A Crisis of Romanticism: From Rousseau to Booze

There are a number of crises that can behold the wine or spirits drinker, but the one we face most often at K&L involves our own personal booze philosophies. When I say we confront them, it's usually within ourselves rather than with our customers.  There are many roles to play within the world of booze: the high-browed wine intellectual, the down-to-earth beer guy, the artsy-fartsy cocktailian, or the super-duper whisky geek.  It's no different from walking into Amoeba Records and finding the indie rocker, the punk, the emo girl, or any other genre-specific employee who wants their own personal taste in music to reflect in their appearance.  Like with music, there are periods of growth, inner-reflection, and change when it comes to our alcoholic tastes.  Much like I outgrew my love for psychedelic drugs and Pink Floyd, I've outgrown my desire to drink ultra-ripe California wine.  We get older, we shape our own philosophies by where we stand in life, and our tastes mirror these changes.

I've just recently come out of a serious transition and am in the middle of an identity crisis myself. For years, if not decades, I've considered myself a romantic - I've always had a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathyI've always loved the idea of wine or whisky, perhaps more so than I've enjoyed the actual liquid - the idea of drinking Bordeaux with a finely-prepared steak, the idea of sipping great whisky after dinner with a few friends, the idea of having a fancy cocktail party with amazing drinks that blow everyone's minds.  I love to imagine the greys and the stark landscape of Islay as I consider purchasing more Bowmore, the spray from the sea and the brooding image of Jura in the distance. The rustic farmer who made the Bourgogne Rouge on my dinner table also comes to mind, picking grapes in a bucolic landscape of serenity.  In the school of romanticism, the poor are more virtuous than the rich, the sage is the man who retires from the corruption of the modern city and seeks solitude in the unambitious life of the country. The images of classic romanticism are ubiquitous in everything I think I love about booze.

The truth is that I've begun to shed my romantic skin. I've become a realist, more utilitarian and practical in my outlook, and I'm thinking that maybe I've actually been a realist in denial for some time.  Valuing emotion and feeling has always been at the core of my personal philosophy.  I've always preached the idea of drinking what you like and what makes you feel good, rather than chasing points or over-hyped brand names.  The boutique wine store world is definitely skewed towards the romantic school of thought, much like Fox News is skewed towards the conservative side of politics.  I've found comfort in this world because it made for an easy transition, like a liberal teenager starting his first semester at Berkeley.  If anything, my romantic nature became more extreme, emboldened by the likemindedness of those around me.  Here at K&L, much like with the romantics of Rousseau, the small farmer is always more virtuous.

Seeking council for my condition, I consulted Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, in an attempt to understand my crisis. I still felt a kinship to romantic imagery, but my drinking as of late had been less than satisfactory. In describing the romantic movement, Russell wrote:

The romantics did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.  They had no sympathy with industrialism, because it was ugly, because money-grubbing seemed to them unworthy of an immortal soul, and because the growth of modern economic organizations interfered with individual liberty.

The above passage still strikes a chord with me.  I still believe that industrialism is ugly and that it takes the fun out of drinking.  While I won't completely discount a whisky if it's a mass-produced, profit-driven product, I do find it entirely less interesting.  There had to be more though because something was entirely wrong with my romantic nature.  Reading deeper into Russell's account, I found this passage:

The romantic movement, in its essence, aimed at liberating human personality from the fetters of social convention and social morality...By encouraging a new lawless Ego it made social cooperation impossible, and left its disciples faced with the alternative of anarchy or despotism.  Egoism, at first, made men expect from others a parental tenderness; but when they discovered, with indignation, that others had their own Ego, the disappointed desire for tenderness turned to hatred and violence.

Yes!  Wow, what a summary!  Perhaps the problem doesn't lie in the romantic notions themselves, but rather in where a firm belief in romanticism leads.  Let's break down the above statement and translate it into booze terminology we can understand.

In attempting to liberate human personality from the fetters of social convention, I've spent countless hours talking to customers about the romantic ideals behind Springbank, Bruichladdich, Glendronach, and other rustic single malt producers that exist outside the scope of the mass-marketed brand options.  This part makes total sense.  However, my firm belief that small, hand-crafted spirits are inherently superior has given me a bit of an ego when I hawk my wares.  I feel strongly that the small, country producer is more virtuous and therefore desire that my customers do so as well.  Yet, how can I build a social community with people of all opinions if I expect everyone to simply listen and agree with me?  In a sense, I'm on the verge of becoming a whisky despot, a dictator who demands that all customers recognize the virtue in craft distillation and grower/producer wines.  However, when confronted with someone who feels differently than me, I immediately turn indignant because they're not giving me the confirmation, or in Russell's words parental tenderness, that I need to feel secure in my beliefs.

