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Mike Fontaine
Ithaca, New York
Wine, swine, mind. Is there an art to drinking alcohol? Yep. Professor of Classics, Cornell.
Interests: Latin, Greek, Renaissance, Wine
Recent Activity
Typepad HTML Email Thank you, Kent, for reading and for your kind words. And, would you believe it? Just after publishing the blog post this morning, I got an email from FLX saying they’re going to stream classes, starting tomorrow! The whole house here is excited. From:
The Bamberg Girl in Poznan, Poland, carries two full buckets of wine on a pole across her shoulders. Talk about a workout! Her family emigrated from the winelands of Bavaria, near Obsopoeus' neck of the woods. This is the fifth and final post in the series on How to Drink. Click here for parts one, two, three, and four. Drinking wine and working out? Yep. In this final post, I'd like to highlight some similarities between the art of working out and the art of drinking alcohol. They have more in common than you think, and no, I don't mean the improbable claims we see from time to time that a glass of red wine is as good as an hour-long workout. (I mean, come on.) To show what I do mean, let me start with an arresting analogy that Obsopoeus develops in The Art of Drinking. It's one of his most profound insights. "Music," says Obsopoeus, “has divine powers on par with Bacchus”: Bacchus lifts and cheers the weeping with nectar, Music lifts and cheers the depressed with song. Bacchus fills the breast with warmth, Music stirs its feelings, and as does wine, so do sounds in harmony penetrate the chest and heart. However it works, isn’t that completely and totally true? It is, even if it’s not clear whether the cause is physiology, psychology, both, or neither. So let’s leave the how and why to others. The key point to seize on here is in the last line, sounds in harmony. Those three words are doing a lot of work in the analogy. How so? As I’ll explain below, "harmony" is another word for the social aspect you need to capture the mood-enhancing benefits of singing, drinking, and (for me) working out. He isn't talking about singing all by yourself. In my first post I mentioned the three occasions Obsopoeus singles out for drinking: at home with our significant other, going out with friends, and at social functions. Did you notice that all three are social experiences? Obsopoeus doesn’t even mention drinking alone because he obviously thinks drinking alone is a bad idea. I was invited to write this series of postings through a happenstance connection at FLX Fitclub, my gym here in Ithaca. FLX (pronounced “flex,” and an allusion to the Finger Lakes around us) is a wonderful place, with wonderful people, and I’m a big fan of it. It’s built around Les Mills group exercise classes, and one reason I like going so much is what Les Mills touts as the “group effect” of exercise. More on that in a moment. (Not team exercise, which is different. I do mean group exercise, which is where everyone does their own thing at their own level, but together. That's an important distinction.) The classes at FLX involve lifting weights to music in choreographed routines, and always as a group. They’re led by motivated and knowledgable instructors who face us, who coordinate and lead the movements, and who radiate... Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
That's Diogenes up above, the Greek philosopher who famously lived in a wine barrel. This post is #4 in the series on How to Drink. Click here for parts one, two, and three. Fair warning: this one's longer, so pour a glass of wine, fire up the music, and get a little stronger. Nietzsche said it first, but Kelly Clarkson said it better: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” She's right, and if you don't believe it, then lifting heavy or running a couple dozen sprints will remind you. (I’ll come back to that topic tomorrow.) In the meantime, Clarkson goes a long way toward answering an ancient question, namely, where do good ideas come from? As you'll see below, Vincent Obsopoeus is the first person in world history to write a How-to manual for drinking alcohol. Strange as it now seems, nobody had ever thought to do that before. How did he come up with the idea? Start with Hollywood. In 2006 a dark comedy came out called Smokin' Aces. It’s a terrible movie but it features a brilliant performance by Jeremy Piven. Piven plays a Las Vegas card illusionist who gets tangled up with the mob, and in every scene -- no matter what’s happening, even when he's getting beaten up -- he keeps fiddling with his playing cards and pulling tricks. Those cards are an obsession, a part of him. “They're kind of like worry beads for the character that I kind of incorporated,” said Piven at the time. That's exactly the kind of guy Obsopoeus was, only with wine instead of cards. When an influential man once offered to help Obsopoeus get a prestigious job, he replied that the advertised salary was so low, “it won’t even quench my thirst.” And when Obsopoeus asked Joachim Camerarius to blurb The Art of Drinking, Camerarius replied, If you publish this book, you won’t easily convince everyone of your sobriety (as you claim). ... People assume speech tracks one’s true feelings. In other words, thought Camerarius, everyone would assume Obsopoeus was an alcoholic because he wrote a poem in praise of drinking wine. It's inevitable. Events proved Camerarius right. A couple years later, Obsopoeus wrote another book and in it, he tucked away a tiny comment about drinking games: I wrote a lot about that topic in The Art of Drinking, and I hear a lot of people are trashing me behind my back for publishing it. They say I went too far. Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care. They can go on hating and criticizing me until they explode. That sounds deeply bitter, and it is, but it's also totally hilarious. Why? The tell is the phrase I translated here as "Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn't care." In Latin it's Haec non sunt curae Obsopoeo et Hippoclidi, literally, "Obsopoeus and Hippoclides don't care." In ancient Greece, Hippocleides was a young man who ruined his chance to marry a princess by getting drunk and acting stupid at a party. In his drunken... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
This is post #3 in the series. Click here for part one and here for part two. Pro tip: click on any picture in this series to find out more about it. Fun cocktail party fact: the word for drunkenness in ancient Greek is methe (pronounced méth-ee). Actually, you already knew that. How? Because it – or rather "she," since the noun is grammatically feminine – shows up in English in the words crystal meth and amethyst. (An amethyst is the gemstone you wear to keep the lady at bay.) Methe was never really an official goddess in ancient Greece, but since people do “worship” her, Greek artists thought she made a great allegory. What's more, that allegory works in two ways, since (like “drunkenness” in English) methe can mean either intoxication (getting drunk) or addiction (alcoholism). In The Art of Drinking, Obsopoeus exploits that ambiguity at several points, especially in the teaser he ends book one with: The next book depicts the haunting portraits and problems of Drunkenness, composed by me in classical verse. You, binge drinker, who are constantly getting hammered, look at them as if you were looking in a mirror, and see how truly disgraceful the sight is! Once you’ve seen Drunkenness, you should turn and run from her for all your life, if you love the glory of true sobriety. As he repeatedly says, Obsopoeus thinks getting buzzed or tipsy is okay, but getting drunk--hammered, blitzed--is wrong. It's a distinction worth bearing in mind. Moreover, in speaking of "portraits" here, Obsopoeus means what he says literally, but in a totally surprising way. He starts book two by referring to Apelles, one of the greatest of the "old master" painters of ancient Greece 2,500 years ago. Think Raphael, Michelangelo, Artemisia Gentilischi, and you're on the right track: Among the paintings of Apelles—those monuments of old—that learnèd Greece celebrates in its writings, his ingenious hand left behind a masterpiece. It surpasses both the Venuses he created—the one of her emerging naked from the waves of the sea, and the other for the people of Kos that he only managed to get a start on. I’ll describe that picture, though its excellence outdoes my song and its precious art defeats my verses. The picture at right is a Renaissance recreation by Titian of the first one of Apelles' lost paintings of Venus mentioned here, the "the Venus Anadyomene." He painted it around the year 1520, sixteen years before Obsopoeus wrote The Art of Drinking. Apelles' other lost painting of Venus, the "Aphrodite of Kos," was also recreated in the Renaissance by Botticelli in the 1480s. I'm sure you've seen it: Like Botticelli and Titian, Obsopoeus also wants to recreate a painting by Apelles. The difference is that instead of using pigments, he's going to use poetry. In formal terms, Obsopoeus is going to give us an ekphrasis. That's the fancy term for a poet's attempt to outdo the beauty of a painting by describing that painting in beautiful... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you! As for the pictures, all you need to do is click on ‘em. Each is hyperlinked to a Wikipedia page that identifies and contextualizes them. From:
Typepad HTML Email Very interesting, thank you! To judge from this link, Berne thought much along the same lines as Dr. Thomas Szasz. I’ll look into his work. From:
