Art and Culture | Discovering Jean Leon

Of wine and letters

The latest novel by journalist and writer Martí Gironell is based on the life of Jean Leon, the fictionalized character (and the real person).

La força d’un destí (The Power of Destiny) won the Ramon Llull 2018 prize for best novel. It is the natural continuation of a tradition that has made wine culture a source of literary inspiration throughout history—and marks the perfect occasion to explore how the link between wine and letters reaches far back in time. As a cultural influence, wine has evolved in parallel to the different artistic avant-gardes and movements, so much so that it now constitutes a cultural entity in and of itself.

Wine and creativity

The idea of wine as a source of creative inspiration is as old as time itself. Anthropologists and/or archaeologists are fond of an old proverb: “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” Following this line of reasoning, we could say that the pyramids should fear the culture of wine.

“What wine has done to create things of quality, to inspire sparks of brilliance, to refine the senses and taste, to avoid foolishness, to kindle love, to enrich understanding, to bring the spirit to life, to encourage kindness and sensibility is inexpressible, because it is so incredibly vast. Wine is an inseparable part of life.”

Josep Pla, poet.

Wine’s role in literature is twofold. It represents a particular dichotomy in which the grape is both form and content of the most significant works of cultural expression, either as a source of inspiration or as a literary subject in and of itself.

Wine has been a source of creative expression since art was art, and wine, wine. They are an inseparable pair that has illuminated many of the greatest written achievements in human history. A form of transcendence befitting their indebtedness to the grapevine and the people who tended to it.

Wine expands the soul and unlocks a door to our inner world, refining the senses and freeing the mind. Personal experiences are like a blank page that we write as we make our way through life, shaping and giving meaning to the various literary expressions—poems, verse, fairytales, fables, novels, essays, stories and biographies—that define a set of cultural ideas, which prevail to this day.

Wine Culture as a Literary Subject

Wine provides a perfect analogy for the different stages of human life, and as such, it also makes for an inspiring element in various forms of literary expression.

The grapevine plays a leading role in many literary works, usually as a living being in a landscape that, for better or worse, will influence the fate of the protagonist.

Likewise, the winemaking process often represents a portrait of local customs and manners, an anthropological study of sorts that culminates in the folkloric aspect of the harvest festival as a symbol of freedom and the creative capacities of its participants.

In fact, in the book El Jardín de Dionisos (The Garden of Dionysus, published by Brau), the writer Eduard Puig i Vayreda talks about “Bacchic” literature and references authors as notable as Blasco Ibáñez and Néstor Luján as representatives of a literary movement linked to wine culture.

This movement is so vast that it would be an almost impossible task to assemble a complete list of authors and literary works that have wine as its subject or draw on the wine world for inspiration.

All we have to do is take a look at the classics to get a sense of how important wine culture has been in the history of humankind and, by extension, in literature:

  • Homer’sIliad (800 B.C.) is considered the oldest western literary work on record. Its protagonist, Odysseus, yearns for“the landscape of verdant vines that abound in Ithaca,” his home.
  • Likewise, Virgil (70 B.C.–19 A.D.), considered Rome’s national poet, left posterity with some sage advice on winegrowing and different types of agricultural work in his second major work, Georgics.
  • Omar Khayyam (Persia 1040–1125) is unquestionably the poet par excellence, and no one has written as many verses dedicated to the vine and its fruit. A fact of some significance in light of Islam’s intolerance toward the fermented grape.
  • And speaking of classics, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, by celebrated writer Cervantes, is packed with references to vineyards and wine. This makes sense—after all, La Mancha has always been a winegrowing region.
  • Similarly, the tormented French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), whose work falls halfway between romanticism and symbolism, dedicated seven poems to wine in his renowned work Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). The book immortalized him thanks to poems that are still seen as paradigms of Bacchic literature to this day.

If we were to continue into the present, this list would go on forever, because Wine, Life and Creativity are one and the same. Ultimately, it reflects humanity at its best.

 

Rafa Moreno