Élan Reisner

In Light of the Wineglass


ISSUE 23 | INTOXICANTS | DEC 2012

“His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears.”
“According to the great alchemist, Pierre de Boniface, the diamond rendered a man invisible, and the agate of India made him eloquent. The cornelian appeased anger, and the hyacinth provoked sleep, and the amethyst drove away the fumes of wine.”
          —Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Vermeer’s The Glass of Wine presents a cordial scene, in every sense of the word. A gallant cavalier—a musician, by the looks of the cittern propped on the nearby chair,—stands beside the young woman he has come to serenade. She sits, composed, holding an empty wine glass to her mouth. His hand is still fastened to the white wine jug from which he just poured her the taste. The image depicts the delicate moment of a double expectation: two expectations, intimately bound by the conventions of courtship. The woman, having graciously accepted her suitor’s offering, lets the taste of the wine linger in her mouth before passing judgment. He, meanwhile, looks to her eyes, awaiting the visible sign of her reaction.

The woman sits in judgment. She is free to choose entirely according to her pleasure. And what are her choices? The woman’s eyes are obscured by the gleam on the wine glass, which denies us an important sign. Eyes are revealing; in giving away the object of their gaze, they promise access to the gazer’s mind. Nevertheless, even the most legible indexical sign keeps certain secrets. Even if the young woman’s eyes were fixed directly on her suitor’s, we would not necessarily be in a better position to read her mind. In this respect, that her eyes are obscured merely thematizes an essentially undecidable ambiguity.

But the question remains: what are her choices? The arrangement of the painting suggests two hypothetical lines of sight. Looking straight ahead, the woman would be see the stained glass window, on which is portrayed the personified figure of Temperance: a young woman holding a level and bridle. The illuminated window stands in stark contrast with the dark pastoral landscape hanging on the wall behind her swarthy suitor. Her choice is thus riven between the lofty and noble, and the sensual and mundane. While the positioning of these signs in the picture-plane does so clearly confirm the hierarchy that we might expect (the noble elevated above the base), other visual elements suggest their comparative valences. The gilt frame of the painting doubles the plain wooden frame of the window. The former is highly visible, diverting our interest from the inscrutable content it embellishes; the latter is almost completely understated, nearly inconspicuous beside the glass panels it holds in place and literally overshadowed by the light of the realm to which it grants access. Judging by the frames, there can be little doubt which of the two panels is vain and which substantial.

The interpretation that I have adumbrated takes the painting to depict a moment of judgment. Which will it be: the high road or the low road? And yet several elements complicate this interpretation by putting the possibility of judgment—this time, within the frame—into question. To begin with, the wine glass obscuring the woman’s face doesn’t merely interfere with our vision. It would also have to interfere with hers. Granting that her eyes are even open (a question we’ll return to), what could she possibly see through the distorting lens of the wineglass? One answer is that she can’t see anything, especially not the visual reminder of prudent judgment that’s staring her in the face. In which case there is little question of judgment here at all. The young woman’s fate is already sealed, or at best a matter of chance: whom will she see first—Temperance or Temptation—once she lowers the glass? On this interpretation, the main question that the painting raises is not which she will choose, but how and even whether she is able to choose at all. The virtue of temperance, it will be remembered, is itself the principle of proper judgment: self-restraint is good because it enables one to be just, to be correct in one’s judgements. There’s something decidedly Calvinist about this logic: if she sides with Temperance, her choice will have been just; if she succumbs to her seducer, she will not have chosen freely. In this light, it’s beginning to look as though it is the woman whom the painting subjects to judgment.

And then of course there’s the wine itself, the ingested substance whose invisible presence in the young woman’s bloodstream organizes the whole scene. The ambiguities of judgment that riddle the painting hinge on the juridical problem of the intoxicant. On the one hand, it’s impossible for someone to subject an intoxicating substance to a pure or perfectly just judgment of taste, because the taste itself tampers with one’s power of judgment. On the other hand, as a disinhibitor, the intoxicant enables the act of judgment that might otherwise not occur at all. In this respect, the wine isn’t an intoxicant but rather a restorative (a “fix”), which provides the ailing faculty of judgment with a corrective supplement. This essential possibility finds a sort of confirmation in the series of interpretations that experience the scene as a moment of beneficence: taken naturalistically, the wine would be the innocent and generous gift of the benevolent suitor; taken allegorically, it would be the sign of the blessed sacrament, which redeems the original temptation it seems to repeat. Indeed, whether the wine is a poison or a cure, intoxicating or detoxifying, is the first judgment that the The Glass of Wine meddles with.

