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  • Writer's pictureCláudio Giordano

The Philosophy of Wine

Béla Hamvas (1897-1967) was a Hungarian writer and philosopher, considered one of the greatest metaphysical thinkers of the 20th century. He studied literature, history of culture, science, psychology, philosophy and oriental languages. He was a nonconformist, and due to his aesthetic vision, the political regime under which he lived prevented him from publishing his works in 1948, which only posthumously, after 1980, began to be edited.

Very little known, in recent decades the English and Spanish translations have been republished, among others, of a small essay entitled The Philosophy of Wine (originally written in 1945) which, in the words of Antal Duval “is an apology for the rare and solemn moments of life, tranquility, fun and serenity of self-forgetfulness. It is the world of Dionysian, Mediterranean drunkenness; the half-waking, half-dreaming meditation of the beekeeper on an August afternoon under the walnut tree; the pure, sparkling serenity of Orpheus: one of the rare and idyllic moments experienced by Hamvas; in a word: a glass of fiery Szekszárdi or golden-green Somlói that you can feel taste.

In the summer of 1945, during a short vacation in Balatonberény, Hamvas wrote, practically in one breath, The Philosophy of Wine, which expresses the first tremors of a people who, tortured and hungry, harshly punished by the front lines, concentration camps and air raid shelters, has just reached the sunlight. Curiously, however, it does not express despair over the ruins, but exuberant joy of living”.

With a provocative, ironic and challenging style, his ideas are almost ravishing. Upon reading it, I could not resist the urge to share with the reader a little of this unexpected discovery. Instead of reviewing the book, I preferred to give the word directly to Béla Hamvas, who goes here in the excerpts extracted (and translated into Portuguese and English) from the Spanish translation by Adan Kovacsics (La Filosofia del Vino, Barcelona, 2014, Acantilado).

The text below reminded me of two friends, a woman named Corita (and all her family) and a man — Hungarian by birth. To this one, yes, I can put the full name: Roberto Szabo. These two characters revived in my consciousness with every word of Béla Hamvas.

May they remain happy forever!!!

Juan Carlos

In the end, two remained: God and the wine.

I decided to write a prayer book for atheists. In the hardship of our time, I felt pity for those who suffer and I want to help them in this way. I am fully aware of the difficulty of my task. I know I can’t even pronounce the word God. I shall have to speak of him using other names, for example, kiss, drunkenness, boiled ham. I chose wine as the supreme name. Hence the title of this book The Philosophy of Wine; hence the choice of the motto: “In the end, two remained: God and wine”.

Circumstances compel me to this sleight of hand. As is well known, atheists are arrogance worthy of compassion. It would be enough for them to see the name of God to throw this book to the ground. They suffer a fit of rage every time someone touches their fixed idea. But if I use words like food, drink, tobacco or love, that is, if I use these enigmatic names, I will manage to deceive them, because besides being presumptuous they are stupid. For example, they are completely unaware of this type of prayer; they believe that one can only pray in the temple, or muttering priestly words.

Instead of fighting them and trying to convert them, I sympathize with them. This is not a simple ruse. I don’t want to take anything away from them; on the contrary: I would like to offer them something that they lack, something whose lack makes them weak, poor and, why deny it, also ridiculous.

A prayer book for atheists? Yes, and besides, written in such a way that the reader doesn’t even realize that they teach him to pray. Almost anything. As Nietzsche says, there is only one way to express yourself: with cynicism and innocence. In a perverse and sophisticated way, with an almost evil intelligence and at the same time with a pure heart, with joy and simplicity, like the songbird.

I would like to take this opportunity to also address a few words to the Pietists, this dark sect of atheists. Pietism is nothing but atheism in disguise. Deep down, the Pietist is just as much an atheist as the materialist, but as he also has a bad conscience, he dresses himself entirely in the guise of true religion. The Pietist is anti-alcoholic. I know perfectly well that the title of this work scandalizes him, and he exclaims with an irritated and somber expression: “But what blasphemy is this?” He was outraged when I dared to say that God is also found in cooked ham. I recommend you calm down. You will hear more. I promise to pay particular attention to you and not miss the slightest opportunity to scandalize you as much as I can.

This book will necessarily be divided into three parts. I say necessarily because every good book is divided into three parts or, in other words, because the perfect structure is the ternary and also because the number of wine is three and this should be evident in the division of the book.

The first part is dedicated to the metaphysics of wine. The objective, and even the intention of this part, is to lay the foundations for any future philosophy of wine. In the same way that Kant expressed all the decisive thoughts of the philosophy of the future, which we can accept or refuse, but which no one can, under any circumstances, ignore or read lightly, as if they had never been formulated, I want to expose in this section the universal concepts and permanent elements of the metaphysics of wine.

