Archive for the ‘Booze’ Category

“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***


As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.

It’s nearly Christmas – where’s my Dickens?

The older I get, the less the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seems to matter. Or, indeed, the Ghost of Christmas Present: the shops have been done up in tawdry decorations since even before the autumn leaves had started to fall, and it is frankly all rather tiresome. But the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past remains stronger than ever.  I do not know what there can be about what is, after all, a fairly arbitrary time of the year – borrowed, as our modern atheists never tire of reminding us, from some pagan festival or other – that allows me to relive with such vividness those days which, at the time, I had no idea would end up becoming so precious.

And of course, as sure as the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols in the shopping centres, as sure as re-runs on television of the old Morecambe and Wise Shows, one inevitably reaches at this time of year for the Dickens. Possibly, this too is a tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past than to anything else: reading Dickens has become by now a time-honoured Christmas tradition.

Over the last three Christmases, I have, more by accident than by design, been writing about one or other of the five Christmas Books (see here, here, and here); I suppose I can continue this series by reading this Christmas The Cricket on the Hearth. But after that, the series must stop:  not even the compulsive completest in me could force me to revisit the remaining Christmas Book – The Battle of Life, surely the Christmas turkey of the set.

This year, for a change, I reached for the two-volume edition of Christmas Stories, a collection of the various bits and pieces Dickens had written over the years specially for Christmas.  (Tom, of Amateur Reader fame, had, it seems, a similar idea: see here, and the posts that follow.) The Christmas stories I read were variable: some, such as “The Poor Relation’s Story”, were very good indeed; others were middling. These are scraps dropped from the great man’s table, and, while some of these scraps are obviously very fine, not all are of the same standard; and it may well be the case that there is the odd piece there that is as tiresome as The Battle of Life. Well, we’ll see. But this is hardly an anthology to be read from cover to cover: it’s one for dipping into. And, having read some quarter of it so far, I think I’ve dipped into it as much as I care to for now.

The piece I enjoyed most was “A Christmas Tree”, a nostalgic retrospect of Christmas Past, written in that characteristically rich and opulent plum-pudding prose that readers, depending on their taste, find either tiresome or irresistible. As regular readers of this blog will know, I belong firmly to the latter camp. Just finding my way through those endlessly long, labyrinthine sentences, which, thanks to Dickens’ unequalled ear for the rhythms of prose, never run out of breath nor lose their way; or sounding in my inner ear the sheer luxuriousness of the sounds  made by the words; is, for me at any rate, an unmitigated delight. Those who favour nouvelle cuisine should look elsewhere; this is a full Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by the sweetest and heaviest of Christmas puddings.

How strange, though, that Dickens should look back so nostalgically on his childhood! As we all know, his childhood was not, after all, of the happiest. But perhaps it is in the very nature of nostalgia to look back not on reality, but on reality shaped by the imagination into an ideal form. Occasionally – as in The Battle of Life – that imagination of Dickens’ is tired, and goes merely through the motions; but at other times, as here in “A Christmas Tree”, the sheer exuberance of that imagination is intoxicating, and seems to me to have no peer.

It is difficult, especially given my own nostalgic temperament, not similarly to look back on my own Christmases Past. And no, I never did believe in Santa Claus. My parents, having emigrated from India in the mid-60s just a few months before Christmas, and generally unused to these funny Western ways, found the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty damn silly. If you buy presents for your children, God damn it, your children should at least know who’s buying them! Looking back, I sympathise. But when I told the other children in school that there was no Santa, they all laughed at me. And my teachers seriously assured me that Santa was, indeed, very real. I was confused. Was I to believe my parents, whom I trusted, or my teachers, whom my trusted parents had instructed me to trust?

Back then, everything about Christmas was new to me, and it all enchanted me. Those decorated trees, those carols we used to sing in class, the Nativity Play (in which, inevitably, I was cast as the frankincense-bearing Second King) – even the glitter and the tinsel, which only later in life did I find were metaphors for false and vulgar jollity. In the years to come, my parents made sufficient concessions to the spirit of the new land they had come to by giving me Christmas presents: they did not want me to feel left out and isolated from my school-friends. But admitting the reality of Santa Claus remained for them a step too far. So I never did really get to believe in him, even though I remember staring at the skies on Christmas Eve through my bedroom window, hoping against hope for but the briefest of glimpses of an airborne reindeer-driven sleigh that would prove my parents wrong.

