Absinthe Returns in a Glass Half Full of Mystique and Misery
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, NY Times
Should this column impress you as being more than usually lyrical, recalling perhaps the imagery and elegance of poetry by Baudelaire or Verlaine; should it seem a bit decadent, redolent of Oscar Wilde’s withering hauteur; should it have a touch of madness or perversity, combining, say, the tastes of Toulouse-Lautrec with the passions of van Gogh; should it simply sound direct and forceful and knowing like one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters; should it do any or all of that, let me credit something that each of these figures fervently paid tribute to: the green fairy, the green goddess, the green muse, the glaucous witch, the queen of poisons.
For this column was conceived under the influence of a green-colored, high-proof herbal liquor that was illegal in the United States for more than 95 years. And not just here, for when that mini-Prohibition began in 1912, alarm bells were ringing all over Europe. In 1905 a Swiss man murdered his family after drinking absinthe, leading to the liquor’s banishment from that country, where it originated. The French thought they risked losing World War I to robust beer-drinking Germans because of the dissolute influence of absinthe, so it was banned in that nation as well.
The medical evidence was also damning. As early as 1879 The New York Times warned that absinthe “is much more perilous, as well as more deleterious, than any ordinary kind of liquor.” A 19th-century French doctor, who made a lifetime study of absinthism, chronicled its symptoms: “sudden delirium, epileptic attacks, vertigo, hallucinatory delirium.”
But recently this anise-flavored spirit has been seeping back into the mainstream. In 1994 a museum devoted to absinthe opened in Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. With its limited availability and exotic reputation, the drink inspired cultish devotion. It tantalized with its promises of visionary consciousness, so elaborately celebrated by a century of artists and writers. Now absinthe has been widely restored. The European Union gradually jettisoned a hodgepodge of bans and widened absinthe’s availability. And this year two brands of absinthe made according to traditional recipes have been legally imported to the United States.
Last spring a French brand, Lucid, made its debut here, using 19th-century distilling methods and replicating chemical analyses of pre-ban absinthe. A Swiss absinthe, Kübler. appeared on the American market a few weeks ago, using a 1863 family formula.
One reason legal barriers have fallen is that, as The New Yorker reported in 2006, the regulated chemical thujone, found in wormwood and once thought to have been the cause of absinthe’s lure and its dangers, did not show up in any significant quantities in analyses of historical absinthe. So these authentic replicas, despite containing wormwood, do not pose a legal challenge. And the alarmed pronouncements about absinthe made from the beginning of the Belle Époque have been proved groundless, which was decisive, a Kübler spokesman said, in swaying United States government regulators.
This still leaves open the reasons behind absinthe’s reputation as an intoxicating source of creativity and invention, a power that led Hemingway’s character Robert Jordan, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” to carry around a flask of this “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.” It also leaves unsettled the cause of what led absinthe to be attacked, as one 19th-century poet put it, “the Devil, made liquid.”
Wormwood might still account for some of absinthe’s effects. Pythagoras prescribed wormwood steeped in wine for labor pains. In the 17th century it was used to treat venereal disease, intestinal worms and, yes, drunkenness. By the 19th century absinthe was used by French soldiers fighting in Africa as an antiseptic, to ward off insects and to treat dysentery. But once I sat down with bottles of Kübler, Lucid and some friends, the cause of absinthe’s reputation didn’t matter, nor did the absence, in these brands, of the pearly green color of legend. What I did find, along with flavors of anise, fennel, coriander, mint and other herbs, was something different in the liquid’s effect, a kind of relaxed alertness accompanying the lulling impact of alcohol.
But I may have also been intoxicated by the drink’s cultural heritage, some of which is surveyed in recent books like Jad Adams’s detailed study “Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle,” as well as Barnaby Conrad III’s “Absinthe: History in a Bottle” and Phil Baker’s “Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History.” (More information is available at Web sites like feeverte.net and oxygeneecom.)
Whatever the effects of heavy absinthe use, this was, almost from the start, never just another drink. It has a special place in the history of modern culture. Poems were written hailing the “green muse,” yet 19th-century writers like Alfred de Musset also fell prey to intoxication. At the Académie Française, where he was working on a dictionary, it was said that he “absinthes himself too often.”
Toulouse-Lautrec was so wedded to absinthe that he had a special cane made that hid a glass. He may have also introduced the drink to van Gogh, who threw himself into it with abandon. Aside from drinking the liquor, van Gogh painted it, and once threw a glass of it at Gauguin. Manet and Degas painted absinthe drinkers. So did Picasso. Munch drank it heavily and Strindberg fed his insanity with it. Verlaine felt enslaved to what he called “the green and terrible drink.”
But any dissolution that pockmarks this history is more attributable to alcoholism or madness than absinthe’s effects. It also seems that absinthe had a peculiar relationship to the birth of modernism, as if it distilled some aspect of the cultural revolution that began in the mid-19th century and came into its prime just as the drink was banned. Absinthe was the premier bohemian drink, as inseparable from the avant-garde of mid-19th-century Paris as was scorn the bourgeoisie. It played the role well; absinthe helped overturn that bourgeois world with seductive visions of another.
But even those who hailed absinthe saw unsettling shadows. Wilde explained: “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
Absinthe’s effects suggested, it seems, an inherent instability to perception, as if mixing and distilling the shimmer of Impressionism, the nightmares of Expressionism and the skewed images of Surrealism. Van Gogh made a glass of absinthe vibrate with energy. And when Manet, Degas or Picasso painted absinthe drinkers, they appeared introspective, alienated, not because they have been drugged into oblivion, but because they have seen too much.
At least in imagery, then, absinthe reflected a certain view of modernity: A firm, reliable order weakens, giving way to bleak uncertainties. For some this was a danger. A children’s anti-absinthe poem taught that the drink undermined “love of country, courage and honor.” During the Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s, when the French right considered Jews a threat to the old order, absinthe was denounced as a “tool of the Jews.”
In tasting absinthe now, older associations with bohemian modernism still resonate. But the lucidity absinthe supposedly creates may not, history tells us, always be reassuring. Who can’t help but feel a bit of unsettling vertigo when sipping this drink that once filled Parisian cafes, even if that vertigo, which once produced allusive French poetry, now just inspires newspaper columns.
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