So it's not the psychology that's at fault, but rather the standard of values, according to Russell.  He writes that

(Romantics) admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences...but most of the strongest passions are destructive...Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.

Here is my underlying problem with romantic, emotional passion for booze over realism - it leads to this exact type of anti-social behavior: bickering on blogs, arguing on message boards, quarreling with customers, and an overall sense of resentment.  The more we stress the ideal of whisky, the virtue of the lost distillery, and the merit of the majestic family legacy, the more we lose touch with what booze is for: SOCIALIZING! 

I've found that perhaps my intellectual studies in alcohol have only isolated me, keeping me further away from true pleasure and happiness.  I know you all can relate!  Everyone reading this blog has bought that special bottle of whisky or wine, sat down with your friends and family, and attempted to convey to them the importance of the elixir, to which they all replied "That's nice," before continuing on with their previous dialogue.  How many times I've heard from customers, who lamented, "David, I opened a bottle of Port Ellen with my friends and nobody cared! Never again!"  This is our fault, fellow romantics.  We've become too entwined in our emotional connection to booze and have lost our ability to socialize normally.  We can no longer sit down with our fellow man, drink table wine or Jameson, and talk like regular people.

Ultimately, this is what Rousseau and the romantics had in mind.  They wanted mankind to retreat back into the forest, become again like the noble savage, and find the virtue in nature and solitude, wandering the countryside alone like Young Werther.  Unfortunately, this has not made me any happier!  It's only made me more lonely, sitting alone in my house, drinking the Pappy Van Winkle that only I understand and appreciate, while my wife and her friends have a blast with the box-o-white wine.  Russell understood this, which is why he wrote:

Man is not a solitary animal, and so as long as social life survives, (the romantic ideal) of self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics.

Instead, whisky geeks like myself are more like Frankenstein's monster, a classic tortured figure of romantic literature.  In Frankenstein, the monster contends:

My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.  I dared not think that they would turn from me with disdain and horror.

Nevertheless, this is what happens when you have a dinner party and expect people to listen to you about why your 1988 Chateau Margaux is so freaking amazing.  All you want is for people to say, "Wow, I can't wait to try this!  All that information was so stimulating, David!"  Alas, this is never what happens.  Which is why, ultimately, I find myself no longer a romantic.  I no longer imagine the perfect Bordeaux dinner with a finely-prepared steak, where everyone enjoys and appreciates the wine, because that image is a fantasy.  It doesn't exist for me!  It's simply a romantic notion.

When I say that I've become a realist, I definitely do not mean that I no longer appreciate great booze, nor that the merit or virtue of the small farmer has become devoid of value.  It's just to say that the romantic ideal of these products is no longer the end-all, be-all of what we should be drinking.  We should be drinking what we like, and if we're drinking with friends we should ease up.  Be practical and pragmatic - choose a simple, fun wine for a simple, fun evening.  This is the opposite approach of the romantic.  The romantics found everyday themes (and perhaps everyday wines) too pedestrian, finding inspiration only in what was grand, remote, and terrifying.  That sounds exciting and fun, but rarely are those qualities within actual reach, and if they are, you're usually the only one enjoying them.

While the romantic chooses to blame the common man for failing to understand such qualities, it's more or less the case that the common man doesn't care - he's happy with a bottle of Buffalo Trace and the company of his fellow man.  When I say that I've become a realist, it's to say that I am choosing to embrace the merits of social interaction and shun the philosophy of isolation.  It doesn't mean that I will no longer enjoy sipping my bottle of Brora in peace, it's just to say that this type of drinking won't dominate my way of life.  There's much fun to be had while we're alive and our time is too short to spend it wandering the country in search of the grandiose (or, in whisky terms, wandering from store to store in search of only Stitzel-Weller Bourbon).

While the romantics preached the virtue of the countryside, I now defer to Samuel Johnson's belief that the man who is tired of London must be tired of life.  I'm not tired of life, nor am I tired of drinking - in fact, I'm more energized than ever.  I am tired, however, of the romantic notions that have guided me thus far and the disappointment that has followed in their wake.  Drink up, my friends, and enjoy the company of your friends.  Have a good bottle on hand when you do, but let that bottle speak for itself.  We all know how good that bottle of wine you had in Italy last summer was, but it wasn't the bottle - it was being in Italy.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll