Red-Wine, Health-Care, Shakespeare & Capitalism

A glass of red-wine and a Sjakespeare cartoonThose who follow the reigning fashion, or from fashion borrow their taste, will have observed that, after a de-facto 20 years of relative unpopularity, red wine has undergone a commercial and cultural renaissance.

Not that it was ever dead, but lore and clichés suggested that thoughtful solitude was the natural setting for a glass of red. Or, in a different setting, it was considered an erotic prelude to the real thing. An idea with a long tradition. In his “Art of Love,” the Latin poet Ovid says,

“‘Often has bright-hued Love with soft arms drawn to him and held down the horns of Bacchus (God of Wine), as he there reclined. Wine gives courage and makes men apt for passion; care flees and is drowned in much wine. Then laughter comes, then even the timid find audacity, then sorrow and care and the wrinkles of the brow depart.’ At such time often have women bewitched the minds of men, and Venus in the wine has been fire in fire.”

In historically more recent times, (red) wine was considered an item of plebeian consumption. To such snobs as Oscar Wilde is attributed the saying “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” A doubly sarcastic inversion of Marx’ original (“Drink is the curse of the working class”), and a recognition that (red) wine was the lone anti-depressant affordable and available to the victims of the industrial revolution.

Some governments recognized drunkenness as a national problem. After WW2 along all highways of France, for example, thousands of bill-boards featured the message “Contre l’ivresse” (against drunkenness).

For a different point of view, 350 years earlier, Shakespeare had Falstaff state the virtue of wine by singling out its different and distinctive positive effects on mind and body.

As for the mind,

“A good sherris-sack hath a two fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the crude, dull and foolish vapours which environ it: makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of quick, nimble, fiery and delectable shapes; which deliver’d over to the voice (the tongue) which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” (KHIV p2)

As for the body,

“The second property of an excellent sherris is, – the warming of the blood, which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice: but the sherris warms it, makes it coarse from the inward to the parts extremes. It illumines the face: which, as a beacon, gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man to arms.” (KHIV p2)

For those who know sherry but not sherris-sack – “sack” defined fortified wine imported from Spain and Portugal. Where the word was the English rendition of the Spanish word “sacar” (to draw out). “Drawing out’ referred to the process of extracting the final product from casks containing sherris of different aging.

Why, then, the current renaissance of red wine? We know that the greatest part of mankind have no other reason for their opinion than they are in fashion. Perhaps without realizing that fashion and ‘trending’ replace creative originality with the deadly conformism of insignificance.

But was there a change in taste, or a change in capitalist interests? I will not offend the reader by suggesting an answer he already knows, and… as wise men say, “follow the money.”

For capitalism lives on substitutions. All that is above must periodically end below and vice versa, enabling the market to feed itself with new and succulent opportunities for business. Mors tua, vita mea (your death, my life). Hence the demonization of milk, eggs, butter and sugar to make place for the industry of substitutes, sweeteners and surrogates. Proceeding then to the final stage of so-called ‘biotic’ or ‘pro-biotic’ products, with which the wheel has turned around and, with prices ten times as high, the genuine food of times gone-by becomes again fashionable. The key is to gratify the imagination with a self-pleasing theory.

In our instance, around the dawn of this millennium, a study was conducted on large numbers of people in the South-East of France, where the consumption of animal fat reaches its maximum. And this in a country that already rates adding butter to butter in most dishes not a choice but a necessity.

The study concluded that in the SE of France there was a lesser incidence of cardio-vascular ailments than in the rest of the country. Similar researches elsewhere led to the same conclusions.

The findings of the study shook a medical-nutritional cluster of convictions – or, as they say today, a paradigm – encouraged and promoted mostly by America in the wake of WW2. For, thanks to Hollywood, America became the supreme (not to say the only) winner of the war and, by inference, the master of credibility in fields as remote from the military as it can be imagined.