Dickens isn’t the only literary Christmas tradition, of course. Some may consider the story of the Nativity, as told in two of the Gospels, also rather pertinent to this time of year. It is, of course, commonplace to praise the beauty of prose of the King James version, but sometimes, it is worth repeating the commonplace: the prose of the King James version is, indeed, extraordinarily beautiful. Of the two evangelists who tell the story, it is Luke who is the poet. Matthew tells of the wise men, and of the Massacre of the Innocents; but just about everything else we associate with the Christmas story – the annunciation, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”), no room at the inn, the child in the manger, the shepherds abiding in the fields – everything that makes this story so poetic, so irresistibly lyrical, even to those who do not profess faith, can be found here. And if Dickens’ prose is of the plum-pudding variety, the prose we get here in the King James version is pure spring water: it is prose of such apparent simplicity and such utter perfection that not a single word can be altered, omitted, or added.  There are those who tell me that they care about religion neither one way nor the other, but who belie that claim almost immediately by refusing to read the Bible: the loss is all theirs.

Less exalted, perhaps, is the tradition of ghost stories. Perhaps it is not surprising that dark winter nights should be seen as a suitable time for scaring the shit out of ourselves. M. R. James, famously, used to read out a new ghost story after dinner every Christmas Eve. Dickens, wedded as ever to all things traditional when it came to Christmas, tried his hand also at the ghost story, but, apart from “The Signalman”, he never quite succeeded: his literary persona was too genial, his temperament too exuberant, and his imagination too expansive, to conjure up with any conviction the air of still emptiness upon which supernatural terror thrives. No – it is to the likes of M. R. James (or his namesake Henry), Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, the two Ediths (Wharton and Nesbit), A. M. Burrage, and the like that one should turn. Recently, I have downloaded on to my iPad a complete reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and have been listening for about half an hour or so every night before bed. Those early chapters relating Jonathan Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula retain the power to frighten, even for such hardened addicts of the genre as myself. It’s marvellous stuff, but it’s not perhaps recommended for those of a nervous disposition.

With so many Yuletide literary traditions to keep up with at this time of the year, it’s hard to find time to indulge in a bit of traditional boozing! Well, I suppose there’s nothing to prevent me doing both. So let me reach for the Dickens, settle back in my armchair, and raise my glass to the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can no longer look to the skies hoping to see Santa’s sleigh, but remembering a time when I could is recompense enough. As, indeed, is my taste for whisky, which I certainly lacked in those days: the Ghost of Christmas past, fine though it is, doesn’t have everything going for it!

Here’s to your very good health!

On personal taste

De gustibus non est disputandum
In matters of taste there can be no dispute.

Can this statement itself not be disputed? If I were to eat fish that has gone off, and, not even realising that it has gone off – or, perhaps, realising, but not caring – find this rotten fish to my taste, can it not reasonably be claimed that my taste is poor? But even here, I think, if I enjoy rotten fish, then it is my privilege to do so, and there can be no room for dispute on this point.

So, in short, everyone is entitled to like or to dislike whatever they damn well want. There is never, and nor can there ever be, any argument on this point.

However, being a self-proclaimed argumentative old git, I can’t quite let it go there. The expression of an opinion – an expression, inevitably, of one’s personal taste – is frequently presented as a final word: “it’s just my opinion” is a phrase almost invariably intended as the last word in any argument – the adjective “just” denoting the very opposite of the humility and self-deprecation implied by its literal meaning: it’s a way of saying “This is my opinion, an expression of my personal taste, and don’t you dare dispute that!” Fair enough. As we all agreed, there can be no disputing that. And yet, something in me in me demands that I dispute it: there is in me a perverse streak that sees “It’s just my opinion” as but the beginning of a debate, not the end of one.

At the very least, if personal taste is to be the ultimate criterion – even if that personal taste is unable to distinguish fresh fish from rotten – let us at least consider the nature of this “personal taste”. Is it innate in us ? – is it something we are born with? Up to a point, certainly. It is also, I think, what we take in as we grow up – what we are accustomed to: as in the shaping of our personalities, both nature and nurture play major parts in shaping our tastes.

But then, what are we to make of “acquired taste”? What can we make of those things we like – often love, sometimes love passionately – but which we only came to love after much exposure, and not at first sight? I cannot, for instance, believe that there can be too many people – if, indeed, any at all – who love beer at first taste. Especially English ales. Now, I love a good pint of English ale, and I know that this love is not an affectation on my part; and yet, it took me a long, long time to get round to liking these ales; and those who have not yet developed a taste for them tend, I have noticed, to turn away even at first gulp in barely-concealed disgust. It is, in short, an “acquired taste” – although, I’d argue, a taste that is well worth acquiring.

Moving away from food and drink, it seems to me that much – if, indeed, not most, or even all – that I love and value most dearly are “acquired tastes”. Often, this is inevitably so: when we describe something as “deep”, we are using a metaphor to denote that much of its substance lies below the surface; and when this is so, how can we hope to gauge its true worth from a first glance that takes in no more than merely the surface? Does not the taste for anything that is “deep” need to be acquired?

