Liquid Incense

I must say I have never understood what the Playboy bunnies saw in Dr. Kissinger. Perhaps they’re professionally equipped to detect charm and wit where mere men miss it. Who knows, the long fluffy ears may contain hidden sensors programmed to relay subtle messages to secondary brains located in the bunnies’ gluteal powder puffs, which, when they are not using them to the same end as the brontosaurus did its rear brain—to regulate the wagging of its great tail—can then transmit in appropriate code to the State Department in Foggy Bottom.

Certainly one of the most delicious moments I ever heard on the BBC Home Service was an interview with Dr. Kissinger conducted by Jeremy Paxman, the Rottweiler of English political radio. It was a Monday morning, and the return leg of the school run. I had what MPR calls a “driveway moment” so powerful that I had to pull over. Dr. Kissinger clearly thought he had been invited to talk on the wireless so he could puff the sales of his new book. Instead he was asked some rather direct questions about the bombing of Cambodia. The scraping of the chair as the bodacious doctor rose to his feet was punctuated by Mr. Paxman’s running commentary: “Dr. Kissinger appears to be leaving … Bye, Dr. Kissinger.” Gee, those Brits are so polite.

I guess what irks me most about him, though, is the well-known Kissinger dictum on academic politics, namely that infighting in universities is so bitter because what is at stake is so insignificant. Insignificant to whom, one may ask. Intelligent folk give their lives to enterprises like the breeding of fruit-flies or the study of Shi’ite theology because they think them important (and you never know when such pure study may come in handy—Foggy Bottom could perhaps use a spot of Shi’ite theology). More to the point, pure research is an enterprise often lonely and always imaginative. That is why it engages the passions. When someone whose intimate life has been engaged from an early age with understanding the Middle Ages is told that professional mediaevalists do not actually need to know Latin, it is scarcely surprising that he suffers an acute sense of humor failure. Of such differences are academic disputes made. They may seem insignificant to folk like the erstwhile plenipotentiary, but they are bitter for the rather prosaic reason that they often involve principles that the participants care about passionately.

It is the same in churches. You can get good Christian folk to disagree about lots of things, from civil unions to the Doctrine of the Trinity. But in my experience the easiest way to incite a spirit of uncharitableness is incense; I am sure Uncle Screwtape would not disagree. For some folk, incense is insincere show, the reek of Rome, the epitome of vain repetition. For others, holy smoke is the prayer of the faithful rising up before God, swirling, shot through with sunlight, shared; they recall how early Christians witnessing the martyrdom of their comrades remarked on the sweet smell emanating from their seared flesh. Incense matters because it has to do with the way Christians pray, and that, presumably, is something they really care about.

For those who find incense makes them wheezy, let me suggest a method of appreciating it in liquid form. It comes in slim green bottles containing wine made from Carignan grapes by Cline Cellars of Contra Costa County in California. Carignan is a variety with few friends. It has long been widely planted in southwestern France, where it has generally been blended with other varieties to produce vin very ordinaire, promote hangovers and cirrhosis, and sustain full employment in the French agricultural sector. Carignan vines contributed copiously to the Common Market’s “wine lake,” and in recent times French growers have been encouraged to grub them up.

But where many Frenchmen have failed, Cline Cellars has made a distinctive, strong, dry red wine from Carignan grapes. I sipped it recently at a local hostelry alongside a plate of good oily spaghetti Bolognese. The acids cut right through the oils. But what was most remarkable was the smoky aroma that rose through the roof of the mouth directly from the tannins at the center of the taste. I have seldom met anything like it—the nearest thing I can think of is a nobly nutty, dry Oloroso sherry drunk a quarter-century ago. This is not a wine for everyone—bunnies, I am told, prefer champagne. But those who do like it should find it feeds the imagination. Give it a try.