Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

Six Dozen of Port

Many good people must have been sadly shocked to read of a certain recent bequest which has been recorded in the papers. The testator, a wealthy solicitor, directed his executors to buy six dozen of the best vintage port for the benefit of ‘his good friend and partner,’ Mr. Blank, in the hope that in drinking it Mr. Blank would be reminded of the cordial relations that had existed between them for many years.

I can imagine, as I say, that horror of varying degrees of intensity will be aroused by these dispositions. There are all the people who hate life, who have many names and styles and titles. They call themselves intellectuals, or, sometimes, the intelligentsia; I suppose because they have no intelligent understanding or perception of anything whatever. When you talk to them about literature they will be cross with you if you suggest that the thing exists or has ever existed outside Russia — always excepting, of course, one or two honoured and ‘conscientious’ English names. If you talk to them about education, they will laugh anything except physical science out of court, reserving always psycho-analysis, which turns the whole world of waking and dreaming into a peculiarly putrid and silly form of nightmare nastiness. But the real mark of this sect is their hatred of life. That is a large order, you will say. So it is. But a lady of my acquaintance put the matter very clearly once before one of the most distinguished members of the sect, a gentleman who never touches good meat or good drink and thinks the habit of smoking a disgusting vice. The lady had been listening to the Intellectual for some time, and then she turned and said: ‘I tell you what, George, what would do you good would be to be brought to bed with twins; then you might know something about life!’ The lady was proceeding per impossible, of course; but I think one sees her point. The sect in question argues most acutely against this, and that, and the other, and argues so well that you are confounded by the strength of its position — till you perceive that what they object to is not this, or that, or the other, but life itself, and, indeed, life is full of objectionable incidents, but it is all the life we know anything about.

Need I say that to the intellectuals, this bequest of six dozen of the very best port will be highly offensive? They are not all teetotallers, perhaps, but they would be agreed to holding port to be at best a very trivial thing. I remember one of them being highly irritated by one of the most savoury volumes of modern times, Professor Saintsbury’s Notes from a Cellar Book, to read which is almost — but not quite — as rare a treat as the drinking of the choice and curious delicacies in wine that it describes. ‘A record of a state of things which has fortunately quite passed away’; in these words, or in words to that effect, did the Intellectual describe the golden volume of one who is learned, it is true, in wine, but learned also in the literatures of the world, a true Professor of the humaner letters. These people, with certain exceptions, always speak with scorn of the Classics. If we get beaten in a foreign market, if the current goes wrong on ‘the Met.,’ if anything happens that ought not to happen, they say that it is because our educational system is all wrong, since we teach our boys Latin and Greek instead of physical science. Consequently, as despisers of what the Irish hedge schoolmaster called ‘the haythen mythology,’ these people know nothing about the story of Dionysos, the Wine God; how he went all over the world, civilizing the nations by teaching them the culture of the vine, and they have not heard the moral fable of King Pentheus, who resisted the civilizing mission of Dionysos, tried to keep the vine out of his kingdom, and, as a natural consequence, went mad and came to a dreadful end; being, in fact, torn to pieces. This sounds nonsense, doesn’t it? But it has just been happening in our own day. Russia went dry — and then Russia went mad and Bolshevist; and even our advanced ‘thinkers’ are coming to the conclusion that Bolshevism is a very dreadful end indeed. Russia has been torn to pieces. As for the United States of America, a distinguished American statesman has declared recently that the increase of crime in the States since the coming of Prohibition has been terrific and terrifying.

And, by the way, I have been reading lately about two recent enactments of the Legislature of the Sovereign Commonwealths of Kentucky and Georgia. Kentucky has declared that Evolution is contrary to the laws of the State: Georgia enacts that the man who goes out fishing without his wife’s leave is a felon, and that the punishment of his crime shall be a sentence of five years’ penal servitude. As I was saying, Pentheus was very odd in his manner towards the end.

But, as I say, the Intellectual is by no means always a teetotaller. His position is rather that meat and drink are matters of no importance, that they are unworthy the consideration of a sage, and that a man who thinks much of his dinner and his glass of vintage port is an inferior person who thinks of meat and drink because he has no mind to think of anything higher. That is why the intelligentsia dislike Dickens, who loves nothing better than to describe a feast and the joys of good eating and good drinking. ‘This is an inferior mind,’ they say. ‘If you would see true greatness read Luntic Kolnyatsch in the original Gibrisch’— with Mr. Max Beerbohm’s leave. ‘He specializes in skin-disease, vermin and suicide; subjects fit for the genius of the modern world.’ All I can say is that it strikes me as a very strange frame of mind. You have something like it in the seventeenth-century Puritans, who hated a great number of noble and beautiful and goodly things; you have, perhaps, the original of it all in the fifth-century Manichees, who founded their faith on a logical basis, at all events. They were persuaded that the world with all that therein is was made by the devil, and therefore that everything in the world was very evil. A really thoroughgoing Manichee could not break a crust of bread without uttering a long apology for doing so, which was his grace before meat. This was all very well and consistent; but the intelligentsia have no very fervid belief in the devil; so why do they either hate, or, at least, despise old vintage port and, in general, all the good things of life? Remember the Kreutzer Sonata, by Tolstoi, the ancestor of the whole family of Kolnyatsch. Here you have a book which strikes not at this detail or that; not at the bottle of old port, or the good cigar, or the roast partridge, but at the very source of all life. It is thoroughgoing, certainly, for if the Kreutzer Sonata doctrine were carried out we should be delivered from all our troubles, since there would soon be none of us left. Tolstoi held, as it seems, that no children should be born into the world; presumably, therefore, he held that existence in itself is an evil, thus approximating to the doctrine of Buddhism. Well, Buddhism is of India, and Manes, the founder of the Manichees, was a Persian: the East has always been inclined to teetotalism; that is to the denial of the joy of life.

You will remember, of course, that highly popular best seller Rasselas, by the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, is speaking:

‘By what means,’ said the Prince, ‘are the Europeans thus powerful;
or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade
and conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their
coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their
natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring
us thither.’

The puzzle is addressed to the sage, Imlac, the prince’s philosophic counsellor. Imlac, with some circumlocution, gives it up, and Johnson himself, commenting on the passage many years after, did the same. He said that he could see no real explanation of the remarkable facts.

The explanation is, of course, easy enough. The East, as I said, has always been inclined to teetotalism, with all that is implied in that term.

Let us be warned in time. Woe to us if we take to despising good drink while the myriads of millions of China take to strong ale and vintage port. Our day will be done. ‘Mene, Mene’ will be written on the wall. Let us rather honour the memory and imitate the example of the good man of Gray’s Inn, who left six dozen bottles of the finest port to his old friend. I am sure that he was a good man. If a man talks to me of the sacred cause of Humanity, I lock up my few silver spoons. If he speaks of Liberty I know that he has a Bill in his pocket by which it will be made penal to be out of bed after ten p.m. But he who speaks well of port is, as the Greeks said of their best men, beautiful and good.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39