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The Philosopher’s Plant 9.0: Hegel’s Grapes

During his extensive travels throughout Europe, Hegel wrote letters to his wife, Marie, recounting what had happened in his voyages.

On a pleasant afternoon of September 24, 1822, he found himself in the West Prussian town of Koblenz. We can vividly imagine the great dialectician exactly the way he describes himself at the opening of the letter he composed on that day: sitting by the window, contemplating a splendid view of the Rhine, and “eating grapes — and what grapes! the sweetest and the tastiest in the world —…” When time comes to bring the letter to a close, the grapes suddenly reappear on the page. Along with Marie, we learn that Hegel is tired after an arduous walk to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress on the east bank of the Rhine, opposite Koblenz. Although his hunger is already quelled with the delicious grapes, he will now have a real meal, so as to replenish his energy. Just as writing the letter was a lovely spiritual intermezzo, so snacking on grapes was a welcome physical interlude between a vigorous exercise and a full dinner.

Quite independently of these faits divers, grapes are a felicitous example of a dialectical fruit. Grapes that are past their prime undergo fermentation; instead of simply rotting, they shed their initial form only to be reborn again and, with a little assistance from humans, to metamorphose into wine. In the transition from grapes to wine, nature is dialectically transformed into culture, which is not coincidentally intimately tied to agriculture and, more specifically, to viniculture. Rather than signaling a separation from nature, culture is the cultivation and processing (here, the distillation) of nature’s fruits. The domain of Spirit (Geist) becomes accessible through the production of spirits.

Wine, to be sure, causes inebriation, seduces us, and leads us astray from the seriousness of work, which may be credited with having created the space for cultural activity. This inner contradictoriness, palpable in the clash between the “causes” and the effects of wine, is responsible for its conceptual beauty, however: while laying the inroads into culture, it is also an escape route from what we call civilization. In vino veritas acquires its perversely dialectical sense of, at once, a womb and a tomb of culture.

When we press grapes, we squeeze out of them more than their juice, along with which flows the very logic of the Hegelian dialectics. As Hegel construes it, dialectics is a tortuous journey through a series of negations inherent in the negated thing itself, negations that, at the same time, cancel out, preserve, and elevate the negated. The technical word for this process is sublation, or, in German, Aufhebung. In fermenting, grapes lose their natural shape and cancel themselves out, even as their juicy essence gets preserved and elevated, both literally and metaphorically — in the form of spirits and Spirit. Realizing their sweet essence in the state of ripeness, they must abandon their identity as grapes to keep something of themselves intact. The natural immediacy of a plant is sacrificed for the sake of a cultural mediation.

Dialectically speaking, we find it challenging to recognize ourselves in what is external to us and, even more so, in what has sprung up without the labor of human cultivation — for instance, a wild apple tree. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel states that a basic human and animal mode of confronting this foreign presence of an object is to eat it up. (No wonder that babies and puppies put whatever they encounter in their vicinity in their mouths!) Bridging the distance that separates us from material things, we eat (or drink) them up. This, in Hegel’s words, is “the most elementary school of wisdom,” where students devour bread and wine following “the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus,” even though “they have still to learn the secret meaning of the eating of bread and the drinking of wine.” To eat and drink — emblematically bread and wine — is to behave as dialecticians do. How so?

Let’s reflect a little further on the dialectical principle of negation. We make a thing our own and appropriate it all the better, the more we negate its immediate givenness, or, the manner in which it stands over and against us. A thorough act of appropriation is the one that destroys the appropriated object, morphing it into an integral part of the proprietor. Is this not what happens in digestion? Biting into grapes, we destroy them, but do so productively, transforming them into the glucose, vitamins, and minerals that nourish our bodies. The vegetal “other” becomes a part and parcel of the “same,” the eater, who, in negating its otherness, elevates it to what Hegel would deem to be a higher end, namely that of sustaining a human body. The mystery of eating is, precisely, this event of establishing a hidden dialectical identity of the eater and the eaten: I am what I eat… “The most elementary school of wisdom” designates the lowest level of dialectics, where a sequence of negations and sublations is wholly physical and material, if not animalistic. “And all of Nature,” Hegel adds, “like the animals, celebrates these open Mysteries which teach the truth about sensuous things.”

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There is, certainly, a marked difference between the eating of grapes and the drinking of wine. In contrast to humans, animals do not engage in viniculture and, indeed, do not prepare food for consumption, except for (in some cases) chewing and regurgitating it for their offspring. In the wine, the grape has already become other to itself; the beverage is, as it were, self-digested prior to its being broken down in our livers. Cooking, too, accelerates the breakdown of foodstuffs (their own self-negation) by means of the heat, mimicking temperature increase in the course of fermentation. This other “school of wisdom” is culinary!

Hegel, in his turn, wants us to graduate from the relatively elementary schools to those esoteric circles where the “secret meaning” of bread-eating and wine-drinking is taught. You will have guessed that, here, the German dialectician gestures toward Christian symbolism, according to which bread is the body and wine — the blood of Christ. How do we pass from Bacchus to Jesus? And what does this passage mean?

In the Eucharistic mystery, added onto and exceeding the mystery of digestion, wine is supposedly transubstantiated into divine blood. In other words, the other, whom we consume when we drink this substance, is not a vegetal but a divine other, not lower but higher than ourselves, the drinkers. The inversion is complete if, as Augustine once formulated this, we are eucharistically digested into Christ as soon as we partake of his flesh and blood. The higher other is, moreover, someone who has self-sacrificially given his blood and his earthly life for us. The Eucharist is both the bodily and the symbolic memory of this sacrifice, mirrored here below in the memory of the grapes that lingers in the wine and in the traces of sunshine together with the chemical composition of the soil that persist in the grapes.

So, the transition from Bacchus to Jesus is a passage from physical to spiritual digestion. Above all, it is a crucial leap from consciousness to self-consciousness: from a confrontation with an external object of the senses (the eater and the grapes) in the first instance to a conversion of consciousness itself into its own object (the eater and herself) in the second.

Somewhat densely, Hegel writes:

“But what is disclosed to consciousness is still only absolute, i.e., abstract Spirit, which is this simple essence, not Spirit as it is in its own self; in other words, it is only immediate Spirit, the Spirit of Nature. Consequently, its self-conscious life is only the mystery of bread and wine, of Ceres and Bacchus, not of the other, strictly higher, gods whose individuality includes as an essential moment self-consciousness as such. Therefore, Spirit has not yet sacrificed itself as self-conscious Spirit to self-consciousness, and the mystery of bread and wine is not yet the mystery of flesh and blood.”

Bacchus and Ceres are, like the wine and the bread themselves, suspended between immediate nature and pure Spirit; they are the Spirits of nature, incompletely released from its domineering clasp. To be so released, one would need to sacrifice oneself, giving up natural, biological existence for the sake of spiritual life. Dying to nature, one is reborn in Spirit. For Hegel, such a death, albeit symbolic, is indispensable to the formation of self-consciousness, where the confrontation with an external object gives way to a confrontation with oneself as other to oneself. Only after Spirit attains the consciousness of itself does the “mystery of bread and wine” turn into the “mystery of flesh and blood.” Jesus’s self-sacrifice provides Hegel with a helpful model for the formation of self-conscious subjectivity, no longer separate from its objects because the object of self-consciousness is consciousness itself. That’s why the bread and the wine, full of fermented spirits, are spiritualized as parts of the divine body. And that’s why, partaking of these spiritual products, we actually consume ourselves as other to ourselves, metaphorically letting our subjectivity ferment and rise, gas-like, to the rank of self-consciousness.