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Like laudanum and World War I, absinthe is best known for its artistic casualties. La fée verte (the “green fairy”), as its fanciers knew it, has been blamed for the decimation of a veritable artist’s regiment of late-19th- and early-20th-century Frenchman and fops, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Verlaine, Vincent Van Gogh, Alfred Jarry, Ernest Dowson, and Oscar Wilde. Long banned in France and the United Statesthough never in Spain or the United Kingdomthe drink that helped put finis to the fin de siècle has lately been enjoying a kind of comebackwhich just goes to show you can’t keep a good drug down, even (or especially) one with as checkered a reputation as absinthe. With such bad-boy celebs as Johnny Depp, Crispin Glover, and Marilyn Manson partying, as one clever Czech absinthe manufacturer advertised, “like it’s 1899,” and an increasing number of brands becoming available, the potable muse of many a Parisian versifier could be coming soon to a coffeehouse near you.
All of which makes Phil Baker’s The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History a very timely volume indeed. This relatively slim text (less than 200 pages, if you don’t count the appendix of selected absinthe-related texts) is by no means the final word on absinthe’s history, rituals, or effects, but it succeeds if for no other reason than that Bakera dryly witty chap who scribbles for the Sunday Times and the Times Literary Supplementhas such an obvious affection for the poets, painters, and plain old assorted nutjobs who stagger, glass in hand, through his narrative. You have to like a writer who can sum up the mandarin literary critic George Saintsburywho went on record as saying, “A person who drinks absinthe neat deserves his fate…”as the kind of man whose “idea of heaven would probably have been reading Baudelaire while sending little children up chimneys.” Or who, describing Marie Corelli’s 1890 anti-absinthe novel Wormwood, says, “[S]he makes absinthe sound like something the Addams Family might crack open at Christmas; this is absinthe as bottled doom.”
As Baker points out, absinthe drinking was by no means solely a habit of the artistic classes. Indeed, the drinka potent speedball of strong (generally from 120 to 180 proof) alcohol and wormwood, whose active ingredient, thujone, is a convulsant poison with the effects of a stimulantfirst found favor amongst Paris’ bourgeoisie. The drink was brought into fashion in Europe in the mid-19th century by returned French colonists and soldiers of the Bataillon d’Afrique, who were issued a ration of absinthe in North Africa to ward off malaria and dysentery. It wasn’t long before the smart set began to refer to the hours between 5 and 7 in the evening as l’heure verte. Parisians would spend the green hour sitting at cafes with green-filled glasses, the troubles of their day slowly dissolving like the sugar cube over which they would trickle the water that lent absinthe its distinctive smoky appearance.
Absinthe’s status as a drink of upscale boulevardiers changed with the appearance of what Baker calls “cheaper and nastier brands.” The increase in supply happened to coincide with a series of disastrous grape harvests in the 1870s and 1880s, with the result that absinthe suddenly became a more economical drink than wine. Like many another drug, it began to cause great public concern only when it became popular with the lower classes. As Baker makes clear, it wasn’t until Jacques Six-Pack started spending the croissant money on the sticky green stuff that the authorities began to say such things as Absinthe rend fou (“Absinthe drives you mad”). World War I turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of absinthe, at least in France. (U.S. authorities, always ahead of the curve when it comes to curbing a good time, prohibited absinthe in 1912.) The French authorities banned the drink in 1915, within days of the start of the conflict, evidently in the belief that it would render otherwise nationalistic Frenchman incapable of performing their patriotic duty of being slaughtered like sheep in the fields of Flanders.
But if, like many of her partakers, the green fairy began her career among the upper classes only to wind up rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi, she will forever be linked with the famous poets and painters who quaffed her in such hair-raising quantities during the decadent 1890s. Dowson, a hard-drinking English poet who died a wreck at 32, famously said, “Whisky and beer for fools; absinthe for poets,” and absinthe’s reputation as “a green-eyed muse” stuck. Even such noncasualties as Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso understood its allure, with the result that absinthealong with a distinctly besotted-looking lot of artist’s
modelsmay be one of the most frequently represented vices of modern art. Indeed, Picasso dedicated no fewer than six paintings and a sculpture to the beverage that became known, in honor of the lunatic asylum at Charenton, as the Charenton omnibus.
