Abe Schoener and I had a conversation about tragedy.
My senior year of high school, my uncle Jay died of pneumonia. It was September. I had a cross country running race and we had to dress up for such days. I was up earlier than usual to put on an outfit I was uncomfortable wearing when my mom knocked on the door. She said my uncle was in the hospital. His friends had rushed him to the emergency room, then knocked on her window in the middle of the night. As a result, she was with him when he died. It took a while, but weeks later she told me the receptionist had brought her directly back to my uncle’s curtained room in the E.R. He couldn’t speak with his lungs too full of fluid but when she entered the room he turned towards her and cried. Within a few minutes he entered cardiac arrest, and in twenty minutes he had died.
In his book, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche builds on his ideas already explored in his earlier text, The Birth of Tragedy. There Nietzsche considers the painful revelry he sees as peculiar to the phenomenon. In Nietzsche’s view, the pain of tragedy reveals to us our own limits. It is in losing someone we feel attachment to we come to recognize the finite nature of our power and our lives. We cannot save them. In the same moment, we are forced too to see we cannot save ourselves. We will die. For other philosophers, the reality of our mortality brings with it a burdensome pessimism. Schoepenhauer treated the negative as defining human life. Earlier in the history of philosophy, Aristotle took tragedy in art to be a kind of therapeutic for our countenance. In experiencing second hand feelings of grief, fear, and terror by watching the tragic hero (like, Oedipus or Agamemnon, as in the case of Ancient Greek tragedy), we are cleansed of some tumult associated with such feelings, and thus find ourselves more stable, and stronger after. For Nietzsche, such a view is naive, perhaps even damaging. Instead, the all consuming pain of loss, and fear of our own mortality found in tragedy reveals to us a strange duality. It is in facing the stirred up feelings experienced in the death of another that we discover reason cannot provide all answers. Some things are simply unexplainable. The sensuous pain of loss dominates us and we must face an inexplicable edge that defines the limits of human existence. At the point of death we have no knowledge. What is interesting in all of this, is that, for Nietzsche, it is precisely when we allow ourselves to go into these feelings that we come to recognize our own brilliance. Tragedy, for Nietzsche, carries in it a two-fold experience. We are thrust into a horrible pain, and find through it a defiant pleasure. Tragedy forces us to recognize the limits of our own powers, and yet in entering that feeling we come to see our own power of persistence. We will die. Surely. Yet, here we live our human lives, demanding they be more than our own mortality simply by persisting. This two-fold experience is the source of Dionysian revelry, for Nietzsche. It is only in our facing the realities of decay, and decomposition that are the death cycle, that we see then too how life is a perpetual process of defiant transformation.
The family I was born into was four generations strong into my early 20’s. My great grandparents raised us through their simple constancy. We were lucky enough too to have grandparents, my parents, my sisters and I. My senior year in high school, when my uncle died, began a five year period of dismantling what my family had been. He died, unexpectedly, followed by my grandmother, my great grandparents, my other uncle, and finally my grandfather–more than half those deaths sudden. Two generations gone from us, and half of a third also lost. In that same time period, my father’s brother, other more distant extended family, and two of my own friends all also died. Those five years marked what my mother calls a stripping to the bone. Any pretense, or room for drama was lost. In the midst of so much grief there is room for little else. In the same time period, my oldest sister was diagnosed with what was supposed to be a lethal brain tumor, given eighteen months to live. By god’s grace she is still alive, so beautiful. It’s been eighteen years. In the same time period my oldest niece, Melissa, was also born, my great grandparents, then, witness to the wonder of five generations–a family they put into bloom. One of the gifts of simply persisting.
Abe Schoener and I had a conversation about tragedy. It started over a barrel of botrytis infected petite sirah. The year had been suddenly wet, in the end, and the clusters were covered in mildew when harvest time came. It was a situation many faced by throwing out fruit, but the berries revealed there was still juice in their meat. So, Schoener and his team foot stomped them. The vats after were slicked by a film of off-white growth on top–the mildew pushed off the skin. The wine now carries the smoothly tannic balance possible with a petite sirah, alongside concentrated fruit and spice notes associated with a late harvest wine, both without sweetness. It was a wine I’d heard Schoener was working on and I couldn’t wait to taste it. Then, there we were meeting in person for the first time (both of us careful in selecting our outfits for the occasion hoping to impress the other), tasting from barrel a wine that was strange in its brilliance. It’s been two weeks since and from a set of around twenty wines, the petite sirah is the one I crave. It drinks like its been touched by the edge of spoilage and come back to tell its story. Like its structure is more than the damage it could have endured. The acidity knows what its capable of being, so it just goes ahead turning in the barrel. The fruit dances through stages of vibrant and concentrated, dusty and fresh somehow all there together. The wine is not sweet like sometimes associated with late harvest grapes, but it is deepened, darker, and more raisined than it would be otherwise.
Schoener’s wines are seen as strange for the American palate. Even if his wine making techniques have their analogues abroad–with the oxidative elements purposefully done in Jura, or traditional Rioja, as examples–still, Schoener’s wines work against what’s more common for the mainstream–fresh fruit, or fruit jam presentation–of a still young U.S. wine industry. I ask him to talk to me about his wine making choices, so he explains. He wants his wines to be a pleasure to drink, he says, but he also wants them to make you think. He’s unclear how to accomplish this purposefully, yet, sometimes by intention alone the motivation succeeds. He wants his wines to go ahead and get right to the edge of what it is to be wine–a way to prove they are no longer fruit–then, to find their way back from it. What he’s learned from wine making, he says, is that if you start with a healthy vineyard, and then give the wine its own time in the barrel, it will self regulate. It will have moments when you think it is undrinkable, and, from the perspective of a more traditional wine making style, when you think it may be flawed. But if you let it persist, on the other side you’ll find a wine ready to bottle that is still marked by that edge, yet full of pleasure. I ask him about that idea of the edge again. That edge, he tells me, that’s the analogue to tragedy–where the wines have come right up to the border of something, and shown they are more than it. In this way, he wants his wines to cause pleasure, to be fun to drink, and at the same time, he wants them to make you think, to make you think of tragedy.
Thank you to Burt Coffin, Paul Sutton, and Aaron Pinnix.
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Thank you for this. Met Abe at a wine dinner in NYC & had a great talk, too. Have you read Maurice Blanchot? He writes/wrote very much from a (post-?) Nietszchean sense of death & mortality, ‘twould seem.
PS, wish I’d discovered yr blog while you were visiting up North: been doing my best to share info about & support the struggle against the mine– short of making a monetary donation, up to now– & would love to contribute & get a few t-shirts like your sisters sport in one pic!
[…] following is a guest post written by Abe Schoener, winemaker of The Scholium Project, and one of the founders and winemakers of Red Hook Winery, Red […]
[…] winemaker Abe Schoener and I have kept a sort of on going conversation. Both of us originate as professors of philosophy that somehow left that world to enter the world of wine. The trouble and promise of philosophy, […]