Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The wine that slips away from itself

"Nets are for catching fish; after one gets the fish, one forgets the net. Traps are for catching rabbits; after one gets the rabbit, one forgets the trap. Words are for getting meaning; after one gets the meaning, one forgets the words. Where can I find people who have forgotten words, and have a word with them?"   - Zhuangzi, Chapter 26

This passage is part of the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings at least some of which are attributed to the historical Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosoper who lived during the 4th century BC. I particularly like the English rendering above because it artfully captures in the wordplay some of the duality that can be seen in Zhuangzi's thinking as a whole. Zhuangzi's "Transformation of Things", from the second Chapter of the writings, states clearly what I think of as this duality, or easy "slippage" (my term) between two forms of existence:

"Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction!"

Where do I see this kind of slippage of worlds in the original quotation, from Chapter 26? Well, how about that phrase "Words are for getting meaning" which was so well set up by the two previous examples from the animal world? You might say the line aloud and listen to what you hear. Are words forgetting their meaning in this passage?

Or what about "Where can I find people who have forgotten words": have the people forgotten the words, or do they instead have the forgotten words?

And when the author asks to "have a word" might he be asking for his own name amongst these people - and thus a defineable meaning for himself - in addition to the gist of having a conversation?

It is interesting to think of these kinds of dual meanings in the context of wine, because I think that in general, we don't. At least not when we write about wine. Often enough we make note of a wine as we perceive that it is, and fail to acknowledge that what we perceive also contains in itself the beginnings of a change into something else. As I was reminded recently, a 2000 Chateau Simone Blanc tastes today nothing like it did on release. All sorts of savory and rich characteristics have evolved out of a deeply creviced liquid that once displayed a fresher fruit and a softer glide. What do we make of this? As we place a verbal image of a wine into text, are we fully acknowledging that we are in a sense standing at the edge of a moving river, taking a snapshot of a liquid that will change as it progresses down the arc of its loop around the visible bend? What we see, what we imagine as the total sum of the river in our minds, slips away and is replaced. Perhaps as we raise a glass of wine to our lips, we should try to remember this.

As a wine has a bottle and a label, we tend to believe it to be contained entirely. But as time goes by, do the words on that label forget one meaning in favor of another?


Anonymous said...

Are you enjoying the wine (the meaning) if you're thinking about the bottle and the label after you have drank it? From a purely Eastern perspective, I think the answer is probably no but this isn't always the case for everyone.

Levi with an i said...


Great name!

Anonymous said...

Great discussion! I guess what your entry really got me thinking about was: Does thinking about the label ever take anything away from the overall experience? For a student of Zen the answer would be yes because it takes one out of their present experience of now. For many other people I think this often isn't the case and the forgotten words behind the meaning do hold value. Like with poetry, form and meaning both contribute to the overall aesthetic value of the poem. If this is the type of beauty that you're advocating when enjoying a glass of wine and what you are suggesting Zhuangzi is looking for then I do agree with you.

d said...

I struggle with this. Sometimes when I'm tasting a wine, I am so intent on trying to decide how I would describe it in a blog post that I fail to be present with the wine. I am instead, present with the very limited number of words. It is better, I think to forget the words and give one's self over to the wine at that moment

Seth said...

I think about the duality of "De gustibus non est disputandem" quite a bit. Literally, "Of taste there is no dispute," and popularly described as either "To each their own" or a somewhat judgmental "No accounting for taste."

But I like to think sometimes about, and here I'm out of my depth in the true philosophical scholarship, a sort of Platonic ideal that the wine gives us a glimpse of. That there is no disputing Taste- here it is in relationship to this wine, and it's glorious or horrible. Our perception may shift, and we benefit from opening our minds, but some Judgment might be able to come close to Truth.

Wisest thing anyone ever taught me about evaluating wine is to evaluate yourself first.

Tarkovsky said...

Levi, thanks for all of this. Your musings have greatly affected my approach to drinking wine.

Seth, be careful not to associate wine with a Platonic Ideal, for it comes close to validating Robert Parker's despotism in terms of absolute Judgement of taste.

If we move from eastern to western philosophy, I prefer to relate my gustatory experience to Heraclitus.

"You cannot drink the same wine twice, for the moment you try, it has already changed."