I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine

Martin Cohen is unimpressed by a work that staggers and falls between three stools

December 31, 2009

There is a good book to be written on the philosophy of wine - its social effects, its history, its cultural significance - but this is not it. It is not even an eeny, weeny, "just a wee drappie" bit towards being it. Then again, there are doubtless plenty of fellow "winos" (Scruton's choice of term for himself) with a similar interest in the minutiae of wine production and drinking, awaiting "the indescribable experience that comes when the aroma of a great vintage wafts above the glass, and the lips tremble in anticipation as though on the brink of a fatal kiss". There may even be a few potential readers for an autobiography of Roger Scruton. By weaving all three threads together, the publishers may have hoped to reach at least some of them. But if so, their strategy seems to have failed.

Instead, the book describes a drunkard's stagger between the three modes - cultural study, practical guide and autobiography - with little in the way of a unifying rationale and no redeeming message or insight. It is ultimately a rather sad little book, offering a not very attractive glimpse of Scruton's life as a "philosophical outcast", consoling himself, alone, with bottles of wine.

If some of the writing has a gentle elegance, yet more has echoes of slightly inebriated dinner-party outbursts - against Muslims, plastic bottles, anti-hunting laws - which may make for a lively evening, but hardly constitute a philosophical read. The only kind of philosophy it contains is a personal one that scarcely requires a whole book to be expressed - a short taxi ride would suffice. "You know something, all this stuff about alcohol being bad for yer - I don't reckon much on that. For me, it's wot keeps me goin' - and anyone who tells yer different is a Marxist social worker!" Alas, being educated, Scruton takes nearly 200 pages to reach the same conclusion, and a very dull ride it is too, in places.

Long sections on Things-That-Make-Me-Very-Cross should have been deleted in the cold light of day, but perhaps that moment never came. Instead, we need a new verb, not scrutinise but Scrutonise, to indicate a survey with no focus, no method and no outcome.

Take one of the book's attempted philosophical investigations, in this case into the mysteries of consciousness. Of course, wine is often a kind of introduction into this mystery. There are two certainties, Scruton offers. The first is that "I am a unified centre of consciousness". The other is that "I am free". As for the problem Rene Descartes bequeathed to subsequent philosophy of uniting mind and matter, Scruton says human beings are not two things but "one thing, which can be seen in two ways". Happily, wine speaks to both, addressing the "flesh" and the "self", the body and the soul. The book's title, I Drink Therefore I Am, is offered quite literally and used to divide the text into two parts. Scruton seems rather pleased with it, but this is feeble stuff.

By contrast, the plainer, soberer accounts of, say, Paul Broks or Oliver Sacks into the relationship of mind and brain, soul and body, are enlightening and even poetic. Where Scruton (following, for a moment anyway, Descartes) insists that the "I" is indivisible, a kind of final reference point when all else is getting befuddled, these neurologists disagree. Alcohol, drugs, illness: all reveal the existence of multiple personalities living behind that deceptively unitary human exterior.

Alcohol, far from helping individuals to find themselves as Scruton thinks, tends rather to reveal the myriad identities in each individual. The "social drinking of wine, during or after a meal, and in full cognisance of its delicate taste and evocative aura (the wine, one presumes, not the poor neglected meal), seldom leads to drunkenness, and yet more seldom to loutish behaviour", says Scruton, without, of course, offering any evidence.

But in the next paragraph, he seems to have changed his mind, saying that most dinner parties lead to guests shouting egocentrically at one another, with the "ceremonial replenishing of the glass" giving way to "grabbing and guzzling".

Perhaps this is the result of the topics raised at these dinner parties, which Scruton suggests should be "truly serious questions" such as "whether the Tristan chord is a half-diminished seventh or whether there could be a proof of Goldbach's conjecture". Who is Scruton hoping to impress? The answer, I came to realise as the book progressed, is that here is not so much a philosophical outcast as a philosophical dropout, desperate to impress himself.

I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine

By Roger Scruton
Continuum, 224pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781847065087
Published 30 September 2009

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