Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine: Drinking Raveneau

Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine: Drinking Raveneau

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Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.” -Charles Baudelaire

Last night in the midst of a Paris Popup dinner at Penrose in Oakland I unexpectedly found my nose in a glass of Domaine Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre Chablis. The profundity of the experience proved quite simple. In the grapefruit, forest musk of the glass I smelled only joy.

A particular explanation of philosophy remarks that the philosopher’s work is to notice the strangeness of the ordinary. Such a view forms a sort of paradox. That is, the ordinary is in its nature strange, in other words, not really ordinary at all.

In what are known as the Kallias Letters, German poet-historian-philosopher Friedrich Schiller gives an account of beauty. “A form is beautiful, one might say, if it demands no explanation, or if it explains itself without a concept.” Within Schiller’s idea of the beautiful is the point that it transcends us — what is truly beautiful is not a matter of our own personal preferences (our preferences are fickle), but instead a characteristic of the beautiful thing itself. In saying that the beautiful needs no explanation, Schiller is pointing out that what is beautiful is simply complete — it needs no supplement. It is beautiful. A kind of straightforward aesthetic truth.

Schiller’s account of the beautiful seems to present an example of the very thing it works to define. It too needs no further explanation. That is, for any of us that have encountered moments of beauty in wine, his definition of beauty feels right. In the nose of Raveneau, there was nothing to say. I could try to describe aromas for the wine but the truer point was that the wine smelled of joy. It had no other explanation.

It must be said too, that for those of us that haven’t witnessed a moment like this of the beautiful (whether through wine or anywhere else), there is nothing to understand in Schiller’s point either. He can give no explanation because there isn’t one. You’ve either seen beauty, and so recognize the simplicity of it, or you haven’t.

Schiller’s account of beauty forms a sort of paradox as well. In his account, he shows that beauty is not a matter of personal preference. There is nothing fickle about the beautiful. Our tastes may change, but a beautiful form is in itself a beautiful form. Our recognition of it (or not) does not impact the truth of the object. Yet, there is a kind of problem.

The idea of beauty is an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is, by definition, a study of the principles behind beauty, but it is also a study of our sensory experiences, or that which we can witness about the world. The point is that, something like Raveneau may be beautiful in itself, but it can only be recognized or exist as beautiful because as humans we have the capacity to witness it. This point is tricky, and almost circular, so let me restate it.

Because beauty is an aesthetic concept, it is necessarily subjective — we are the sensual creatures that seek it — and yet, the beautiful thing exists in and of itself as beautiful, whether we recognize its beauty or not. We are the creatures that generate the very concept (beauty) that we then find in the world regardless of us.

It is here, then, that we discover the gift and strangeness of encountering beauty. We are struck dumb by the beautiful. In encountering beauty, we in a sense escape ourselves. Yet, we are always implicated in its form. Precisely because beauty is an aesthetic notion, it links necessarily to our senses. The experience of sensing something beyond ourselves at the same time gives us strength — we have the capacity to access, witness, and experience something beyond our own limits. Here, the intertwined nature of beauty — that it transcends us and yet we are implicated in it — reveals part of its power. The thing that transcends us roots us more fully in ourselves, precisely by its pulling us beyond ourselves, another paradox. In doing so, beauty reveals to us how much more is possible. It becomes a kind of motivation for us to be more than we thought we were.

Beauty reminds us how much more is the world than any of our self-involved analysis of it, and also of our ability to live more fully in it. In his book, The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller goes on to develop an account in which he treats the beautiful as an example for improving ourselves as people. There he tells us that we can strive to achieve in ourselves a sense of the completeness we witness through the beautiful. That is, when we are good there is no explanation, we simply are good. Yet, for us as humans, such goodness feels more tenuous than those moments with the beautiful, precisely because goodness for us must be an ongoing process. We must always strive for such balance without an ability to permanently arrive at it. In its parallel to goodness, beauty becomes a motivator to find comfort in our own uncertainty.

In smelling my Raveneau last night, I had no words and only smiling. The wine changed remarkably over the course of the evening, yet always carried that initial experience of my being struck. In as much as I gave myself to the wine, there was little I could say about it. To write any sense of typical wine description, I would have had to take a stance of analysis that necessarily would remove me from the very thing I sought to describe. As a result, what I find to say is this. (It is both utterly inadequate, and in itself complete. Forgive me. I can only hope the people for whom it’s meant will recognize the statement for its intended truth.)