But how exactly do we “acquire” tastes for certain things? By exposing ourselves to them over time, seems the obvious answer. But one cannot expose oneself over time to everything; and if, at first acquaintance, something had made but an indifferent or even a bad impression, then we are not very likely to welcome further exposure to it: life isn’t long enough to persevere with everything. Inevitably, one has to choose what one perseveres with, and the factors governing these choices seem to me worth considering. There’s social pressure, for a start (without social pressure, the market for English ales may, I fear, be very small indeed); there is, sometimes, an inkling even from an inadequate first viewing that there had been more than had initially met the eye; and it may be that those whose judgement we trust convince us that the effort put into liking something – even if that something seems unpromising to begin with – may be rewarded. But whatever the reason for pursuing further that which had not at first made too great an impression, the fact remains that the decision to pursue it or otherwise is our decision, it is our choice. In short, up to a considerable extent, far more so, I think, than is generally recognised, we may choose what we like or dislike; we may direct our own tastes.

Let me propose an example. I may choose, if I were so inclined, to like Renaissance polyphony. This is something I know very little about; but I may listen to recordings of masses and motets by Byrd and Palestrina and Lassus; I may read books about them, to understand them better; I may attend concerts; I may, in short, immerse myself in all this, until my ear and my mind learn to pick out the esoteric beauties of this music, to distinguish its subtleties. Now, it may be, of course, that my ear isn’t up to it; or it may be that my mind can’t take it in; or it may be that even after I had trained myself to take it all in, there remains some inexplicable aspect in my character that refuses to enjoy it. All this is true. But it is also true that if I choose not to make the effort, then I’d never get to like this complex and intricate music. So do I make the effort, or don’t I? The choice is mine. If, inspired by the belief that it is highly unlikely for something not worthwhile to be thought of so highly by generations of intelligent and discerning people across the centuries, I do make the effort, then I may get to like it; but if, on the other hand, I cling to the belief that all “classical music” is stuffy and elitist and but a symbol of middle-class privilege, and I do not make the effort, then I certainly won’t get to like it. To a very great extent, what I end up liking or not liking is a consequence of a conscious choice on my part.

So yes, in matters of taste there can be no dispute. But the directions in which we choose to develop our personal tastes seem to me very much open to debate. And as an argumentative old git, I can only welcome that.

Confessions of a Whisky Snob; or, The Aftertaste

I am a long-standing member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, if, indeed, “long-standing” is the adjective I am looking for. Every once in a while, I like going into the Members’ Rooms in Central London to try out a few malts: admittedly, the rooms at the Society headquarters in Edinburgh are larger and plusher – indeed, these rooms are far and away the most civilised place I’ve ever been pissed in – but given where I live, the London rooms are more convenient.

As with any society, and, indeed, with any self-respecting – not to say self-regarding – society member, there are certain dos and don’ts. This first is not to spell “whisky” with an “e”: “whiskey” with an “e”, refers only to Irish whiskey, or to American bourbon, but not to Scotch. This is one of several rules we have made up so we can laugh at those who don’t know better.

The second is, you do not put ice into a malt whisky. Never. And you don’t chill it either. You only chill or put ice into stuff that you don’t really want to taste. Like coca-cola, say (let’s not mention brand names here), or lager, either of which would be disgusting if drunk unchilled. But malt whisky one wants to taste. So no chilling, and no ice. Nor, indeed, anything else, other than water – and that only at room temperature. I was at the society once when I heard some unfortunate soul ask the barman for ice: “We do not serve ice here, sir,” came the rather frosty reply. “Ha!” I thought to myself, “ignoramus!” And felt awfully smug.

And then, of course, the tasting. But before one so much as takes a single mouthful, one has to smell it – take in deep draughts of the aroma, savour the scent, or, as we aspiring experts like to call it, the “nose”. And only when one has done this for a while, does one begin to taste. Gulping down a dram without so much as a sniff is very bad form.

I’m one of those who like to take a sip before adding water, just to see how the taste changes once the water is added, and, also, to see how much water I need to add in the first place. For water does usually need to be added, if you are drinking a malt that is at cask strength. And adding the water often changes the taste considerably. And then, you roll each mouthful about the tongue, so that the taste buds that detect different flavours in different parts of the tongue all have an equal chance of getting what they can.

One is, at this point, expected to say things like “Aroma of freshly mown grass after a light spring shower … initial taste of toffee and marzipan, possibly liquorice allsorts, with surprising hints of apple, and of fruit salad … soon, smokier elements come to the fore … flavour of burnt wood … somewhat medicinal undertaste, like dettol, perhaps, or coal tar soap …” And so on. (I have requested the society to be included in the panel that writes the notes on the latest bottlings – my qualification being that after a few drams I can write bollocks as well as anyone – but I am still, much to my chagrin, waiting to be invited.)

