The Harris Epiphany
The state of ignorance and innocence, receptiveness, and a combination of unlikely natural circumstances that may trigger a spiritual/poetic realisation.
A real artist is the one who has learned to recognize and to render… the ‘radiance’ of all things as an epiphany or showing forth of the truth ~ Joseph Campbell
When we think of the epiphany we think of the new insight as a detonation, or revelation, scales literally falling from one’s eyes. Revelation comes with context and revolves around the nature of the person experiencing it. It pertains to a state of knowledge and a state of ignorance. It also involves the very humbling of the ego, a kind of “unselfing.”
Wine revelations never come with a background of heavenly choirs and shooting stars – except when they do. More on that anon. In general, a suddenly induced state of sublime wine grace, if we may call it that, may be intensified by a previous state of gracelessness and ignorance. The fewer prejudicial impediments, the more receptive the mind may be when it is touched by beauty. Indeed, it may be the very lack of intellectual baggage that we possess, that allows us to be more immersed in an experience.
My conversion from inchoate wineless heathen to a state of comparatively-elevated wine consciousness and the striking realisation that there was more to wine than any old fermented grape juice that happened to meet the lip, occurred on Harris, a medium-sized island in the Outer Hebrides. The place is central to the story, as it would be where I would experience several future epiphanies, each pertaining to a specific location, time and circumstance. It is where I feel most relaxed and receptive, set my face into the wind (real or metaphorical), and am happy to expose myself to new sensations and bathe myself in the moment or the Atlantic Ocean.
Once upon a time, we had a family cottage down by the shore on the eastern side of the island. I spent all my holidays there from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. We would hardly see anyone for weeks on end.
For one accustomed to the unlimited gastronomic options in London, the local shops were not well-provisioned, and depended on sporadic food deliveries from Stornoway, a small town on the adjoining island of Lewis. Back in the day we were still drinking instant coffee with UHT milk, eating Viscount biscuits (biccies and sweets were never in short supply!) and subsisting exclusively on an improvised diet of rumbledethumps and curried everything else. Especially mutton. Lots of mutton. Spuds with everything. The odd serendipitous turnip. Washed down by the only wine that Harris and I knew at the time, called Hirondelle Red. With that name I thought it sophisticated and French, and to be pronounced with rolled r and velarized alveolar lateral approximants. We bought it, we quaffed it – and it was good, the only wheel in town, as my mother used to say. And it came in litre bottles.
At that point in time there was only one hotel on the island that offered any relief from our exclusive mutton-and-tatty fare, and its restaurant served apologetic starters such as half a grapefruit and an array of different frozen fruit juices, meat sent to a dry grave and frozen veg cooked to mush. One day our neighbour told us that a young English couple had bought and renovated a Georgian manse on the other side of the island, turned it into a hotel, and were cooking and serving wholesome delicious food.
The story of Scarista House and the Johnsons has passed not only into Harris folklore, but has become legend throughout the world. Princes, well, a prince, and government ministers, made pilgrimage to sample its home-cooked delights. For us, it was just exciting to have a place where we could eat a non-potato-based meal prepared with fresh ingredients and drink something other than the mighty Hirondelle.
My knowledge of wine at the time was precisely zero, confined to the Homeric (Simpson) fact that you should probably always order the second cheapest bottle on the wine menu and lower your eyes lest you be gorgonised from head to foot by stony sommelier stare.
And since The Simpsons was just a glint in Matt Groening’s eye, even that pearl of Homeric wisdom was shrouded to me. All I knew was that wine and wine service were bound by sacred and arcane rituals. A couple of years previously, we were dining in the station hotel in Perth, a place where if there once had been any grandeur it had long since faded, when my mum imperiously summoned the wine waiter. Or waitress, as she was. A tiny homunculoid woman in the northern part of her sixties, with a gammy leg, hobbled across the oceanic expanse of dining room floor to attend to us, puffing like a little steam engine. Mum ordered something, a claret I guess as that was her wont, and our waitress made her painstaking puffing voyage across the vasty threadbare carpet to retrieve the desired bottle from the distant wine vault. She reappeared about ten minutes later and hobbled over to our table and proffered the bottle. Mum squinted at the label and shook her head. It was the wrong wine. With a sad sigh, the tiny woman set sail again for the distant cellar. Aeons elapsed, and finally she returned with the correct bottle. She then produced a corkscrew, screwed it in, half turned, placed the bottle between her thighs and yanked the cork. Which splintered.