This prior uncertainty, which could also be called a sort of original intoxication—an intoxication which both enables and corrupts one’s ability to judge whether the intoxicant is indeed an intoxicant—is linked in the painting to the experience of visual, and specifically aesthetic, perception. A moment ago I mentioned in passing that the painting permits both naturalistic and allegorical interpretations. This ambiguity is also the painting’s subject matter. From my earlier discussion of the two frames, it’s not so far a leap to propose that of all the objects in the picture-plane, the window and the landscape bear a sort of privileged status. As figures for the painting of which they are parts, they comprise a meta-artistic element and provoke a sort of self-reflexivity in the viewer, as though we encounter our own act of looking within painting we’re looking at.

Furthermore, the two frames within the frame instantiate opposing modes of visual representation (allegory and naturalism), whose presences within the painting hinder our ability to pass neutral judgment on the question of which mode the painting as a whole belongs to. For if we were to subsume the painting under either of the two modes that it includes, not only would we blind ourselves to the line of sight that our choice necessarily excludes; more crucially, we would also corner ourselves into condemning the instance of the disfavored mode according to the logic of the favored one. Such is the injudicable play of valences that the three surfaces (the painting, the window, the landscape) mirror between one another: in a principally naturalistic plane, a token of allegory is dubious (beyond the window is just the street, not heaven); in a principally allegorical plane, a token of naturalism is evil (the landscape leads to hell, not the country).

This structured play of substitutions and reversals, which ensures the misconduct of any judgment, is both held together and in a certain manner displaced by a fourth surface within the picture plane, an innermost surface which doubles, contains, and warps the outermost. I hope that I haven’t given the impression of believing that because the painting depicts a problem of perspective, an interpretation may ignore certain elements in the painting with impunity. If I remained silent any longer on the optical ramifications of the empty wineglass, my selective blindness would not only be criminal – it would also be eminently interpretable.1 Obviously, the wineglass is a metonym for the suitor’s act of pouring, the young woman’s act of swallowing, in truth for the entire interaction that the painting freezes in the midst of its unfolding. Further—and this was what first brought the problematic of vision and blindness to our attention—the wineglass is positioned as a blinder, both for the viewer and for the young woman.2 In this role, the wineglass is, as I said earlier, the visible double of the now invisible intoxicant that it purveyed.

We are now in a position to elaborate this interpretation. We provisionally took note of the streak of light gleaming on the surface of the wineglass mainly as a central instance of a thematic opacity. Doing so, we disregarded the fact that the gleam on the wineglass is, more specifically, a blinding glare. I have written previously about the image of glare, in particular connection with St. Anselm’s frustrated desire to know/see God. We could summarize this link between knowing and seeing in a more general way: one’s reason cannot attain certain knowledge about the transcendental conditions of knowing in exactly the same way that one’s eyes cannot bear to look directly at the sun. The result in both cases is dazzlement, which, unlike other impediments to vision and to knowledge, ironically confirms the existence and status of that which was supposed to be incomprehensible. This deeply entrenched logic belongs at least to the Platonic-Christian tradition, and it is legible not only in Plato, Augustine, and Anselm, but also in Descartes (whose Meditations on First Philosophy was published, incidentally, around a decade before Vermeer painted “The Glass of Wine”). As a type of dazzle, the glare on the wineglass reflects this logic and thus participates in the allegorical line of sight that leads to the (onto-)theological light/source streaming through the allegorical window.

But we should go even further. The glare is just one effect produced by an object that, like the window and the landscape, typifies visual mediation. Indeed, the wineglass represents visual mediation in its purest form, carrying all of the opposing properties and valences that the painting splits between the window and the landscape. To see through a glass is not always to see darkly.3 A warped, transparent surface can obfuscate but also illuminate, distort but also bring into focus. As a species of lens, the wineglass is even a figure for the aesthetic of naturalism, which wouldn’t have been able to develop as it did without contemporaneous advances in the science of optics. Additionally, if the wineglass incorporates the properties of the allegorical window panel and the naturalistic landscape painting, it also doubles the wine itself, reproducing optically what the drink produces psychologically. Just as the wine is both poison and remedy, the glass is both (as it were) beer goggle and corrective prosthetic.

The rim of the wineglass is the third frame within the frame. In that from a certain angle it contains the other two, it doubles the painting’s outermost frame, introducing another element into the play of crooked judgments already described. How could we integrate the prior presence of this layer of pure mediation into our account of the painting’s self-framing? If it were not too injudicious to make this leap, perhaps one could say that the wineglass incarnates that paratoxical condition that we hit upon earlier: a state of something like intoxication before sobriety; a preexistent element of corruption that both first renders sobriety vulnerable to intoxication and also, for the same reason, makes it impossible to pass absolutely sober judgment on one’s own intoxication level.