The medical-nutritional paradigm included exotic or outdated studies, superficial judgments, and hurried conclusions on eating habits. It also disregarded the social background of the humans sampled to reach the conclusions of the study.

But the findings among the French population contradicted established beliefs. It  threatened massive losses by the medical and pharmaceutical industry that had developed a vast range of medicines to combat the effects of a ‘bad’ diet. And a comparable loss by the increasingly popular alternative health-industry, founded on fetishistic beliefs based on alchemy, snake oils and parallel pseudo-psychological theories.

The list is long, of medicines officially approved  but later found deadly. And medicines and theories that yesterday were deemed revolutionary and crucial to survival, have quietly lost their original importance or appeal in the mind of most.

Some of us can verify the phenomenon at supermarkets where food samples are offered to customers, while their offerers extol the virtue of the sampled fare. I noticed recently, at least where I live, that the qualification of the samples as being “low in cholesterol” is rarely mentioned.

Returning to the original study, the health of the fat-consuming, butter-friendly French men and women of Provence, seemed to shake the cholesterol theory and its later subdivision in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol.

Nevertheless, it was relatively easy to find a remedy to save the theory. The French in question could and can ignore the cholesterol because they drink red wine. For red wine contains “resveratrol,” an “anti-oxidant” that, according to another study, “seemed to” fight or prevent cancer, and make the blood more fluid.

However, to absorb enough resveratrol to produce its beneficial effects, the patient, or the health conscious, or the health enthusiast, would need to drink up to 30 bottles of (red) wine per day, depending on the type of grapes used to make it. Meaning that the determined user would have to choose between alcohol-induced coma and cardio-vascular health.

The bon vivant, seething with pleasure at the lure of limitless libations with the red juice of Bacchus, was bound to be disappointed.

But if there is a will there is a way. In 2010 a giant multinational in the pharmaceutical business developed a proprietary form of enhanced resveratrol, with the declared same positive effect of that many bottles of wine. In other words, another food supplement.

But early trials showed that the concentrated resveratrol caused “gastrointestinal disorders and diarrhoea in many subjects.” The producer discontinued the product.

Since times remote, when health care found its own word to define it – medicine – wine has maintained a somewhat ambiguous position – being a remedy, a cure-all, a problem or even a poison, depending on an immense variety of opinions and beliefs, many influenced by custom and religion. By the way, for the lexically-inclined reader, the root of the word “medicine” is the Indo-European “med” associated with “to take appropriate measures.”

Hippocrates, for example, lists wines according to the diseases they are supposed to treat. To quote,

“The following criteria enable us to decide when in acute diseases we should administer sweet wine, vinous wine, white whine and dark wine. Sweet wine causes less heaviness in the head than the vinous, goes to the brain less, evacuates the bowels more than the other, but causes swelling of the spleen and liver.
As to white wine, most and the most important virtues and bad effects have already been given in my account of sweet wine. Passing more readily than the other into the bladder, being diuretic and laxative, it is always in many ways beneficial in acute diseases.
A pale red wine, again, and an astringent, dark wine, may be used in acute diseases for the following purposes. If there is no heaviness of the head, if the brain is not affected, nor the sputum checked, not the urine stopped, and if the stools be rather loose and like shavings, in these and in similar circumstances it will be very suitable to change from white wine
Should you suspect, however, in these diseases an over-powering heaviness of the head, or that the brain is affected, there must be a total abstinence of wine. In such cases use water, or at most give a pale-yellow wine, diluter and entirely without odour. After each draft of it give a little water to drink, for so the strength of the wine will affect less the head and the reason.”

In the 11th century the physician Constantine the African, so called because he spent the first part of his life among the Arabs, brought to Salerno (South of Naples, Italy) a collection of Arabic medical manuscript. They were the seeds and the source of the famous Medical School of Salerno that bridged the gap between Arabic medicine and that of the late Middle Ages.

