Magazine | May 3, 2010, Issue

A Hymn to Bacchus

I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton(Continuum, 211 pp., $24.95)

Maybe the oddest and most wonderful thing about this very odd and wonderful book is that its title is a literal description of its contents. It is a joke too, of course; indeed it is two jokes.

The first joke is borrowed from Eric Idle’s “Philosophers’ Drinking Song,” in which the Monty Python cast, lightly disguised as a group of Australian philosophers all named Bruce, list the world’s thinkers from a drinking standpoint. This includes the couplet slightly amending Descartes’s proof of his existence: “And René Descartes was a drunken fart / ‘I drink therefore I am.’”

The second joke is that Roger Scruton, himself a distinguished philosopher, takes the Monty Python couplet seriously. He treats it as a Chestertonian paradox — that is, as a truth standing on its head to attract attention — and examines the drinking of alcohol as a way in which human beings learn more about each other, fellowship, some of the deeper realities, God, and not least themselves.

This wonderful and ultimately serious second joke will scandalize the authoritarian medical puritans who demand ever greater taxes and restrictions on alcohol. But as Scruton points out in several brilliant passages, the prohibitionist and the binge-drinker are alike in their ignorance of the virtue of “temperance.” They can envisage no stopping place between abstention and alcoholism. Their absolutist logic, he argues, is like objecting to a first kiss on the grounds that it will one day lead to a divorce. And neither can really understand drinking for any reason other than to get drunk.

As it happens, the occasional bender may actually have therapeutic qualities in moderation (i.e., if indulged in infrequently). George Orwell, who can hardly be accused of lacking a puritanical streak, thought that people should get drunk every six months or so. The experience, he thought, shook one out of one’s regular complacency and could be compared in this to a weekend abroad. Certainly it very often produces a feeling of greater humility in those who can remember what happened. Yet getting drunk is something that most drinkers do very rarely, if at all.

Changing our mood and outlook is a very different matter. Under the influence of a moderate amount of alcohol, our inhibitions are loosened. Shy people become bold, the tongue-tied talkative, the dull lively, the unimaginative fanciful, and the isolated social. (Even “mean drunks” usually start the evening in festive and forgiving mood.)

That last loss of inhibition is the most important because it promotes the fellowship that is the basis of a decent society. Not all intoxicants perform this vital function. Cannabis and similar drugs tend, if anything, to imprison the taker within his own consciousness (however expanded it may seem to him in his dreams). Except for those who lose themselves in alcoholism (and consequently become asocial in their attempts to deceive others about their condition), however, alcohol is a profoundly social drug. At the same time, not all varieties of alcohol are equally social in their effect. This thought leads Scruton to narrow somewhat the scope of his enthusiasm. Having rejected teetotalism, he continues: “The real question, I suggest, is not whether intoxicants, but which. And — while all intoxicants disguise things — some (wine preeminently) also help us to confront them by presenting them in re-imagined and idealized forms.”

For Scruton is a wino (the description is his own). He has the occasional kind if condescending praise for beer. He is tolerant of cocktails, since tolerance is an attitude toward something of which one disapproves — and he disapproves of cocktails, both as catering to a cheap and untutored taste and as designed to go straight to intoxication without passing through, over, or around any of the more complicated sensual experiences that a good wine offers along the way. For Scruton and, by extension, for Western Man, wine is the intoxicant that most promotes the virtues and least encourages the vices.

#page#I think Scruton is wrong to despise cocktails. A well-made cocktail is as complex a set of taste experiences as a good claret. A good-strength cocktail is the perfect prelude to the theater, giving one exactly the right lift to help the play to entertain, but not suppressing one’s appetite long enough to spoil a post-theater dinner. It can be the booster rocket that starts a convivial evening. But the cocktail has its limits. The alcoholic strength of most cocktails reduces their usefulness both as an aid to sustained fruitful conviviality and to the kind of imaginative introspection that Scruton thinks necessary for a happy life.

Wine, on the other hand, is a “drink that causes you to smile at the world and the world to smile at you.” Instead of imprisoning you inside a solitary introspection, it takes you out of yourself — and your ideas with you — to mingle with others and their ideas. Wine is therefore a voyage of discovery — and rediscovery — in many senses. The first section of this book — the reflections on “I Drink” — is an autobiographical account of Scruton’s adventures in alcohol. His first memories are happy ones of his mother’s home manufacture of elderberry wine in a post-war England where the French (and Spanish and Portuguese) grape had not yet “conquered the suburbs.”