The wineglass might offer certain insights into the nature of this condition. Since the painting links the problem of intoxicated judgment to a parallel problem of mediated perception, we should expect to find in the figure of the wineglass an optical “effect” that doubles this ineradicable “intoxication.” I put these words in quotation marks as a precaution against a certain misunderstanding. Insofar as the “ex-” of “effect” [ex + facere] and the “in-” of “intoxication” seem to demarcate interior and exterior positions and assign active and passive roles, they are fundamentally inadequate to the concepts that we are after, which, as the case of the toxic root of sobriety should make clear, operate at the ground level, indeed as the ground beneath the ground, of the experiences of judgment and of vision for which the differences between activity and passivity and interiority and exteriority are always already taken as givens (permitting one to speak, for example, of being “above” or “under the influence”). If the wineglass illustrates a parallel instance in the sphere of optical perception, it will not be an exogenous phenomenon or condition that the wineglass introduces per se into an otherwise unmediated and pristine experience of vision. Rather, it will give form to the deceptive element at the root of seeing that makes even someone of the highest natural visual acuity capable of oversight.

It seems to me that the sign of this radical duplicity is the glass’s semi-transparency. In order to appreciate that the glass is not merely an opaque blinder but also a warping lens, it was necessary to emphasize its properties as a translucent or refractive medium. But in doing so we overshadowed its properties a reflective medium. The wineglass can also be seen as a mirror. This possibility would inscribe something resembling Vanitas at the origin of Temperantia. If one can only see an other through the mediating lens of one’s own image, not only is the risk of a case of mistaken identities (another for oneself or oneself for another) unavoidable, but in order to deny the risk its radical necessity and recast it as an external contingency, one would either have to deny the possibility of self-recognition altogether or attribute it to a doubly external provenance (for instance, original sin). On the other hand, affirming the priority of this original specularity would require acknowledging examples of self-reflexion that cannot be reduced to some form of relation between a subject and an object. One such example would be self-seduction.4

I propose that we call the self-reflexive root of specularity (before perspective) and toxicity (before sobriety) autoxication. “Autoxication” rather than “auto-intoxication” because “auto-intoxication” suggests a special case of intoxication where the (intoxicating) agent also happens to be the (intoxicated) patient. By contrast, autoxication is that on the basis of which any sober action (and, a fortiori, any drunken passion) is at all possible. For the same reason, autoxication should not be mistaken for an original lack, illness, error, or fault, and still less should it be taken as a prelapsarian wholeness, health, truth, or righteousness. Autoxication enabled the Fall, to be sure, but only by having tricked our progenitors into mistaking themselves for sober.

As I suggested just before, the story of the Fall attempts to dissimulate autoxication by, on the one hand, promoting fallibility to a fundamental condition (we are all born in sin, regardless of our actions), and, on the other hand, ascribing the source of this necessary fallibility to an original and transcendental act of sin, which was contingent: in order to poison mankind’s essence, the intoxicating apple had to have been freely chosen. This solution has the benefit of separating corruption from purity, error from truth, evil from good, and so on, but—like every devil’s bargain—it carries a fatal condition. In this case, the source of corruption and error is exorcised from the sphere of purity and truth by deporting the problem of original fallibility to a transcendental plane, where it is covered over by a mystifying paradox: on the one hand, Eve was beguiled by the malicious serpent into eating the forbidden fruit; on the other, it is Eve who must be reckoned guilty for her lapse. But how could this be so? If we emphasize that Eve was tricked (rather than simply forced), then she can perhaps be faulted for having fallen for the trick, which means having let herself fall, as though by dropping herself. But this begs the question of the origin of her criminal gullibility. Is it something that came from without? For example, something that the serpent slipped her beforehand in order to make her culpable of her own seduction? Or was it a preexistent, internal condition—a self-reflexive liability that she was responsible for keeping contained? Neither possibility is acceptable: the former would exonerate Eve of guilt, the latter would impeach her state of perfect innocence, and with it, Eden’s.5