I know that when I use the word metaphysics, I transgress limits. However, the word has remained hidden until now. It doesn’t even appear in the title. This is a limitation that I cannot help but impose on myself, for atheists are even suspicious of philosophy, despite the fact that it is the highest term they can still bear. Metaphysics offends their stubbornness to such an extent that if I had titled the book “The Metaphysics of Wine”, they would not even have dared to open it.

The first part therefore deals with wine as a supernatural reality. The second deals with wine as nature, so that, by definition, it is descriptive; deals with grapes and their varieties, types of wine, the relationship between land and wine, between water and wine, with special attention to our sauces, but also taking into account the most renowned foreign wines.

The third part is the theory of the wine ceremony. Examine when to drink and when not. How to drink? Where to drink. In what containers to drink? Alone? In company? With a man or with a woman? It deals with the links between wine and work, between wine and walking, between wine and baths, between wine and dreams, between wine and love. It includes rules regarding what wine to drink and on what occasions, in what quantity, what dishes it should accompany, in what places and how to combine it with other substances. This part is by no means intended to be exhaustive. On the contrary, it just wants to highlight the unlimited wealth of drinking possibilities.

The ternary division is closely linked to the three great epochs in the universal history of wine. The metaphysical part naturally corresponds to the antediluvian age, when humanity did not yet know wine, limiting itself to dreaming about it. After the flood, Noah planted the first vine, thus beginning a new era in world history. The third epoch begins with the conversion of water into wine and in this period we live in the present. The history of the world will reach its climax when wine gushes from springs and wells, when it falls from the clouds, when lakes and seas turn to wine.

What is wine? A religious mask. There is something behind her. Someone who has an unlimited number of masks, who lives at the same time the mask of Mercury, gold, the note F and the color red, and who is at the same time a book, a conversation, a woman’s laugh, some glasses and a roast duck.

The first sin, the deepest, the worst evil, was bad religion, bad attitude. The Bible calls it original sin. From then on, we all carry within us this commotion, produced at the base of our being, in the religious attitude. Because the jolt is religious. The flood failed to free us from the commotion. With the rainbow, however, came the moderating drink. I can only understand wine as one of the supreme acts of grace. Wine soothes. We have wine. We can make the damn shock go away. Wine restores original life, paradise, and shows us where we will find ourselves in the last universal celebration. And man is only able to support the bridge that joins the first and the last day, in a state of trance. And trance state is wine.

Each wine is individual. In each wine (variety, harvest, denomination, terrain, age) lives an unrepeatable, inimitable genius. A little angel dwells in each wine, which does not die when we drink the wine, but who reunites with the innumerable little angels and little fairies that live in man. When we drink, the jinn within us greet the newcomer with hymns and showers of flowers. The little fairy, enchanted, feels such joy that she is on the verge of spontaneous combustion. And that sudden flame of joy expands within us and bewitches us. There is no way to defend against that. Hence my claim that a glass of wine represents the somersault of atheism.

Before delving into the natural history of wine, I would like to address those for whom I wrote this book. I know that when reading the first sentences, every atheist will have been offended by the tone of superiority with which I dare to treat him. The further he went, the more his indignation grew, causing him to protest warmly against the sarcastic and impolite tone of some passages. In the end, he will have no alternative but to reassure himself, saying that the author is not a superior being, but an arrogant one.

Perhaps what bothered him the most was that he expected a puritanical sermon and ended up finding the opposite of it. If things are exactly as the atheist claims, I apologize here and assure you that it was not my intention to offend you. It was by no means my intention to use a boastful tone, for religion forbids me to do so.

The second point of my offense is this: Have I made fun of the atheist? Did I introduce you as an idiot? Did I call you a cripple?

I didn’t need to put him in a hoot, because he already is. Nor would I need to make it look stupid, for it is such glaring evidence that it was impossible to delay its disclosure to the public any longer.

I understand that it is bitter for atheists to acknowledge this, but there is nothing I can do to avoid it. It only remains for me to insist on showing them their desperate situation and teaching them the right way. That is my purpose and with that intention I begin the second part of the book.

