July 7, 2007

From our love there will be born poetry

I know the cost in pain, in sweat,
And in burning sunlight on the blazing hillside,
Of creating my life, of giving me a soul:
I shall not be ungrateful or malevolent,
For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.

--Charles Baudelaire, "The Soul of Wine"

In his famous response to a draft of Walter Benjamin's Baudelaire study, Theodor Adorno takes issue with a critical method he calls "immediate materialism." This "anthropological" approach manifests itself, Adorno says, in Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire's poem, "The Soul of Wine" (L'Ame du Vin). The reading, according to Adorno, moves recklessly "from the duty on wine to L'Ame du Vin," thereby imputing "to phenomena precisely that kind of spontaneity, palpability and density which they have lost in capitalism."

For Benjamin, to read Baudelaire meant finding the "specific gravity" of "intoxication," the thresholds of difference between the realm of commodity and labor, and the acts, gestures, and states of being (be they poetic dream or "hopelessly depleted existence") that mark the modern world. Where Baudelaire writes

For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.
Do you hear the choruses resounding on Sunday
And the hopes that warble in my fluttering breast?
With sleeves rolled up, elbows on the table,
You will glorify me and be content;
I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife,
And give back to your son his strength and his color;
I shall be for that frail athlete of life
The oil that hardens a wrestler's muscles.

Benjamin responds, "The son of the proletarian figures in 'L'Ame du vin' with the words, 'this frail athlete of life' -- an infinitely sad correspondence of modernity and antiquity." Movement and hardening, athleticism and frailty, the faint chorus of hope and desperation, all of it there for the sake of clinging to what is needed for the next day, a frail victory against the measure of loss, medicine for the march of time and its ceaseless present.

Johnathan Nossiter's documentary of wine, Mondovino (2004), can be encapsulated by its balancing of the rightfully critical, but ultimately reductive, impulse of Adorno, and Benjamin's insistence on taking seriously the discrete enigmas of existence as they emerge. Nossiter's wandering-eye camera presents wine as a potent commodity and a symbol of sad correspondences. It is a global product carrying all the complex residues of spontaneity, palpability and density in an age of late capital.

On its face, the film is an indictment of globalization's destruction of craft. Even without the backdrop of the European Social Forum for economic justice, this theme dominates. The age-old vintners are victims of the corporate mentality that markets soil, sensibility, tradition, and family heritage; all of it as shallow as slogans. It is easy to see how the rush to marketability erases the "soul" of the wine, its relation to the earth from which it emerges, or its terroir, which is now no longer discernible to the tongue. Terroir itself becomes an empty term used to sell a region when the wine has ceased to have any properties that tie it to its supposed origin. The idiosyncratic tastes of the deeply influential wine critic Robert Parker dictate the standards, the world-wide reach Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi 's winery helps homogenize the environments of reproduction, and wine consultants like Michel Rolland ensure that the products of France, Italy, Argentina, etc. all fall into the californicated expectations of the buying public. Where new oak casks were never used before, now they are ubiquitous. In another Benjaminian sense, the film might, at first look, seem to be about wine's lost aura.

But if the film is about the smothering sameness bred by capital, it is also about the drama of generations shaped by the best and the worst of inheritances: sun-drenched lands and history, all that beauty part of a world economy that presses fast and hard at the roots. Whether it is the Mondavi boys or the old, European families, it is inevitably the sons who falter, wholly unable to find the beauty of the gift given, made graceless by wrongheaded visions of what is necessary and viable.

Nossiter is absolutely deft in this regard. The Mondavis are shown as the husks of a father's forming ressentiment. At the same time, many of the older families are grotesque caricatures of elite entitlement, so many of those wine-making families having prospered under fascist rulers and now peddling their wine as the spirit of (a tired) authenticity. They betray the pitiful fragility of old aristocratic orders that have seen those entitlements dissolve under the onslaughts of the consultants, the journalists, the market, new ideas.

Still, in it all, the spontaneous possibility of wine as a love object. Adorno said it could not exist. Benjamin asked how it could, and why it would, given the circumstances. Nossiter shows it in brief moments. There is the tired drink of the old French father who may be losing his estate to his son's new methods, but who stands beside his daughter and with her --their sensibilities like trampled halos in a fallen world -- tastes and measures the extraction from his casks with great care. He shows it too in the only time we truly see Nossiter in front of the camera, drinking the homemade wine of an indigenous Argentinian man removed from the economy of labels and new method. He wears an eruptive and enigmatic smile at the taste and the gift.

"Vegetal ambrosia, precious grain scattered
By the eternal Sower, I shall descend in you
So that from our love there will be born poetry,
Which will spring up toward God like a rare flower!"