Less than ten years after Vermeer painted The Glass of Wine, Milton resolved—which is to say, displaced—the paradox in a particularly striking way. On Milton’s reckoning, if Eve is to be faulted for having released error into Eden, it is because she never quite belonged there in the first place. Paradise Lost offers a remarkable account of Eve’s induction into Eden, which anticipates, actuates, and justifies her seduction out of it. As goes without saying, the interest that this solution holds for us lies not in its efficacy, but in its strategy: specifically, the way in which it imagines the threshold that Eve has to cross “into” Eden. This original threshold is not topographical, that is, it does not simply demarcate an inside from an outside. The threshold is rather (what I’ll call) spectral. It’s a bit like the “critical angle” of the Snell-Descartes law of refraction, which describes how a ray of light reacts when it encounters the surface of a refractive medium: if the light hits the surface at an angle of incidence less than the “critical angle,” it passes through as though the medium were glass; if it hits at a greater angle, it reflects off as though the surface were a mirror. In other words, the threshold alters Eve’s behavior in relation to the topographical boundaries of Eden. Milton’s image for this spectral threshold is a reflective body of water, a liminal surface entirely enclosed within the garden walls that nevertheless opens onto what lies beyond. In order to join Adam and take up her appointed position within the closed domain of Eden, Eve must both forsake the liminal portal and repudiate its power.

Eve tells the story of her induction as part of the performance of this repudiation. As a vow of loyalty to Adam and obedience to God, Eve recalls her first confused moments of life, and recounts—penitently, and with a tone of bemusement at her early folly—the initial reluctance with which she joined her husband’s side. I’ll be forgiven my failure to resist printing the relevant passage in full:

                    … O thou for whom
And from whom I was formd flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head, what thou hast said is just and right.
For wee to him indeed all praises owe,
And daily thanks, I chiefly who enjoy
So farr the happier Lot, enjoying thee
Præeminent by so much odds, while thou
Like consort to thy self canst no where find.
That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awak’t, and found my self repos’d
Under a shade of flours, much wondring where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issu’d from a Cave and spread
Into a liquid Plain, then stood unmov’d
Pure as th’ expanse of Heav’n; I thither went
With unexperienc’t thought, and laid me downe
On the green bank, to look into the cleer
Smooth Lake, that to me seemd another Skie.
As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A Shape within the watry gleam appeard
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleas’d I soon returnd,
Pleas’d it returnd as soon with answering looks
Of sympathie and love; there I had fixt
Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warnd me, What thou seest,
What there thou seest fair Creature is thy self,
With thee it came and goes: but follow me,
And I will bring thee where no shadow staies
Thy coming, and thy soft imbraces, hee
Whose image thou art, him thou shalt enjoy
Inseparablie thine, to him shalt beare
Multitudes like thy self, and thence be call’d
Mother of human Race: what could I doe,
But follow strait, invisibly thus led?
Till I espi’d thee, fair indeed and tall,
Under a Platan, yet methought less faire,
Less winning soft, less amiablie milde,
Then that smooth watry image; back I turnd,
Thou following cryd’st aloud, Return faire Eve,
Whom fli’st thou? whom thou fli’st, of him thou art,
His flesh, his bone; to give thee being I lent
Out of my side to thee, neerest my heart
Substantial Life, to have thee by my side
Henceforth an individual solace dear;
Part of my Soul I seek thee, and thee claim
My other half: with that thy gentle hand
Seisd mine, I yielded, and from that time see
How beauty is excelld by manly grace
And wisdom, which alone is truly fair. (4.440-491)

I will limit my analysis to a few pertinent observations, which will lead back to the problem of autoxication and hopefully leave us in a still better condition to take in The Glass of Wine. First, Eve tells the story of her induction into Eden as a narrative of self-restoration. The event evidently disabused her of the illusory wholeness she had found in her narcissistic romance, and replaced the superficial unity of a purely self-reflexive relation with the authentic unity of a relation to an other who is also the original source and proper end of her being. Second, the optical illusion is linked to a number of grave dangers. Not only the danger of eternal stupefaction posed by the false promise of an ungraspable desideratum (“there I had fixt / Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire / Had not a voice thus warnd me...”), but also the danger of mistaking image for reality, shadow for object, surface for substance, body for soul, etc., which could beguile one into taking the lowest and most corrupt for the highest and most pure. Eve says that the surface of the lake was as “Pure as th’ expanse of Heav’n”—it is precisely the equivocation of her word “pure” which spells her doom: on the one hand, the lake seemed, falsely, to possess the purity of heaven; on the other, the cause of the false semblance was the (indeed) celestial purity the water’s surface. Only a perfectly true mirror can mislead one into taking for present the object that it merely represents. Hence it is only by virtue of its participation in the purity of heaven that the surface of the water can be mistaken for what merely reflects. Whence the absolute naïveté of Eve’s error: she simply followed her pure desire for the heavenliest phenomenon, with no concern whatsoever for its external reality. Third, Eve does not emerge from her state of “unexperienc’t thought” of her own accord. Nor was it, as Eve at first claims, the admonition of the divine voice that persuaded her to forsake her own enchanting “shadow” and embrace the one “whose image” she is. On the contrary, Eve had to be physically forced into the proper perspective by the appropriating hand of her ontological creditor.