Last night I drank Raveneau. All I can say emphatically is, Thank you.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting notions, but I think of Kant’s distinction between gratification (what is “agreeable”) and beauty, with the former engaging desire and the latter not. Schiller borrows from Kant, but draws a further connection between morality and beauty than Kant does. I’m not convinced this makes sense, but in any case Schiller seems to accept the ‘universalizing’ component of beauty. My instincts could be totally wrong, but, assuming we accept Kant and Schiller’s understanding of beauty, it seems a bit weird to say wine, a created, mediated product focused on sensuous pleasure, has a universal in-itself that can engage disinterested pleasure.

    You say “Beauty reminds us how much more is the world than any of our self-involved analysis of it, and also of our ability to live more fully in it. In his book, The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller goes on to develop an account in which he treats the beautiful as an example for improving ourselves as people. There he tells us that we can strive to achieve in ourselves a sense of the completeness we witness through the beautiful. That is, when we are good there is no explanation, we simply are good. Yet, for us as humans, such goodness feels more tenuous than those moments with the beautiful, precisely because goodness for us must be an ongoing process. We must always strive for such balance without an ability to permanently arrive at it. In its parallel to goodness, beauty becomes a motivator to find comfort in our own uncertainty.”

    What do you mean by striving for balance. I am not clear how balance relates to goodness. Also, to what uncertainty do you refer? Are you referring to the “tenuous” feeling of goodness? Is the idea that we are morally uncertain creatures and that art can provide a purer model for our morality than can our own moral lives, which are inherently inadequate and incomplete?

    Anyhow, this is a thought provoking piece but I can’t help be cynical: Raveneau is great, but it does not give me comfort in my moral life. It does make me feel good, both physically and intellectually, and I can certainly relate to the joy such a bottle brings. But I’d rather make moral decisions based on deep reflection on others, and empathy for individual and collective plights.

    Cheers,
    Shea

    • Cool. Thanks for your interest here, Shea.

      I think the main point to make is that there is no argument here for an ethical system. There is simply the point that Schiller sees beauty as a model and motivation for our caring to become better people. To read this post and think it’s arguing for wine as a basis for our morality is an obvious misunderstanding. The post was a look at beauty only for the sake of appreciating a particular experience — in this case, drinking a specific Raveneau that without question is a special wine.

      As a secondary point, since you raise it, it is also impossible to develop an ethical system on people’s plights, as to do so roots our principles and standards only in what we wish to change, when we must define any recognition of goodness on what we wish to establish and live. To put that another way, ethics by definition is the study of principles behind what it means to have a good life (that is, the study of a good life is necessarily a claim of what factors are included (that is present or positive, rather than missing or negative) in a person having a productive life); plights, on the other hand, are by definition problems and can only be treated in relation to correction not as the foundation for a positive ethical system as already described.

      Creating a system of ethics is fundamentally generating a positive program of principles, rather than a list of rules against what should not happen. For example, something like the ten commandments can be very useful but in and of itself can only ever function as a list of rules, NOT a system of ethics. There must be additional principles alongside those rules to create an ethical system. Because the ten commandments is precisely a list of what NOT to do it is not defining a life of what we ARE to do. A response to peoples plights is a response to what has gone wrong, a reaction against what has not worked.

      It can be important to respond to people’s plights. However, establishing an entire system on individual and collective plights, to use your example, is to create a *political* process, which is, of course, valuable but not by definition ethical. However, political systems do depend first on clear understanding of the ethical principles behind the government that will determine those political principles. So, while a response to plights can be crucial, they are not in and of themselves ethical, and so are far outside the scope of this particular article. In other words, your final assertion is fine but a claim of a different sort than is what was being discussed here, and as a result implies a misunderstanding of what moral decisions are by definition.

      Since you wish to push on the metaphysical discussion, I’ll indulge you to a certain extent. You make a point of stating that wine is a created, mediated product. Certainly. As is all and any art. For Kant this point is central and at the same time strangely irrelevant. That is, if wine can ever be treated as an art object, then the fact that it may trigger additional sensual responses of desire is secondary to judging it on its form. Art in general can be judged in relation to aesthetic standards. And, according to Kant, aesthetic judgments actually have no argument.

      Additionally, for Kant, to claim that an art object could be beautiful is to state that my judgment is not dependent on my preference, EVEN IF I also happen to like it. So, an aesthetic judgment of beauty in that sense depends upon a universal assertion of value, whether everyone else recognizes that value or not, and also whether or not I also happen to prefer it. In other words, I may strongly like a particular thing and yet at the very same time recognize it on universal terms. Whether I desire it or not is secondary. This is relevant of any type of art, as long as we could consider it art.

