Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are You Brillat-Savarin or Baudelaire?

Charles Baudelaire was the champion of drunkeness: in fact, his poem - Get Drunk! - is worth revisiting now and again:

Be Drunk!

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it--it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:"It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, as you wish."

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the author of “The Physiology of Taste” and an accepted arbiter of good taste even today, is another matter altogether. His best known quote - "A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine" is embraced by all wine lovers. But another - "Those persons who suffer from indigestion, or who become drunk, are utterly ignorant of the true principles of eating and drinking." - displays a Puritan cautiousness not usually associated with those who make the life of the belly their own. He wrote little on wine, much to Baudelaire’s scorn.

Here's what French thinker Roland Barthes had to say about the two:
"Baudelaire rebuked B.-S. for not speaking well of wine. For Baudelaire, wine is memory and forgetting, joy and melancholy; it is what permits the subject to be transported outside himself, to make his ego’s consistency yield to certain alienated states; it is the path of deviance: in short, a drug.

Now for B.-S., wine is not at all a conductor of ecstasy. The reason for this is clear: wine is a part of food, and food, for B.-S., is itself essentially convivial, therefore one eats and one always eats with others; a narrow sociality oversees the pleasure of food...Conversation (with others) is the law, as it were, which guards culinary pleasure against all psychotic risk and keeps the gourmand within a 'sane' rationality..."

I doubt somehow that B.-S., as Barthes calls the original culinary philosopher, never got tipsy, nor hoisted a few on his own, nor otherwise lost his way. In fact, there’s a period in his later life, not exactly a rambunctious youth, when Brillat-Savarin raked and guzzled with the best of them. Baudelaire, we all know, followed his own advice too closely and expired at 46, helped along by many years of laudanum, opium and alcohol excess.

We who write about drink inevitably skirt most of the issues of, shall we call it, over-indulgence, I guess because there’s enough negativity about alcohol built into this pleasure-fearing country. I was reminded of this when speaking with someone yesterday, who remarked that vodka’s popularity is bolstered by the many people who recognize that they can down enough vodka (as opposed to congener-laden dark spirits) to get a buzz without feeling like Hell the next day when they take their morning jog. Don’t think that will make it into any mags I write for.

There's one thing Brillat-Savarin wrote that I particularly like: "I have often been inclined to place the passion for spirituous liquors, utterly unknown to animals, side by side with anxiety for the future, equally strange to them, and to look on the one and the other as distinctive attributes of the last sublunary revolution."

If B.-S. got as far as equating anxiety and passion for spirits as two significant things separating humanity from animalkind, it seems to me he was quite close to making the leap over to Baudelaire's side. Perhaps he just needed another glass of Claret...

No comments:

Post a Comment