“For three weeks the kitchen was filled with the yeasty scent of fermentation. Little clouds of fruit-flies hung above the jars and here and there wasps would cluster and shimmer on the spilled pools of juice.” Other Englishmen of Scruton’s generation will recognize and sigh at this description. My father made his own beer and wine from motives of both fun and economy. My sister and I learned our moderate drinking thereby. (The beer was excellent; the wine was a very pleasant drink provided that you didn’t think of it as wine.) Wine of a more recognizable kind appeared magically sometime around 1957 — Spanish Sauternes in my case, Portugal’s Mateus Rosé in Scruton’s.

Thus ill-equipped, Scruton goes to university ignorant of the rich variety of wines available even then to an English wino. At Cambridge and, later, in Paris, a succession of tutors, patrons, and friends not only introduce him to a growing list of wines but also teach him how to drink them. Some of the wines he is given are complex and expensive Burgundies, others cheap French supermarket vin ordinaire. But Scruton discovers that all have certain inherent qualities that an educated palate can discover by drinking them attentively and appreciatively. By learning their provenance and history, he enriches his knowledge of the locality that produced the wine — and he can imagine (I would like to believe this is so) that he can glimpse the character of the local people in the wine itself. He learns finally that certain wines go with certain things, not merely certain foods, but certain occasions, certain friends, certain thoughts, even certain topics of conversation. He becomes a wino.

When in his early middle years, Scruton buys a farm in southern England, he discovers to his delight an array of homemade-wine equipment, identical to that of his mother’s elderberry experiments, on the kitchen floor: “I listened to the bubbles as they danced in the valves, and studied the wasp-edged puddles on the tiles. I had come home.” 

#page#Thomas Wolfe is again disproved: You can come home again. Yet it is a different person who comes home. Scruton celebrates his good fortune not with elderberry wine but by opening and drinking in quiet happiness a treasured bottle of Château Lafite 1945 that had accompanied him in the long wanderings now ended. For, by this time in his life, Scruton is a confirmed Francophile in his drinking tastes. When his attention turns to describing and celebrating the actual wines, France gets 38 pages and the rest of the world a modest 23. This seems disproportionate to me and not wholly free of prejudice. But there is a certain logic to it — and a very Gallic logic at that. He is a terroiriste: He sees the wine more as an expression of the soil and history of the place than as a skilled blend of certain grape varietals aimed at market tastes. Though he is generally sympathetic to free-market economics, he fears a Gresham’s Law effect that wines aimed simply at uncomplicated tastes will drive out more subtle flavors that require greater efforts of appreciation (but deliver, in time, far greater pleasures). And the less variety there is in wines, the fewer the occasions that can be illumined by the right choice of wine — and the less we will understand the world and ourselves.

Though I have a higher opinion of the wines of the world’s south than Scruton, I happily attest that his chapters on the wines are fascinating and instructive. There are pages of useful advice on what wine to buy that are also glimpses into what to look for in the wine. I have already made several purchases based on his advice and, thus far, have had nothing but drinking pleasure as a result.

Scruton aims far higher than drinking pleasure, however, in the book’s section explicating “Therefore I Am.” This section examines in depth a series of philosophical and religious questions related to wine, from the Koranic injunction against alcohol to the true nature of temperance. These questions take us far from the vineyard at times, making excursions into terroir as different as Wagnerian music dramas and the philosophical nature of smells. They mount fresh arguments in beautiful prose. This book is a joy to read, whether in full at a gallop, or in pleasurable installments before bedtime.

Yet one important theme runs under and throughout all its different reflections. In establishing the value of virtuous drinking, Scruton confirms the wider value of temperance in our lives: “Virtue should be cast in human form if it is to be humanly achievable. Saints, monks, and dervishes may practice total abstinence; but to believe that abstinence is the only way to virtue is to condemn the rest of mankind. Better to propose the way of moderation, and live thereby on friendly terms with your species.”

This wisdom is enshrined, moreover, not merely in fine prose, but also in good jokes. In a final chapter Scruton advises us on what to drink with what. But this is not the conventional advice on what wine suits which food, but rather on what wine suits which philosopher. It gives the author an opportunity to exploit his professional prejudices. So what are we to drink while reading this book? I would suggest . . . well, one bottle won’t do. You will need a good (French) Sauternes with the nostalgic autobiography, a fine claret with the philosophy, a champagne (of course) with the jokes — and just before bedtime, well, there’s nothing wrong with a comforting glass of elderberry cordial.

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