Grape Vs. Weed

Why Baudelaire preferred the healing effects of wine to the despondency of hashish


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.

For Baudelaire, wine was not merely an agricultural product. It had a human character and voice, and like a human being it possessed a limitless capacity for either good or ill:

Le vin est semblable à l’homme: on ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point on peut l’estimer et le mépriser, l’aimer et le haïr, ni de combien d’actions sublimes ou de forfaits monstrueux il est capable. Ne soyons donc pas plus cruels envers lui qu’envers nous-mêmes, et traitons le comme notre égal.

In this way Baudelaire defended himself against the obvious allegations of being indulgent towards drunkenness and the effects of over-indulgence. Just as human beings are mixtures of good and ill, so too is wine, and were it to be banished from the world, the resulting void would make plain how much quiet and unobtrusive good it had done: “il se ferait dans la santé et dans l’intellect de la planète un vide, une absence, une défectuosité beaucoup plus affreuse que tous les excès et les déviations dont on rend le vin responsable.” Wine has an amplifying power: it improves the well-disposed into the excellent, while depressing those of bad character further towards pure wickedness.

In the light of this intensely imaginative representation of wine and its powers, one of the most surprising emphases in “Du Vin et du Hachisch” comes when Baudelaire gives his reasons for preferring wine to hashish. Wine he praises as an eminently healthy drug: “Voici une liqueur qui active la digestion, fortifie les muscles, et enrichit le sang. Prise en grande quantité même, elle ne cause que des désordres assez courts.” Hashish, however, is almost the perfect opposite of wine: “Voilà une substance qui interrompit les fonctions digestives, qui affaiblit les membres et qui peut causer une ivresse de vingt-quatre heures.” Wine strengthens the will, hashish destroys it. Wine nourishes the body, hashish leads to despair and suicide. Wine sweetens men’s characters and makes them sociable. Hashish isolates men. Wine is for the worker who alone deserves to drink it. Hashish is a solitary pleasure, and suits the idle and the despondent. Wine is useful and has positive, healthy consequences. Hashish is useless and dangerous. Wine can even restore bodily powers: “J’ai connu un individu dont la vue affaiblie retrouvait dans l’ivresse toute sa force perçante primitive. Le vin changeait la taupe [mole] en aigle.” It is a claim which trembles on the edge of blasphemy. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, but as a consequence of wine rather than of the action of the Holy Spirit.

But who would have expected such an appeal to utility and salutariness from this laureate of the unhealthy — an author who, in a few years, would conclude “Au Lecteur”, the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, with this image of one in the grip of “ennui”:

        . . . l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d’échafauds [scaffolds] en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

Perhaps, however, we should recall the subtitle to “Du Vin et du Hachisch” “Comparés comme moyens de multiplication de l’individualité”.

Baudelaire’s own personality seems to have been multiplied and extended in surprising ways by the power of wine, not simply in terms of his perceptions, but also in respect of his values and his sympathies.

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