So that’s wine, I thought.
“The earlier stages of the dinner had worn off. The wine lists had been consulted, by some with the blank embarrassment of a schoolboy suddenly called upon to locate a Minor Prophet in the tangled hinterland of the Old Testament, by others with the severe scrutiny which suggests that they have visited most of the higher-priced wines in their own homes and probed their family weaknesses.” –The Chaplet, Saki (H.H. Munro)
Giddy with excitement we sat down in the dining room of Scarista House. The table was positioned next to the window which looked out due west towards the machair and the dunes, and beyond that the curve of Scarista bay punctuated by the unfurling waves of the Atlantic Ocean. We surveyed the menus and felt like royalty. My mother was given custody of the wine list and having perused it, she asked the hotel-owner a couple of questions in vinglish argot.
Patron saints were evoked – Estèphe and Julien, to name but two. Andrew, the aforementioned hotel owner, brought a bottle over for inspection. There was further murmuring and whispered negotiation. Approval expressed. This was a religious code, that I would never, could never, decipher, a quaint freemasonry that I would ever be a member of.
As she was going to be driving us home, Mum only permitted herself to drink a single glass of red wine with her meal, whilst I took a couple of unfocussed gulps from mine. It wasn’t coca cola and it was different to lemonade. Or to Irn Bru. Or to Saint-Hirondelle of Harris. But it was only wine, after all, and it was not the moment. We said our goodbyes, and left, Scarista driving back (me squeezing the half-finished bottle of wine between my legs in the passenger seat) the thirteen-miles along the humpy-bumpy stretch of single-track road between the west and east coasts of the island, an anfractuous thoroughfare lit only by the occasional ghostly floating sheeps’ eyes. We arrived, parked in the lay-by by the gate that opened onto the rough track that wound down to our cottage snug by the sea. As I emerged from the car, I glanced up and around, and was transfixed by a glorious panorama.
I had seen this view several hundred occasions before during the daytime – and in all weathers – but I had never seen it this way. It was past midnight. To my left the lowering rampart of North Harris mountain range loomed, in front and below the path descended to the curve of the seashore and beyond the bay opening out in the Minch with a radiant moon road, and above, above was a spangled night sky and white muslin net of the Milky Way. “Standing among all those tiny, wavering lights, I felt as though I were God, up to my knees in the Milky Way.” Kurt Vonnegut (Slapstick)
The night was the throbbing silence of unknowable electromagnetic forces. Light-headed, I dislodged the cork from the bottle, took a pull, and stopped in my tracks. For as the wine surged over my tongue I seemed to hold every meaty molecule of its vinous personality in all parts of my mouth at the same time, each and every sensation and flavour amplified by my heart pounding within the cosmic night show. Another swig, a deeper one this time, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring. Intoxicated with beauty.
“Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!” ~ Alex – A Clockwork Orange
And did I mention the shooting stars? The Perseid showers had begun to fill the night sky, each darting shot of light a tremulous agitation.
During the period that Ptolemy’s view of the cosmos as a universe of interlocking spheres became the European orthodoxy, there was a widely accepted and very poetic explanation for “falling stars” which was entirely consistent with other deeply held beliefs of the time. It was thought that the gods, overwhelmed with curiosity, would sometimes look at the earth from between the spheres, and that in that instant a star or two might slip through the gap and become visible as a falling or shooting star. Since the gods were clearly peering down at that very moment, it was considered an excellent opportunity to voice one’s wishes with the guarantee that the gods would hear them.
Whatever. Presyncope (light-headedness) is a kind of happy disequilibrium and I was presyncoping. The sensory overload created a momentary disorientation which was curiously liberating. At that point there is no past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.
In some epiphanies you are tranquil, in harmony with your surroundings, as if you have reached out and pulled them into your being. This was the opposite, the feeling that something cannot be apprehended or even comprehended, a vertiginous chaos.
You take it in meekly, uncritically, and assemble the multitude of impressions into a raw response. There is a beautiful quotation from Abraham Isaac Kook:
Such an epiphany enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of creation.
This epiphany is part of nature’s age-old and unageing language, of whose images we build our paradises that can be found on no map.
That it was a Bordeaux was all I knew. Chateau Tolbooth something or other. Not at the time, when I was grasping the neck of the bottle and swigging merrily, did I care. Not discussed in the immediate aftermath. I made no connection between the celestial lightshow, the guzzled claret and the feeling of being transported.
