In 451 AD, the Roman Empire became engaged in one of the bloodiest and most legendary battles in ancient history. The ferocious Attila and his forces (The Huns, Ostrogoths, Rugians, and several others) were making an attempt to invade Roman-controlled Gaul, and a sense of doom presided over the rusting empire. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, as it has come to be called, was a fight on a titanic scale. Estimates peg both sides as having between 50,000 to 80,000 men each. While Rome did win in the end, the cost of lives lost was beyond count. Maybe even worse is that, despite victory, this was one of the last wars that gasping empire would ever win before falling apart anyway a few decades later.
I bring it up because modern historians believe that it took place in the Champagne region of France. Yes, this patch of land, home to the most famous wine in the world, also happens to be one of the most battle-scarred regions on the planet. It seems that not just Attila, but everyone from neighboring Burgundy in the Middle Ages to the Germans in the 20th century had some sort of horrendous conflict in the fields and woodlands of this province. Authors Don & Petie Kladstrup observe nicely in their book on the subject:
“The greatest irony of all…is that Champagne, site of some of mankind’s bitterest battles, should be the birthplace of a wine the entire world equates with good times and friendship.”
Perhaps if you hold the Champagne grape up to the light you can see still the pain, the suffering, the simple seed of devastation that
floats in the core of that tiny fruit, that floats in that frothing goblet of liquid laughter. Within the beauty of every sunset, there is a greater, creeping darkness that takes the embers of the day out with the tide.
So now you’re probably wondering what all my negativity and cynicism has to do with art at all. What virtue could there be in remembering a past that, arguably, has no effect on the taste of champagne? The answer is this: acknowledging the simple devastation floating in the wine of life leads to an intense, emotional connection with the world on a daily basis. It is so easy to go a day without feeling anything at all. Get up, drink your coffee, go to work, make small talk, watch some TV. We like to reserve intense emotion for falling in love and for being born, for funerals and for Friday nights. We ignore the taste, the tone, of sound and color. Nuance fades under an ever-present background noise- layers and layers of dust over the boxes of old Christmas gifts, new antiques, fossils that were never even unearthed. The use of our senses doesn’t bring us to a heightened state- instead we choose to use them to pacify, stuff ourselves with food and drink that lets us sleep and forget the existence of pain, doom, and death. What a life to live.
There is a sublime yet subtle devastation to all things, one that we are taught to ignore. The ghosts of the battlefields, both of antiquity and yesterday morning, still call to us on our daily commute, whisper to the stone and trees, and make their palaces in the innards of our sewers and subways. We, the wandering seas of being, choose to cover these aching volcanoes with a single color and a single taste for fear of them. These tombs can be paved over, yes, but like cavities in teeth they ache whenever any sweetness touches them.
There is a romance in the ordinary; there come times when you are able to fall in love at just the smell of air or the warmth of coffee. But it comes at the cost of shaking hands with the ghosts of the future: the inevitable decay of beauty, of love, of taste and sight. So the small things become very large, and take on gravities all their own.
That all said, this is my manifesto:
I will make my wine from the vineyards of devastation,
for such deaths were always mine to die.