Social drinking can be a lot of fun. It can also be a major source of stress and anxiety, and a gateway to problem drinking. Not good. As I mentioned in my first post, the end of book one in The Art of Drinking discusses responsible drinking at social functions, while the entirety of book two is devoted to excess drinking. (I’ll discuss that in tomorrow’s post.) That structure suggests Obsopoeus was especially alert to the gateway aspect of social drinking, and that may explain why he devotes so much attention to the topic. He knew that work parties, holidays and weddings could be make-it-or-break-it events. Amazingly, Obsopoeus' advice for those occasions seems as wise and useful today as it was 500 years ago. Let me share some examples. He starts by stressing the importance of etiquette, beginning the moment you walk through the door. First and foremost, he says, keep it light – even if you're upset about something: If some hidden worry does happen to be gnawing at you, then lay your cross down the moment you step through the door or dispel it ASAP with a drink of wine—there’s no surer remedy for worries than alcohol. You'd be hard pressed to find a textbook offering advice like that today, but Obsopoeus is sure it's sensible. In his experience, a single glass of wine – if necessary – won't inevitably send you down an irreversible path. He then offers a long series of dos and don’ts, elaborating on each point. For example, Do Follow the Conversation. No other interest, no pet hobby or topic that you bring up on your own, should force people to follow your inappropriate digression if they aren’t into it. No, you follow them. Surrender your ego to your group of friends. That’s how you avoid antagonizing people and the fallout that comes with it. Do Say Nothing Rather than Something Stupid. Nothing exposes the inferiority of a subpar intellect faster than a tongue droning on unthinkingly. Many win a reputation for wisdom through their silence and then lose it through their stupidity. Ever met someone like that at a party? Some of this may come instinctively to you. Unfortunately, it doesn't come instinctively to everyone. If you find yourself scratching your head at any of these next points, I encourage you to read his elaboration of each one: Don’t Try to Win Arguments Don’t Try to Impress People with Your Intelligence Do Be Careful with Your Jokes Don’t Use Foul Language Don’t Make Jokes at Other People’s Expense Do Keep Your Bodily Functions under Control One of the best pieces of advice he offers is how to give a proper toast – and how to politely deflect peer pressure to join in if you're not into drinking. Here’s what you should say, he says: “My fine friend, don’t you know how the Homeric warlords drank wine? They’d drink as much as each one’s heart desired. Everyone should down drinks as they please! I... Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
It sounds heretical to even ask, doesn't it? In this world of ours, though, we’ve grudgingly come to admit that a few things that seem instinctive, really should be taught. Sex is one. Driving a car is another. In all my life, though, I’ve never heard of anyone offering a course in the art of drinking alcohol. I don't mean a twelve-step program to quit alcohol, mind you. I mean a course in how to enjoy alcohol responsibly, sustainably, and with discrimination. Controversial? Sure. Risky, dangerous, potentially disastrous? That too. But maybe it's not as nutty as it sounds – especially with so many of us stuck at home and drinking more than usual. What might drink education look like? In fact, it might look very much like the book I recently rediscovered and translated as How to Drink: A classical guide to the art of imbibing. And even though it's five centuries old, the ideas it contains are as insightful, timely and actionable as ever. You simply won't believe it. In much of the world, booze is an all-or-nothing thing. Thirty percent of us in the U.S. never touch the stuff. The other 70% of us do, with varying degrees of success. And for better or worse, virtually all of us learn about alcohol in the same hit-or-miss way that people once used to learn about driving cars or sex. Five hundred years ago in Germany, a man named Vincent Obsopoeus saw a better way. Obsopoeus (pronounced Job? So pay us!!) was a very experienced drinker, and he decided to do the world some good by systematizing his experiences as rules and committing them to paper. Incredibly, he wrote his treatise as a poem – a poem in classical Latin, the language spoken in ancient Rome 1,500 years before his time. Obsopoeus' poem became an instant classic. It was read and reprinted – until the book was suddenly banned. It disappeared for centuries and was eventually forgotten. No, Obsopoeus wasn't a rock star. He was the principal of an elite high school in Bavaria, and in his time he witnessed the birth of a poisonous new culture among young men of bingeing, hazing, peer pressure, and competitive drinking. German universities had fraternities way back then – and frat parties, too. Drinking competitions started popping up, where the goal was to make the other guy pass out. Sounding like a critic far ahead of his times, Obsopoeus regarded this flush of hardcore masculinity he was seeing as “toxic.” (He says so explicitly.) Worse, boozing was taking over professional life, too. The pressure to join in was overwhelming. Obsopoeus saw all this and sought to halt it. He lifted his pen and composed a three-part poem called De Arte Bibendi, The Art of Drinking. He was inspired by a famous three-part poem from ancient Rome called The Art of Love, the world's first- or second-oldest course in sex education. (The competitor for that honor is India's Kama Sutra.) The difference between... Continue reading
Posted Apr 13, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 10, 2020