Baker’s half-dozen or so short chapters on famous absinthe drinkers don’t break any new ground; indeed, he seems to have culled most of his material on the “pataphysician” Alfred Jarrywhose deliberate blurring of the lines between his life and his art was best exemplified by the time he shouted, “Wasn’t that a beautiful work of literature?” after shooting at a man in a Paris cafedirectly from Roger Shattuck’s marvelous The Banquet Years. But Baker’s entertaining style makes The Book of Absinthe a wonderful introduction to such influential figures as Dowson, Wilde, and Verlaine. He also throws in enough tidbits of information on more obscure figures to make the book worthwhile even to folks who know their Symbolists inside out. For example, he dedicates a section to Charles Cros, the erratic genius and 20-absinthe-a-day man whose phonograph predated Thomas Edison’s and whose works included a book on communicating with other planets.
Baker also provides some fascinating lore on the often seedy places where absintheurs tended to congregate. He describes an absinthe-soaked evening spent by poetry’s oddest couple, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, in an establishment called the Café Rat Mort, or Dead Rat Cafe. Then there was the Chat Noir, whose proprietor, Theodore Salis, prided himself on personally insulting “each customer as they came in.” But these pale next to the Chateau Rouge, aka Absinthe Hotel, an establishment so end-of-the-road that it included a room called the Mortuary, where, according to the Goncourt brothers’ journals, “several layers of drunkards are piled one on top of another until the time comes for them to be swept out into the gutter.”
One of the joys afforded by Baker’s book lies in contemplating the perverse hatred absintheurs seemed to reserve for H2O. “The sight of water upsets me,” said Baudelaire, who preferred to water his flowers of evil in something a bit more spiritual. And Jarry’s fulminations against noxious aqua are nothing less than hilarious: “Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so solvent and corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washings and scourings, and a drop of water, added to a clear liquid like absinthe, makes it muddy.” As for Oscar Wilde, who once described a glass as absinthe as “being as poetical as anything in the world,” he chose to express his preference for spirits by one of his characteristic inversions. “I have discovered,” he quipped, “that alcohol taken in sufficient quantity produces all the effects of drunkenness.”
Given such rabid hydrophobia, it is hardly surprising that some absintheurs, should have opted to dispense with water even as a mixer. Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, had an unfortunate predilection for mixing his with brandya cocktail that was fittingly known as a tremblement de terre, or “earthquake.” Then again, Lautrec so enjoyed his absinthe that he took to carrying a specially designed absinthe cane, which could hold half a liter and even came with its own little glass.
If “the queen of poison” led to the ruin of many a good artist, how are we to regard its resurgence? Can we expect a plague of drunken, bon mot-strewing Symbolist poets to wreak havoc upon the land? Baker, who is clearly no Nancy Reagan, seems to have no fears in this regard, and he makes it clear that moderate use of absinthe is no more likely to cause you to cut off your own ear, Van Gogh-style, than taking Ecstasy is to transmogrify you into Shaun Ryder. He dedicates a very slim appendix to his personal appraisal of a few of the steadily increasing
number of available absinthes, decrying the thujone-free brands as mere shams and praising some of smoother-tasting varieties. (Speaking of shams: During a recent trip to Germany, I encountered a bottle with the rather dubious brand name of Mr. Jekyll. Needless to say, a careful reading of its label revealed that it contained no thujone.) Baker’s general advice seems to be let the buyer bewareand the drinker be wary. Thujone or no, absinthe’s high alcoholic contentBaker calls alcohol the “real villain” in most cases of absinthisme, or absinthe poisoningmakes it a very volatile drink.
But if consumers are wise to exercise caution in addressing themselves to absinthe, they may consume The Book of Absinthe without fear of hangover, wormwood poisoning, oras in extreme cases such as Lautrec’sbeing followed by an elephant from the Moulin Rouge. Baker is silent on whether the pachyderm in question was pink or green. CP