Yet I can still recall the texture of the wine forty years on. It was that wine that was the witness to, and perhaps even the midwife to my wine-birth. It was the first time that I noticed that wine was more than an alcoholic beverage (albeit one shrouded in mystique). It was more than colour, smell and taste. It possessed life. It could inhabit your mind. It could detonate meteor showers. Or so it seemed.
Forward three decades and I happened to meet the former owner of the hotel who was running boat trips out of the west side of Harris. I related to him this, my first wine epiphany, and asked if he could possibly recall what the wine was that he sold us on that starry starry night.
He smiled: Yes, it was Chateau Talbot 1978.
You can never recreate those circumstances. One’s second encounter would be invariably overwhelmed by the weight of expectation. Talbot 78 was the accidental witness caught up in the story. Now I have a name for the wine and it has become a talismanic memory which I can trigger by thinking of – or saying – the name. The state of excitement, my wine innocence, the meteor shower, all, of course, make this an easy-to-flick switch to retrieve memories, but are those memories actual memories, or are they feelings induced by a change of consciousness?
Beauty, realised in epiphany, is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. It is when something is perceived and seized and this action in this moment alters everything. The kind of unselfing, referred by the novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, cannot arise from a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty deconditions; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence.
Unselfing involves the dissolution of the self, in this case, the active surrender to the wine’s transformative power over the self. Wine, by which I mean good wine, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. At its best, when it evokes an epiphany it invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires good feeling in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.
Over the years this unconscious stirring of spirit has been recollected many times in tranquillity, the imagination reshaping the original elemental experience, transforming it into words, even a kind of poetry.
Such experiences make us happy because they trigger a deeper awareness of beauty. I stop for a moment seeing everything through a lens and experience it with my mind.
I am back at Scarista again, on this occasion ensconced on its white shell sand beach as summer day melts into twilight. It is like being in a natural amphitheatre with an ocean horizon, hills banking up to the north, the south west and the east. The sun which has been lazily easing across the sky, now seems that it is running to dive into Atlantic. The sea itself turns copper and a slender trail of molten light burns a path across the water and ends where the lips of the sand kiss the ocean. The wine-coloured sea, the bronze sea, radiant colours, no, more than frame them with the inner eye, drink them in.
I have the bottle and the glass and I bring them down to the water’s edge. It’s childish (or childlike) and arguably pretentious beyond belief, but I yearn to be at this sublime intersection of light, water and land where everything is bathed in golden, amber, pinks and purples, and in the glass is the wine, which has itself captured nature’s energy over the year (or even years). As the sea caresses my ankles I drink – as if I am drinking light itself.
Drinking water, drinking light, drinking wine…yes, this is spiritual intoxication all right.
The bottle(s) that made the journey to the beach were Andreas Tscheppe’s Segelfalter and La Garagista’s Loup d’Or. Both were wildly aromatic in nature, detonations of floral fireworks that I always associate with meadow blossom (the machair) – with an added saline quality. They are the perfect amplifying accompaniments to this ravishing sensory overload of a Turneresque sunset.
A momentary peace, so that even the ocean seemed to be holding its breath, a deep listening and relaxed awareness, tuning in to nature’s subtle frequencies, and suaimhneas, a silent sense of contentedness and tranquillity. The epiphany, a node where many energy-bearing points meet and crystallise in an instant. Emerson observed that “the question of beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking about the foundation of things”. Here the intense experience of smelling and drinking wine interacts with nature at its most spiritually elevating, enabling us to “dissolve our selves” and become the better for it.
Stephen Dedalus’s transfiguration on Dollymount Strand is an exemplary instance of a Joycean epiphany. All the composite parts are connected to complete the whole; the mythological Daedalus has flown the labyrinth; the messianic figure of Stephen has been baptised; the artist has realised his vocation and the human being within achieves the freedom of a life without shame or wantonness. Joyce achieves what Aquinas said are the three requisites for beauty: integrity, wholeness and radiance, which brings us the moment of epiphany.
Stephen’s epiphany is a staging post in his journey into artistic selfhood and freedom. Wine epiphanies are less rarefied, by definition, but, at their most intense, can tap in/activate both primal and aesthetic responses and make us (albeit dimly) aware of beauty.