A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Wine afficionados often save the labels from bottles as a record of what they've consumed. They can be pasted into an album, traded, or used to wallpaper the bar. Champagne drinkers are a separate breed, however. They don't collect labels; they collect muselets.

A muselet is the wire cage which covers the cork of a champagne bottle. The pressure inside the bottle can be up to six atmospheres, about 88 pounds per square inch. Champagne is stored in extra-thick bottles, corked, and capped with a muselet for a reason. Otherwise, it might explode.

Before there was a cork, there was a wooden plug, covered with hemp and impregnated with oil. Dom Perignon supposedly got the idea, in the late 17th century, of replacing the wood-hemp-oil arrangement with something new he'd seen. Monks returning from pilgrimages to Compostella were using corks to plug their gourds. The less-elastic wooden contraptions regularly popped out; corks were more reliable.

Before there was an extra-thick bottle, there was an ordinary wine bottle. As long as they were left alone, the bottles pretty much behaved. But after 1840, when Mme Veuve Cliquot invented the process of remuage--turning the bottles a few degrees each day to settle the sediment, danger set in. The caviste or remueur had the unenviable job of rotating each bottle, set into a rack called a pupitre, by an eighth turn daily. Never mind that it was dark, dank, and freezing in those cellars. Never mind that the job was mind-numbingly boring. Playing Russian roulette with the bottles did keep you alert, but not in a good way.

And before there was a muselet, there was a hempen string tied around the corked bottle as insurance. The string was eventually replaced by wire. By the 1880's, prefabricated wire cages--the muselets--were being used. ("Museler" in French means "to muzzle.") Various shapes and numbers of "legs" around the neck were tried, before the four-legged modern muselet was settled on. A plaque on the top of the cage was stamped with the name of the vintner and perhaps the vintage, if applicable. Not until after World War II was the plaque an integral part of the muselet.

Now perhaps you're thinking, could she have found anything more trivial or more obscure or less relevant to be writing about? Au contraire, I find this kind of esoterica not only fascinating, but vital. Knowing the name of an object, understanding its history, putting it in a context gives it meaning and importance. A throwaway object acquires existence in our consciousness. With history and memory and language we construct the fabric of our existence. That's what it means to be human.



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