I would now like to recall one of my most beautiful meditations on wine. It took place among the vineyards of Berény, next to a winery, sitting on a stone bench under a huge walnut tree, looking out over the lake. Ahead was Badacsony, el Gulács, the hills of Révfülop and Szigliget. It was a sweltering afternoon. I had bathed in the lake in the morning; then I had lunch and after a short rest I went out to read. The book, however, was abandoned by my side: I didn’t even open it, for I did nothing but contemplate the summer. The grape was already ripening on the vines. “This is Riesling, that one, Silvaner, further on, Otello, Burgunder, Mézes fehér ou blanco miel, Kékoportó...” Then I thought: curious that these numerous disguised manifestations are all the One, finding them if, however, its value is precisely in the fact that each one is unmistakable, true to itself and nothing more. In this sense, grapes and wines are like precious stones: manifestations of the one One. And yet, they are at the same time distinct spiritual essences of the One. I began to compare emerald, ruby, topaz, amethyst, carnelian, diamond with the wines that correspond to them. I confess that when performing this exercise I thought of the woman, which was of great help, as always when I meditated on the infinite variety of spiritual essences. Gemstones are women and girls, manifestations in disguise, who have preserved this unique property of their beauty, the radiant spell. Therein lies its charm. However, this spell is not to be interpreted in the sense of a falsehood, but in the sense of a natural magic. It is its true being. Its essence. If it were possible, I would love to extract the spiritual being of a beautiful young woman and go on purifying, distilling, condensing, filtering, crystallizing until I get its concentrated and imperishable essence. In the end, every beautiful woman could be made into a precious stone. The wine, even if in this case, instead of crystallizing it, it would have to be dissolved. The gemstone I would set in gold and then absorb its essence through my eyes. And the wine, of course, I would drink. As it is said in the Psalms: “Try it and you will see...” Of course, the ideal would be to be able to convert the precious stone into a woman, whenever I wanted, in order to admire her; then I would transform her again so I could drink it, finally I would turn her back into a precious stone so that she would last forever. My wife and my wine would be made of sapphire, amethyst, pearl, diamond, emerald and topaz.

The main thesis of my anatomy of drunkenness is this: the root of all drunkenness is love. The wine is love in a liquid state, the gemstone is crystallized love, the woman is love incarnate and alive. If to all this I add the flower and the music, I know that this love shines with all the colors, that it sings, exhales perfumes and I know that I can eat it and drink it.

I ask the following question: What is this restlessness so similar to an illness, this irritated limitation, this impatience that today is called nervousness — so typical of atheism? It is not possible to live without religion. It is a consternation as old as it is irrefutable. There are good and bad religions. Nothing else. Man either believes in God or a substitute. And there are many types of substitute: we can call it principle, conception of the world, dictatorship, progress. Today, the name of the substitute for religion is materialism. Why he calls himself that way is a mystery. I am the materialist, dear friend, I who pray to stuffed peppers and plum-stuffed potato gomboc, who dream of the perfume that women’s earlobes exhale, who adore precious stones, who live in polygamy with all flowers and all the stars and that I drink wine. Are you listening to me? And as always happens, in this case too, everything depends on the quality, whether it is a good or a bad materialism. I am the advocate of good materialism.

Well, now I pose the question: why does the modern atheist never find peace?

I’m gonna explain. Atheism is basically a disease of abstract life. There is only one remedy: to live spontaneously. Falling in love with the first beautiful woman, eating all you want, walking among flowers, going and living in a pine forest, listening to music, contemplating paintings and above all drinking wine, lots of wine. It’s just that good religion is a talent found only in healthy people. It dissolves and evaporates in the impurity. One of our great contemporary sages said it at a particularly enlightened moment. This impurity is the cause of the restlessness and frenzy of atheists today, of their amorphous, empty, pathetic confusion. Believe me, this disease has only one remedy: wine. Take note, my poor little disciples: you are not just cripples, you are not just stupid and idiots, deprived of all the riches of life; you are not only sick, you are also unclean. This is the main reason for your restlessness. That’s why you are unhappy. You lack the purity necessary for great enlightenment. Wine! Again I say, drink wine! Then you will want to kiss, to be busy with flowers, to cultivate friendship, to sleep well and soundly, to laugh, to read poetry instead of newspapers in the morning.

I know that what I say will seem to many a scandal and madness. I know those who claim such things. Two thousand years ago this same type of people reviled Saint Paul: what he said seemed to the Jews a scandal and to the Greeks madness.

Don’t believe, friends, that you can get over me so easily: don’t believe that because I’m religious I’m stupid, that I hate the world, that I’m dark and stubborn, that I only dare to taste the sweet bits when no one is looking. That’s not me, that’s the Pietist I just described who has nothing to do with good religion.

And now I’m going to tell you something. Scandal and madness are not characteristic of my behavior, but of yours. You atheists live like crazy and outrageously, but I don’t get scandalized or fight about it. I don’t even want you to renounce anything, poor people, for I know that you suffer great hardship. And more: I encourage you not to give up anything. Eat, love, enjoy and above all, drink and drink and drink.

I don’t want you to be less, but more. Understand? Donkeys! I speak with an open heart, specifically, to the scientists, the puritans and the pietists. Even if I hit you hard at times, take it seriously and don’t get upset.

It was blasphème d’amour, as the French say. We only scold those we love. And believe me, my dear atheist friends, it is not in vain that religion is called religion and is related to God. Only is truly divine who knows nothing else but to love, even his enemy. You are not condemned by something external: you are kept in hell by yourselves. So it all depends on you. Every soul is born intact and cannot lose its health. Be smart and get it back. The remedy is found everywhere. Drink! What I offer you is the oil of purity, the oil of drunkenness.

Drink, let the wine take care of the rest.

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