During this period the monks were the natural apothecaries. Every monastery in Europe had its cupboard of drugs, spices and “cordials” (from the Latin cor=heart). The cordials are the antecedents of fortified wines. Their genesis is curious and in some ways, at least conceptually, connects with some of the (undeclared) principles of modern medicine.

Some imaginative monks blended medicine with alchemy, searching for a universal remedy, the famous elixir of immortality. Monastic philosophers and alchemists believed that base metals were inferior relatives of the only perfect one, gold. And they applied the concept to the diseases of humans. The perfect elixir was to be “potable gold.” In fact, one of the fortified wines developed in the monasteries was indeed called “Goldwasser,” containing suspended flakes of gold. Goldwasser is still in production today in Germany.

Somewhat sharing the ideas of the alchemist monks, one of the unspoken principles of current medicine, is that life can be extended indefinitely. Hence it follows that “health” is a relative term. For, even when we feel well, or at least in reasonable health, we cannot know if, through some additional medical intervention or pharmaceutical application, we may feel even better, or, we could say, healthier than healthy. Should this be the case, we would then advance one step towards an extension of life otherwise unreachable without that application.

Here we see at work the triumph of capitalism, the attendant medicalization of life and the cause of what Ivan Illich called “iatrogenic diseases.” In a previous blog I mentioned the president of a large pharmaceutical multinational – who, at a company meeting, said that the industry needs more illnesses.

In the introduction to his famous book,  “Limits to Medicine” Illich says,

“Society has transferred to physicians the exclusive right to determine what constitutes sickness, who is or might become sick, and what shall be done to such people… The social commitment to provide all citizens with almost unlimited outputs from the medical system threatens to destroy the environmental and cultural conditions needed to live a life all constant autonomous healing.”

In the circumstances, for us non-experts, literature offers an alternative to the implied described dilemmas, at least, as far as the beneficial or detrimental properties of wine.

Referring to the brother of Henry V, who was impermeable to laughter, Falstaff observes,

“… nor a man cannot make him laugh; but that’s no marvel, he drinks no wine.” (KHIV p2)

When drinking in company, the nature of the company should be considered. Or at least it seems so to a character called Slender,

“…if I be drunk, I’ll be drunk with those that have the fear of God, and not with drunken knaves.” (MWW)

And if wine just does not agree with you, you may remember Cassio refusing the drink offered by the perfidious Iago,

“Every inordinate cup is unblessed and the ingredient is a devil.” (OTH)

It could be an excuse for passing dangerous ideas. Or so originally thought King Henry V, before pardoning a soldier for having expressed negative opinion on his majesty,

“…we consider it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.” (KHV)

At times, it can be an instrument of reconciliation. After having reprimanded Cassius for his alleged acceptance of bribes, Brutus wishes put the matter behind them,

“Give me a bowl of wine. In this I bury all unkindness, Cassius.” (JC)

It is a tool for the strategic inducement of memory loss, as per Lady Macbeth’s plan to distract the guards of the soon-to-be-slaughtered King Duncan,

“… his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassails so convince,
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume…” (wassails = party candles) (M)

On a less dramatic strain, in moderate measure, the soporipherous fumes of the wine lull the drinker into a gentle repose. There is a limit, however, varying with every individual. Below the limit, wine promotes eloquence, above loquacity. In a disputing company, he who drinks pretty deeply while the rest are arguing, often imagines that he is now more knowledgeable than all the others.

And, depending on characters and circumstances, wine can act as a disinhibitor for discovering the true feelings of your dinner companion, as we find in Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,”

“…. truth that peeps
Over the glasses’ edge when dinner’s done,
And body gets its sop and holds its noise
And leaves soul free a little.”

An observation already made long ago by the Romans who said, “In Vino Veritas” (there is truth in wine).

As for medicine, Timon of Athens, now wisened-up after his bad experiences with profligacy, imparts some medicine-related advice to a couple of robbers who intended to steal from him,

“… trust not the physician;
His antidotes are poison, and he slays
More than you rob.” (TOA)


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