this book as its identity is now widely known and was probably even mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin edition of the Wilde Text. I immediately ordered one from my local book shop on my lunch break from school and soon after its arrival proceeded to devour the book in a day or twos fervent reading. The result was a feeling of near readerly euphoria; a sense of being filled to overflow with images of sensuality both pleasant and sickening. It was a meal that filled but did not nourish, no doubt the precise reason why Wilde himself made use of it.
The book in question, A Rebours (Against the Grain/Nature) by J.K Huysmans, is one without any real plot. It is, at least in my reading, more of an account of the struggle between the intellectual idealization of things versus the reality of their corporeal imperfection. For example, in the passage I have included below the hero’s taking of a whiskey has quite unintended consequences. The dram instead of hitting the spot and simply ‘sounding a single note’ gives rise to uncontrollable associations and transports him to the tortures of the dentist’s chair. Huysman’s parable serves to remind us of the pitfalls of an unqualified and disembodied sensuality with the warning that the world and worldly objects should not be treated as mere platforms to the sensual – only be disregarded when the desired state is reached. On the contrary, the sensual is a channel through which to experience interconnectedness and ultimately realize your place within its world.
What has this to do with wine? You may well ask. Now then, the moral of the story – or at least what I take it to be – has everything to do with wine. As is it not a thing which is routinely idealized above its physical station? I think I could say with some confidence that drinking and talking about wine as a means of transcending its (and your own) everyday reality is somewhat of a hazardous enterprise. Instead a more healthy pastime might be to consider wine as a complex human creation through which multiple strands of social/historical interaction pass. And therefore being a tool to help inform and even shed new light on the everyday. I count the following extract as one the influences to my subsequent interest in wine. It deals with the ability of physical objects to transcend corporeal banality through imagery, suggestion and intellectual connotation. We know a wine can smell of virtually anything besides grapes, and here Des Esseintes, the (anti)hero of the book, pushes the association further to the world of musical sounds. It is a fairly sizable chunk from chapter four and takes off from the point where Des Esseintes finally neglects his heavily jewel encrusted tortoise. A poor creature that can no longer move on account of its finery.
Portrait of JK Huysmans by Lucien Descaves
“…An icy wind was blowing, that sent the snow spinning before it and soon reversed this first arrangement of black and white. The sky returned to the correct heraldic blazon, became a true ermine, white dappled with sable, where the black of night showed here and there through the general whiteness of the snowy mantle of descending snowflakes.
He closed the window again. But this quick change, without any intermediate transition, from the torrid heat of the room to the cold of mid-winter had given him a shock; he crouched back beside the fire and thought he would swallow a dose of spirits to restore his bodily temperature.
He made his way to the dining-room, where in a recess in one of the walls, a cupboard was contrived, containing a row of little barrels, ranged side by side, resting on miniature stocks of sandal wood and each pierced with a silver spigot in the lower part.
This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each tap.
The organ was then open. The stops, labelled “flute,” “horn,” “vox humana,” were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would imbibe a drop here, another there, another elsewhere, thus playing symphonies on his internal economy, producing on his palate a series of sensations analogous to those wherewith music gratifies the ear.
Indeed, each several liquor corresponded, so he held, in taste with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics.
He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,–the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin.
Nay, the similarity went to still greater length, analogies not only of qualities of instruments, but of keys were to be found in the music of liquors; thus, to quote only one example, Bénédictine figures, so to speak, the minor key corresponding to the major key of the alcohols which the scores of wine-merchants’ price-lists indicate under the name of green Chartreuse.
These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum.
He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real music, following the composer’s motif step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of beverages.
Sometimes again, he would compose pieces of his own, would perform pastoral symphonies with the gentle blackcurrent ratafia that set his throat resounding with the mellow notes of warbling nightingales; with the dainty cacao-chouva, that sung sugarsweet madrigals, sentimental ditties like the “Romances d’Estelle”; or the “Ah! vous di-rai-je maman,” of former days.
But tonight, Des Esseintes had no wish to “taste” the delights of music; he confined himself to sounding one single note on the keyboard of his instrument, filling a tiny cup with genuine Irish whisky and taking it away with him to enjoy at his leisure.
He sank down in his armchair and slowly savoured this fermented spirit of oats and barley–a strongly marked, almost poisonous flavour of creosote diffused itself through his mouth.
Little by little, as he drank, his thoughts followed the impression thus re-awakened on his palate, and stimulated by the suggestive savour of the liquor, were roused by a fatal similarity of taste and smell to recollections half obliterated years ago.
The acrid, carbolic flavour forcibly recalled the very same sensation that had filled his mouth and burned his tongue while the dentists were at work on his gums.
Once started on this track, his recollections, at first wandering vaguely over all the different practitioners he had had to do with, drew to a point, converging on one of the whole number, the eccentric memory of whose proceedings was graven with particular emphasis on his memory…”
Huysmans, J.K. (1969) Against the Grain, Robert Baldick (trans.) London: Constable & Company