      Some people are going to claim that food or wine cannot count as art. However, as pointed out in the post already, aesthetic judgments depend on our sensory acuity. There are places where people argue that visual acuity has greater aesthetic value than sensory ability deriving from something like taste or smell, but this post is obviously setting such concerns aside. There are also entire traditions in philosophy on the aesthetics of taste and smell. You would, in fact, be hard pressed to legitimately claim that visual judgments are more valuable than sensory judgments of other sorts outside of cultural reasons. It is clearly the case that our culture prefers visual standards. That is not enough to show that preference is anything but historical. That is, it is not clear that visual arts have an easier claim to judgments of beauty than products more obviously taste or smell based. Indeed aesthetics as a tradition gives plenty of ground for our applying principles of beauty to non-visual media.

      That said, there are many that would be happy to argue against the idea of wine as art. There are also many that simply assume it is. I have had, in fact, very long discussions with a number of winemakers on this very subject. Taking the post here on its own merits, it is clear the point behind it is less about arguing that winemaking must be art, and more about discussing what is behind witnessing a unique aesthetic experience. Some wines simply achieve higher status than others in a way that is universal and not merely relative.

      Still, as the post mentions, not everyone has had an experience with wine that proves to be ineffable. Some of us have. The write up already discusses this. “You’ve either seen beauty, and so recognize the simplicity of it, or you haven’t.” If someone hasn’t had that contact with a wine that transcends explanation then discussion of the issue will make no difference. To put it another way, my commentary here with you is actually irrelevant to the ultimate point because the ultimate point was already plainly put.

      Schiller certainly does take some differing moral equivalences than Kant. However, it is not clear, necessarily, that Schiller goes further than Kant on his arguments for moral to aesthetic linkage. Again, such a discussion is entirely extra to the post presented here. But, since you seem to be interested, I’ll simply point out that there is an entire tradition stating that Schiller under estimated what Kant had already done.

      Kant actually maintains a kind of linkage between the two but wants the motivation of the will to fall consistently on moral grounds, whereas Schiller asserts that aesthetic experience can have impact on decisions of the will. Schiller never entirely divorces the moral from the aesthetic, which is where the two differ. Kant sees that the aesthetic can trigger something else in us, which happens to fall within the moral. Schiller believes the two can fall more closely together. As already stated though there is a whole history of literature that argues back and forth about these fine tuned distinctions.

      As for your balance question, the idea of balance in art is integral to how Schiller describes his notion of an art piece exhibiting completeness. Balance is an aspect of being complete, according to Schiller. Finding balance is integral to our aesthetic study but we cannot claim in advance exactly what specific qualities are necessary to accomplishing it. That is, balance in art (or self) is not the same as balance in mathematics, for example, which can be argued for. Aesthetic judgments are by definition NOT rational arguments. That means they operate differently than rational arguments do and must be respected as distinct to be recognized for what they are. In the case of the self, balance is a dynamic, mutable quality that has to occur over time. It is never there static like balance in a painting can be.

      When it comes to the moral points, Schiller wants only to draw a parallel. To put it too quickly, we could make a comparison between balance towards completeness in art from Schiller with balance in virtue for goodness in Aristotle. For Aristotle, virtue is an on going life process that depends entirely on who we are in what context or position in society. We have to take our own specific demands into account to determine what is right for us to do. For Schiller balance is similarly contextual.

      In such a shortened seminar as a blog, I expect that’s as good a quick point as we can make on it. That said, there are some great volumes on ideas of balance in virtue ethics, and balance in aesthetics that I could point you to if you’re interested.

      The better point is the one this post originates with — find a wine that is beautiful and enjoy it. If you haven’t had that experience yet, keep looking, or look elsewhere. If you haven’t had such experience though, such discussion will be irrelevant or perhaps even trite to you until you do. So, if you don’t have access to the finer experience of beauty, such limitation is about your own experience without knowing beauty, and does not ultimately undermine the experience of those that have lived such moments. There is no argument or explanation for beauty. You’ve either experienced it, and so understand its simplicity, or you haven’t.

      Cheers.
      Elaine

      • See, I don’t think I have ever had a transcendent-beauty experience in a glass of wine. There are other ways to have that experiemce though; I just heard a sermon today that I heard as being about making good life choices based on being grounded and transcendent at the same time. So despite a limited wine experience and a limited philosophy experiemce, I feel as if the same kind of PRESENCE of beauty and transcendence can be communicated in spiritual/theological terms too.

