As the story goes, when Lief Ericson discovered North America about 1,000 years ago, the grapes grew so abundantly on the eastern coast of the country that he called it Vinland, or the “land of wine.” Right around the turn of the 20th century, however, the philological argument surrounding the meaning of Vinland began to turn against vin for “wine,” towards vin for “pasture,” insinuating that Ericson saw a land of cattle and grain, rather than a land of drink. I’ve found nothing to suggest that this more sober linguistic assessment was connected to the general turn towards temperance that emerged alongside the industrial revolution in the Americas around the same time, but it’s convenient to think so and not at all implausible, since so much of what passes for the advancement of knowledge follows the cyclicity of fashion–the momentary ascendance of an eventual circumference. The license of the free predictably becomes the various licenses of authority, before license must be taken to stake out new territory that is eventually licensed anew, and on, and on.
Not all knowledge proceeds this way, mind you; it’s hard to argue that there hasn’t been some advancement since the alphabet or the printing press, not to mention the 5GB iPod. We know that there are about 100 billion suns in the Milky Way, for example, and that the earth is a ball of fire with a crumb top; we know that the pitching sound sirens make when overtaking us and the drawing sound they make rushing ahead is the sound of a universe flying apart so fast it turns the sky red. We know things. Maybe not as many things as we’d like, but things nonetheless. When it comes to us, however, the parameters are murky. What we mean and what we’ve meant is hard to define, so hard that some have spent their entire adult lives trying to say one thing well–a strange and vain labor, to be sure. Indeed, the copulation of animal and angel that produces the human condition is so bewildering that gods the world over have periodically destroyed us in the hope that a new batch will finally come out right: floods, divine sleep cycles, golden ages reduced to iron, etc. Who can blame them for throwing out so much empty space in the process? I mean, how many stars does it take to make a planet that peoples anyway? I wouldn’t want the job. Would you? And when that first hairless monkey woke up to herself and cried, “havoc,” is there one among us who, when pressed by wine, wouldn’t admit that she got it right? Sure we’ve got some rituals and some prohibitions, and some tacit agreements on buggering our neighbors’ wives in public, but confusion deserves a byline on most of our drafts.
I’m happy to report, given this line of half-reasons, that the debate over Vinland has swung back the other way, and now scholars believe that vin most likely meant “wine” rather than “pasture,” for reasons that you can read about if you’re so inclined. Still, the “solid angularity of facts” erode, and estimations, both educated and otherwise, are the best we can hope for as we spin wildly about, and so I can do little more than cheer on the convenient turn in an obscure debate that supports my various pleas for drunkenness–of body, at least, if not of spirit. At this point, in fact, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask what axis I am spinning about, and what any of this has to do with San Diego. Well, it so happens that on Friday night, while drunk in one of the dozen or so “authentic” Irish bars in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego, I spent a great deal of time waxing on, and on, about the need for certain action in the midst of uncertain conditions.
My fiancé’s absurdly talented sister is graduating from college and dealing with all of the confusions that accompany adolescence’s last gasp. Her shoulders aren’t quite used to carrying an adult-size rucksack, but she’s already figured out that most of us have no idea where we’re going anyway, and she rightly wonders what the point of carrying all that stuff is in the first place. I didn’t have a good answer, so I cribbed from some old friends and rambled on about choosing to fill the proverbial glass with wine. That half-full or half-empty, as long as the cup was filled with wine, by the time you got to the bottom, you’d at least be glad you drank. She wasn’t entirely convinced, and who can fault her? There’s not a lot to go on down here, even though things are piling up pretty fast: who’s to say that tomorrow, some previously unknown biologist won’t describe the biochemistry of meaning and send us all scurrying to the pharmacy to pick up our soma? I don’t know; I don’t much like the idea, but progress is inevitable.
We started with Lief, because when he went out over the ocean, he didn’t know what he would find; he didn’t have a lot to go on either. The sea was unpredictable and often hostile, but he went anyway. He went, and what he found was wine, an entire country of wine, surely of green fields and leaping salmon too, but mostly wine. The fact is there’s wine in the cup; half-full or half-empty, that’s left to fashion, which is always recycling, so eventually you’ll be right and eventually you’ll be wrong, but there’s always the wine.