Alchemies of Modern Experimentation in Writing: Leopardi, Baudelaire, and the Distillation of Wine Symbolism

By Mayer-Robin, Carmen | Romance Notes, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Alchemies of Modern Experimentation in Writing: Leopardi, Baudelaire, and the Distillation of Wine Symbolism


Mayer-Robin, Carmen, Romance Notes


BEFORE nineteenth-century realism and naturalism exposed it as an instrument of social and economic destruction, wine--at the center of table culture, social decorum, and religious symbolism--was a recognized and lauded substance of transcendence. This alchemical converter furnished poets and philosophers with an image to designate a rite of passage, from sickness to health, from consciousness to dream, from the tangibly human to the spiritually divine. Early nineteenth-century Italian and French poets embraced this tradition. Giacomo Leopardi praised wine for its ability to heal the body and spirit, to inspire unprecedented poetic articulacy and God-like omniscience (Zibaldone di Pensieri). Charles Baudelaire celebrated wine's capacity to reverse situations, "changer la taupe en aigle," with all the metaphorical implications of blindness giving way to sight ("Le Vin," Oeuvres 214). Given the equally important influence of each poet on his respective national literature, Leopardi's fragments on wine in the Zibaldone di Pensieri make a relevant comparison with Baudelaire, whose poems are perhaps more readily associated with theories of intoxication. (1) Although both poets assimilate traditional alcohol mythologies and connect them with an experimental writing process that we might call modern, a closer look at the ways in which Baudelaire goes beyond these myths reveals a significant historical shift in the literary treatment of wine. For Leopardi, wine is a substance of vitality and rejuvenation, and the Zibaldone emphasize wine's effectiveness for restoring bodily vigor and physical health to the sick poet. More than just an antidote to pain and melancholy, wine is an elixir, an alchemical potion capable of inducing elevated mental states, augmenting human vision, and increasing understanding of universals--all this without severing the human connection to reason and language. Combining magic with an element of rational control, wine becomes instrumental to poetic vision, invention, and expression. For the French poet, too, wine is a "substance de conversion," to borrow Roland Barthes' expression (Mythologies 74). Although Baudelaire never understates wine's transformative and inspirational potential in either the prose poem, Du Vin et du haschich, or in the wine poems of Les Fleurs du Mal, he nonetheless relegates wine, along with other stupefiants, to the realm of artificial paradises, and the later poems mark his shift in thinking about alcohol. Not only do they anticipate surrealism in a tableau of oneiric images that border on hallucination, testifying to the poetic avant-gardism that many have discussed. (2) They more importantly disclose the century's changing attitudes about alcohol, and announce naturalism by distilling (taken here in the double senses of purifying and extracting essential or true meanings) a critique of modern urban society.

Let us now turn to this distillation of wine symbolism. The example of Leopardi shows wine to be a transmutative substance capable of generating creative, visionary impulses. In the Zibaldone, wine is also a substance of transcendence, which for Leopardi is first and foremost a physical matter: "Il vino e il piU certo, e (senza paragone) il piU efficace consolatore. Dunque il vigore; dunque la natura" (Zibaldone 324-5: 127).3 More than a mere consolation, wine offers a means of getting beyond the invalid body and back to bodily "vigor" and "nature." It is widely accepted that Leopardi's ill-health and physical deformities exercised an influence on his writing. According to Benedetto Croce, favorite expressions in the fragments, such as "Enemy Nature" illustrate this link between the biography and the verse. Abandoning the earlier, eighteenth-century pastoral images of nature, Leopardi describes the menacing cloud which "Enemy Nature" casts over life, reminding the poet of his infinite smallness in a harsh and dangerous universe, as if the infiniment petit of Pascalian Jansenism had returned to haunt nineteenth-century Italy. …

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