        Very thought provoking (and discussion-provoking!) piece!

  2. Elaine,

    I didn’t expect such a thorough response to my haphazard thoughts! I appreciate the effort, and I take your point on plights, though I blame myself for lack of clarity in my expression.

    I disagree that ‘plights’ are irrelevant to aesthetics. They can, in fact, give us a picture of what should be not as a corrective but by virtue of an understanding of what is and what may lead to suffering. I’ve always found it completely unconvincing that a lot of analytical philosophical ethics is premised on the possibility of imagining utopia rather than what people are actually experiencing in the world. Such systems are totally ineffective for making decisions that matter to people and tend to distort the reasoning process in my experience, which admittedly is as a lawyer in the last 10 years and not as a philosopher (which I gave up just about a decade ago). So I tend to find myself focusing on how ‘big ideas’ are impacting people on the ground rather than creating abstract systems of morality. That doesn’t mean I’m right of course, and I’m sure there are flaws in my reasoning from a purely analytical perspective.

    Anyhow, that’s probably a big tangent. My point is that I just don’t associate wine, and ‘beauty’ in wine, with anything relating to morality or even the more basic point of becoming a better person. Respecting the passions and ethics of people who make wine is another story, however. Though I do think most (not all) such people come from privilege and so I’m not crying tears over their efforts to make a good wine. But I also greatly respect those with integrity in pursuing a particular vision, and that can make me want to be better. A bottle of wine in itself, however, does not.

    I am not trying to prefer vision over other senses. I suppose, rather, that I question whether wine can engage the dissonance I expect from things that engage my aesthetic sense. Art must estrange us from what is in order to conjure what could be. Wine doesn’t do that for me. I love wine, but I don’t get that experience from it. I do not think it is a sufficient response to say that this is simply because I have not yet experienced a moment that cannot be explained or justified to others because of its universality grounded in individual mediated sensory experience.

    Frankly put, though perhaps not analytically pure and wIthout going in depth, is there not a fallacy to claiming that if one hasn’t experienced ‘beauty’ in wine then one cannot understand whether that ‘beauty’ is possible? That seems to be a claim that prevents any debate on the issue. I.e. until you agree with my proposition by virtue of having experienced it, then you cannot challenge my proposition. Maybe I’m missing your point but if I’ve tasted the same wines, objectively, as you are claiming to be beautiful but have not had that experience, is your response only to say that the flaw lies within me for not recognizing the universality of that object? That seems problematic to me, and unconvincing.

    Anyhow, great article and debate. I greatly appreciate the detailed responses.

    Shea

  3. Also I’ve been thinking more about this interesting discussion and so below try to lay out my rough thoughts on aesthetic judgments of wine.

    I realize that for Kant concepts do not capture art. Subjective experience only encounters the semblance character of art, not its non-identicality with the subject. By non-identicality I mean that art’s truth is it inability to solidify in a subjectively mediated objective form. Art’s truth depends on art in itself not being identical with the concept. Semblance makes the artwork appear to be whole. It is an illusion that allows us to see art as an object. We then encounter the semblance character of art but, through subjective mediation, form an expression of art. In other words, we give art its voice. That voice is distinct from art’s semblance, but it is not adequate to its non-identicality.

    Thus, there is no way to determine the ‘truth’ of an aesthetic judgment from a subjective assertion about experiencing art and beauty in art. In fact, I would suggest that such assertions have no content vis-a-vis the artwork. At the same time, it is only an illusion that an artwork is what we perceive as a particular object (e.g. wine).

    But, in my mind and as I think you suggest, at the same time as the artwork is non-identical to concepts, the artwork must also be inadequate to itself and require the subject to express it as something more than what is subjectively felt. That relationship cannot be easily cordoned off from rationality. Distinguishing rational thought from aesthetic judgment is a false construct. Concepts are inadequate to capture art (or beauty in art as you put it), but art is able to expose the very lack of subjectivity in the concept itself. I.e. art defamiliarizes us with our schema of the world and exposes the unbridgeable gap between the possibility of our concepts and concepts’ manifestation in the world. To me, this is why art estranges us from what is to show what could be. This dimension is necessary to art and aesthetic judgments. I remain open to being shown otherwise, but wine does not have that capacity. I do not understand how wine could possible achieve that. Bald assertions about wine’s beauty does not make it art. There, for me there is no aesthetic content to your assertion that Raveneau is beautiful.

    Just my quickly hashed out two cents that is definitely not perfectly expressed :).

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