These elements conspire to neutralize autoxication, to make it tolerable by the organism of Eden. Accordingly, the contradictions they generate could be considered the effects of an autoimmune reaction. Consider Eve’s innocence. On the one hand, it is so absolute, so “unexperienc’d,” that she is perfectly insensible to the differences between seeming and being, self and other, ignorance and knowledge. Hence her dependence upon an external force for edifying correction. On the other hand, concomitant with this excessive innocence is the risk of gullibility, the essential possibility of admitting an agent of corruption without even registering the invasion. In this respect, Eve’s vulnerability to her own intoxicating image—a capacity that she comes to disvalue and disavow, but can never immunize herself against, since doing so would, ironically, compromise her purity—enables her seduction by Satan in Book 9 (it is not incidental that Satan begins by appealing to Eve’s vanity). As such, Eve’s autoxication contaminates Eden well before she and Adam fall under the spell of the poisonous fruit, which “[a]s with new Wine intoxicated both.”

The double bind embodied in the paradox of Eve’s purity (insofar her breach is possible, she is already corrupt, and yet if she weren’t exposed to corruption, her innocence would be impure) is the symptom of paradise’s autoimmunity, a genetic disorder whose etiology we have begun to analyze. It remains to be asked whether developing a tolerance against autoxication is at all possible, or whether the attempt to do is so doomed to attack precisely that which it seeks to protect. Insofar as the concept of tolerance presupposes the attribution of a negative valence the element in need of toleration, it is perhaps impossible. But in the light of the foregoing speculation, The Glass of Wine tempts me to see another possibility: what if the young woman couldn’t resist insisting on pouring the drink for herself?


1 I gladly invite my readers to diagnose the zones of blindness in my interpretation that I will not have the chance to remedy myself. Though it’s patently absurd to try to catalogue the objects to which one has turned a blind eye, I suspect that my all but total neglect of the wine jug and, for that matter, the hands and eyes of the suitor, bears silent witness to the existence of structures in this critical mise-en-abîme that remain to be clarified.

2 In the interest of full disclosure to my optometrists, I should add that I have also failed to take note of the fact that the wineglass obscures the suitor’s vision. The ramifications of these blind spots are no doubt vast.

3 “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (King James Version, 1 Cor. 12.10-13). The question of whether the “glass” spoken of here is actually a mirror warrants a level of attention that I won’t be able to give it here. Suffice it to say that whatever the word’s intended meaning (the original Greek ἔσοπτρον [esoptron: literally “an in-sight”] is also ambiguous), the passage devalues mediated vision as imperfect, incomplete, and immature with respect to true vision, which would be the unmediated experience of mutual presence. There is much more to say, especially concerning the relation between maturity and mutuality, whose common element is, perhaps, symmetry. A speculative interpretation, in order to aggravate a symptomatic paradox: at present we see asymmetrically, as though through a one-way mirror, which permits us to be observed while blinding us to anything outside of ourselves; eventually we’ll be able to see symmetrically, that is, as though through a bi-directional medium so transparent that it lets us observe our observer with the virtual unity of one’s own face faced in a (true) mirror.

4 Another would be what is conventionally called “denial,” i.e. self-secrecy. If it seems as though giving this possibility due acknowledgement is easier done than I have led myself to believe, we should ask ourselves whether our talk of “keeping secrets from ourselves” would still be recognizable without at least implicit reference to a relation between the conscious and the unconscious mind that preserves, untouched, elements of the structure that we are trying to displace—for example by assigning to one an active and to the other a passive role (it doesn’t matter which), or by organizing the scene of self-reflexion around the ideal poles of self-opacity and self-transparency. A guiding question toward the theorization of the kind of self-secrecy that I have in mind might be: what would it take to be able to speak of “keepings from ourselves” in such a way that we could also speak of “sharing secrets with ourselves”—which is to say, without their necessarily becoming “open secrets” or even ceasing to be secrets altogether?

5 It should be clear that it is not merely according to the logic of (the highly parodied form of) Christianity that I’m invoking that these two possibilities are unacceptable. To affirm either predicate would simply be to push out of sight, once again, the question of the origin of that predicate’s negation. That this question has no answer is both the source and the limit of its efficacy as a treatment against autoxicity.

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