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15 Oct 2015

The Idea of Fermentation

Vox Orbis / 15 Oct 2015 Fermentation

Photo:  A cosmological unity between nature and culture is suggested by fermentation.Deckuf/Flickr.

Language: Mandarin Chinese (中文)

Synopsis by Cultural Anthropologist Chloé Frommer. Fermentation is a cross-cultural, botanical food and beverage-processing technique that facilitates preservation, detoxification, digestion, and taste. With modernization, the visual appearance, aroma and flavour profile of fermented products have also developed as specific key registers. But before all that there has always been meaning. Fermented products symbolize and materialize specific cosmological heritages – ranging from large ceremonial festivals to isolated, sacred rituals, or ritually-altered states. The philosophical essay below poses that fermented, alcoholic beverages inspired cosmological visions in poets and philosophers – Taoist, Abrahamic and Confucian – to suggest an essential unity between nature and culture. 


Dalibor Petkovick

The fundamental principle behind fermentation is analysis—the process that divides complex matter into its simple elements. Philosophy, on the other hand, is built on just the opposite principle of synthesis—it takes simple elements and combines them into a complex whole.

Perhaps it is this very principle that makes one of fermentation’s fruits, alcohol, so attractive to philosophers and poets. By drinking, they receive the simple elements of nature and the universe, and out of them build new laws and worlds.

I’m reminded of the Eight Immortals - a group of Tang dynasty poets and writers whose love of alcohol was perfectly described by their contemporary fellow, Du Fu, and his poem “Eight Drinking Immortals.” Each of the Eight Immortals, in their own way, drew inspiration from wine to write some of the most classic poems and novels of Asian and world literature that, to this day, still inspire so many.


Photo: Jar (ping) with Eight Immortals (baixian) Los Angeles Country Museum of Art. Ashley Van Haeften/Flickr

Perhaps humans and fermentation are emissaries of their own universes of nature and thought, which serve as bridges between the material and spiritual, natural and human, unconscious and conscious, wilderness and law, and that are, in the end, gathered in the simple image of a man and a glass of wine.

Perhaps it is this cross-cultural image of a man, fermented from nature’s idea of all beings destined to prosper, and a glass of wine, fermented from grapes—the universal symbol of heaven in Christian and Islamic mystical traditions, as well as prosperity and wealth in Chinese—that is trying to tell us that humans and nature are one, and that all humans are one being with the same goal. That goal, so much professed in all religions and philosophies and thoughts around our planet, and like in Confucius’ idea of the man, who by bringing mercy, compassion, and understanding to the world at the same time delivers upon this goal—of human prosperity.

Perhaps prosperity is the Earth fermented into a man and a glass of wine, with both ready to open, together, new worlds, new ideas, and new horizons that will bring well-being to humans and nature.


Dalibor Petkovic for Vox Orbis, 2015