And even when the mouthful has been gulped, we aren’t finished: there’s the aftertaste. And here, after some 600 or so words, I come to the nub of this post: the aftertaste. With certain malts, you don’t get an aftertaste, but with the better ones, you most certainly do. After it has gone down the gullet – sometimes, long after – the mouth is filled with a taste that one had not detected while it had still been on the tongue. I am not sure why this happens, but I know it does. I have experienced it even with my very first mouthful of my first drink of the evening, so it’s hard to put it down merely to alcohol-inspired hallucination.

Something similar happens with books too, I think. There are certain books that leave very little aftertaste at all, if any. For instance, it was only a few weeks ago that I read – and, at the time of reading, enjoyed – A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, but it has not left behind much of an impression: I do not find my mind going back to it, and neither does any scene, any piece of imagery, any incident or character ever return to the mind unbidden. Or even, for that matter, bidden. On the other hand, something like Demons, which I read this summer, has a very considerable aftertaste: it is not so much that elements of that book keep returning to mind – it is  more that they’d never gone away in the first place: they have become firmly lodged there. And as these elements of the novel persist in the mind, they resonate in unexpected ways, and take on surprising new shapes. One doesn’t finish a book such as this merely at the final page: one continues to experience it long afterwards.

I am not sure what it is that causes this “aftertaste”, either with whisky or with books. What mysterious element is it that allows some books to take permanent possession of one’s mind, while other simply slip though without leaving a mark? It’s not always a question of literary quality: there are many books I have read of undoubted literary quality that haven’t left much of a mark. And neither is it a question of the height of one’s brow: Sherlock Holmes stories make no demand on the intellect at all, and yet I cannot think of any literature that is a more permanent – or more welcome – fixture inside my head.

Much though I love malt whisky, it must be said that the aftertaste of a book lasts much, much longer. It can last one’s entire life. People who don’t read fiction often wonder what the attraction can be of reading about made-up people: some even find the activity frivolous – sometimes, reprehensibly so. It is difficult explaining to such people why accounts of people who have never existed other than in the imagination can have so powerful an effect on one. And yet it does. Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull; Prince Andrei lying wounded on the field in Austerlitz, staring up at the vast immensity of the skies and wondering why he had never noticed it before; Hedda Gabler setting fire to the precious manuscript … Neither Hamlet nor Prince Andrei nor Hedda Gabler have existed in reality, and yet, these events, these moments, become permanent fixtures of one’s mind, and take on a reality that belies their fictional status. I am not sure why. When Tennyson visited Lyme Regis, his interest was not in the history of the place, but in the fiction: he wanted to trace all the places that featured in Austen’s Persuasion: he wanted particularly to see the steps where Louisa Musgrove had fallen – a made-up event in the life of a made-up character exciting his imagination more than anything reality had to offer. In the Spanish town of El Toboso, there is a museum dedicated to Dulcinea, a character who, even in a fiction, did not exist.

When something enriches one’s life, it is hard to know how to describe that enrichment to those who do not see the attraction. To go back to Austen again, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. And the enrichment that can come from fiction, it seems to me, goes beyond mere pleasure. But I find the nature of this enrichment difficult to explain, just as I find it difficult to explain the nature of the enrichment I find, say, in certain landscapes, in certain music, in the company of those to whom I am close. But explanation is not really required. The aftertaste that fiction can leave behind can become part of the very fabric of one’s being – in ways that are perhaps not even worth explaining to those who see in it merely frivolity.

I bet these killjoys disapprove of malt whisky as well.

Whisky & brandy – a comparison

The roads from my house to my local pub were all iced over: it was like walking on an ice rink. But some things had to be done. Over a convivial few drinks with friends, the conversation turned to the fraught question of the comparative merits of whisky and brandy. Now – don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy a good cognac, and, even more, a good armagnac. But the comparison seemed silly to me. Good malt whisky – that’s “whisky” without the “e”, as “whiskey” with an “e” refers either to Irish whiskey or to American Bourbon rather than Scotch, and, good though they are, Scotch whisky is a different matter entirely  … Now, where was I? Ah yes. As I was saying: good malt whisky has about it a depth and a range that cognac or armagnac, even at their considerable best, cannot hope to match.

Indeed, it struck me that comparing brandy to whisky is a bit like comparing Turgenev to Tolstoy. Now, no-one doubts the qualities of Turgenev: indeed, in certain frames of mind, there’s nothing I’d want more than a chapter or two of Fathers and Sons. But who in their right minds would even think of comparing Turgenev to Tolstoy? Why, the very idea is absurd!