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The "grand sot": The cover of an edition of Brillat-Savarin's "Physiologie du Goût"

A few years before he published in La Revue des Deux Mondes some shocking poems under the title Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire had written an essay on wine and hashish for Le Messager de l’Assemblée. The essay began with some monstrously unfair comments at the expense of the famous gourmet, Brillat-Savarin. In the Physiologie du Goût, Brillat-Savarin had passed over the subject of wine, but in “Méditation IX” had paid a general tribute to it:

Le vin, la plus aimable des boissons, soit qu’on le doive à Noé, qui planta la vigne, soit qu’on le doive à Bacchus qui a exprimé le jus du raisin, date de l’enfance du monde, et la bière, qu’on attribue à Osiris, remonte jusqu’aux temps au-delà desquels il n’y a rien de certain.

Rather flat and uninspiring, it must be said. But Brillat-Savarin had added a note to this part of his text, in which he explained that he was driven to be concise on the subject of wine because, if he were to indulge to the full his desire to write on that subject, he would not be able to write about anything else.

However Baudelaire was clearly unimpressed by this. Calling Brillat-Savarin “un grand sot”, he misremembered and abbreviated his text. Brillat-Savarin, he says, writing a book supposedly devoted to both hygiene and pleasure in relation to “la table”, offers only this on the subject of wine: “Le patriarche Noé passe pour être l’inventeur du vin; c’est une liqueur qui se fait avec le fruit de la vigne.” He then goes on to comment sardonically on the inadequacy of the comment he has just misrepresented: “Il est impossible, après avoir lu cette phrase, de n’avoir pas une idée juste et nette de tous les vins, de leurs différentes qualités, de leurs inconvénients, de leur puissance sur l’estomac et sur le cerveau.”

Baudelaire attacks Brillat-Savarin because he wishes to reach a different kind of reader, and to write about wine in a different way. Not for him the clarity and the simple good sense of the Enlightenment. Baudelaire is writing for a modern drinker, who is not a rational seeker after moderate pleasures but rather a more tortured and extreme individual — “vous tous qui cherchez dans le vin le souvenir ou l’oubli”. These readers are not interested in some Encyclopédie-like treatise on wine, which would throw a classificatory net over the subject. Rather, they want to explore its more surprising powers and affinities. Baudelaire goes on to relate how the author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann used wine. If he had a comic opera to write, then only “la gaieté mousseuse et légère” of champagne would do. Religious music, however, required either Rhine wine, or Jurançon. If music of a more heroic stamp was required, he would drink only Burgundy. Eventually literary editors, who were competing for Hoffmann’s literary output, appealed to this side of his character and sent him cases of French wine along with his royalty payments.

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