Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Cask of Puerh

A FEW WEEKS AGO, my charming, bloody-minded freshmen and sophomores at Valeo Academy cackled with glee at Montresor's antic vengeance over the wine-clotted soul of his frenemy, Fortunato. That is to say, I taught "The Cask of Amontillado," by Edgar Allen Poe: and while doing so, I thought of you, my dear reader. So before I explain why, will you take a moment to click on the caption of the image below and go to the (I promise you, short) story, which you will be able to read in next to no time?

{ E. A. Poe }

My writer friend, Anthony Trendl, is a Poe appreciator, though perhaps not quite an obsessive; he was delighted to learn I was introducing my students to EAP's brand of gravitationally attractive, black hole–dark humor, because he's Tony's favorite of all writers. And, indeed, Poe's witty "Cask of Amontillado" is particularly well-suited to discussing the connoisseur, the obsessive personality, the tea drinker.

Fortunato is the villain of the piece, who had offended the narrator in some unnamed fashion. And for this, he deserved—nay, justice demanded—revenge.

He had a weak point—this Fortunato—although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially;—I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

Ah, pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Montresor, our narrator, plays the role of Mephistopheles, drawing Fortunato to his fate by means of his love for and knowledge of fine wines. Montresor is in his own way a virtuoso, playing Fortunato like a Stradivarius.

I said to him —"My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day. But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts."

"How?" said he. "Amontillado, a pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!"

"I have my doubts," I replied; "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain."



"I have my doubts."


"And I must satisfy them."


"As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchresi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me—"

"Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry."

"And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.

"Come, let us go."


"To your vaults."

"My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchresi--"

"I have no engagement; —come."

"My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre."

"Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon. And as for Luchresi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado."

Bwa-ha-ha-ha. And so the koi is on the hook. Fortunato is drawn down, down into damp, bone-lined, spidery catacombs beneath the Montresor estate, down and down. And every time he may begin to give heed to that voice in his head saying, "Hey, maybe this is not such a great idea," the narrator would say something like, "Have another drink, and let's go back. I'll just get Luchresi to taste the Amontillado instead of you." Spiderwebs in your hair? "Luchresi, that hack, wouldn't know a decent Amontillado if it gave him a lap dance." A coughing fit brought on by the damp, musty bones in the pitch black?

{ "The Amontillado!" }

It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavoured to pry into the depth of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see.

"Proceed," I said; "herein is the Amontillado. As for Luchresi—"

"He is an ignoramus," interrupted my friend, as he stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In niche, and finding an instant he had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite.

Whoops! Didn't see that one coming, did you, Fortunato?


We'll leave him to his despair, walled in below the Montresor estates, and talk tea.

Admit it. Who among us has not crept into a mouldering grave to sample a nice, 25-year-old cake of Yuquan puerh? Or even a 2014 Yuquan? There but by the grace of God, and the relative thinness of my wallet, go I.

And who wouldn't follow Harry down into the Chamber of Secrets, fight off a basilisk and a mad wizard, and light up a complicated campfire to spend an hour or so figuring out the very, very best way to steep some of this season's Lao Xian Weng? I mean, it's a Phoenix Mountain single-tree dan cong oolong, for heaven's sake. (Or perhaps I should have gone with the Dragon Well?)

Poe nailed it. As I read out loud to the students (not one of whom had even read the assigned story!), I could feel myself in Fortunato's shoes, following Benoy Thapa's flickering torch as he promised me some Puttabong Moondrops 2nd Flush tea from Darjeeling.

Though I am not a hundredth as knowledgeable about tea as you, dear reader, I do know some tea smarties whom I'd happily follow into a skull-encrusted hole in the ground, so long as there was tea in there somewhere.

The compulsion to taste, to buy, to try, to sample, to sip, to imbibe from the Camellia sinensis plant is among the oldest obsessions. The Chinese have been refining their tastes and tea practices for millennia, and the Japanese have gone so far as to create a religion out of it. It's toward the center of the British identity, and we Americans—well, about the Americans, the less said the better.

In his short story, Poe laughs with us as the hapless connoisseur is drawn to his death, unable to attend to his surroundings and notice his many opportunities for escape. Fortunato is unlucky (!) in his choice of friends, and he's sadly in the grip of an affliction that in the end owns him entirely. It's this obsession that I find so curious.

I delight in connoisseurs, obsessives, and weirdos of many stripes. It's the intense focus on one thing that allows them to become knowledgeable, sometimes even at the expense of living an otherwise productive, normal existence. I see a shadow of myself in Fortunato, and I most certainly see some of you there.

In fiction, it's the mad obsessives who so often drive the plot, who come to untimely ends, and who are the spice in the kitchen. They're the ones who wall in the hidden garden, bury the treasure, open the forbidden door, call up the genie. They're the wizards, the knights, the glorious winners, and the even more spectacular losers. They are delighted to meet you again, Mr. Bond. They are Tesla, and Sauron, and Tony Gebely and David Lee Hoffman. They burn at the extremes and are utterly reprehensible, and they're the necessary Fifth Business upon whom the plot turns. They're Merlin trapped in an enchanted hawthorn bush by the sorceress Nimuë. Obsessives make paintings that take a hundred hours per square foot to produce, and they give their intense focus to something because they must.

A couple examples. David Lee Hoffman has his own tea cave with hundreds—thousands?—of beengs of puerh, and now Tony Gebely and his lovely new wife have picked up and moved to California to enter a new chapter of the Tales of Hoffman. My friend Robert Mullenix makes images that uncover abstractions in photorealism, and these paintings attest to their creator's power and intensity of focus.

And the rest of us are the beneficiaries of their will, the recipients of their recipes, and the drinkers of their carefully stored puerhs. We gape at their buildings, cry at their productions, immerse ourselves in their novels, and worship at their altars.

{ disclosure, mixed media on canvas, 2014
—Robert W. Mullenix }

Oh, and we drink their teas.

Yes, tea obsession can be a scary thing. And it is wonderful.