Friday, June 4, 2010

ramble: absinthe, or that accursed green fairy

"The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things." -- Oscar Wilde (as told to John Fothergill, and quoted in Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III, pp. viii-ix)

Absinthe: the spirit that was the darling of the nineteenth-century bohemian world, from France to America, she who was la fée verte, the "green fairy" (memorably personified in Moulin Rouge! by an adorable Kylie Minogue). Many fell under its spell, for a spell it seemed to them to be: just read Ernest Dowson's 1899 poem "Absinthia Taetra" [link] or Raoul Ponchon's 1886 poem "Sonnet de l'Absinthe" [via link]. Absinthe is one of the, if not the most, romantic and deliciously forbidden drinks--even today, it retains its mystique and the misconception that it is hallucinogenic, poisonous, and possibly fatal lingers.

Absinthe is a pale green spirit that tastes of anise (licorice), first created in 1792 by a Frenchman in Switzerland. It is distilled from a variety of herbs, including hyssop, mint, coriander, and chamomile.

The most notable ingredient is, however, wormwood: a psychoactive chemical, thujone, comes from this plant. However, there is relatively very little thujone present in absinthe, certainly not enough to cause the kind of hallucinations and mental disturbances attributed to it. Rather, it is likely absinthe's high alcohol content (up to 72-74%) that is the foremost danger; one would be dead of alcohol poisoning before one had consumed enough wormwood to poison oneself (Conrad, p. 154).

However, this, too, is no danger for the casual absinthe-drinker: the spirit is traditionally "louched," that is, taken diluted with water poured over a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon across the lip of the glass (the sugar provides a counterpoint to the bitter anise flavour).*

But not all absintheurs were casual. Despite its logically innocent composition, abinsthe inspired, enraged, maddened, and destroyed a great many men and women on both sides of the year 1900 (it was eventually banned in 1914).** It was both a mark of bohemian society and its curse, each magnifying the other's supposed corruption to onlookers only too ready to condemn them both.

Artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Monticelli, and poets Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and, of course, Wilde, are some of the notable bohemians who were partial to absinthe. Partial might not be the word to describe Verlaine and Rimbaud's allegiance to the spirit:
"By most accounts, Verlaine and Rimbaud were besotted on a nearly full-time basis. For Rimbaud, drinking was not a pleasure but a necessary form of flagellation to make the nerves sing like harp wires. Verlaine had a different temperament. When absinthe percolated through his system, he behaved with loathsome brutality, taking out a deep-seated anger on his passive wife Mathilde. He beat her, set fire to her hair and clothes, and even slashed her with a knife. Rimbaud urged Verlaine on...." (Conrad, p. 26)
Absinthe: the symptom and the excuse, not the cause, of the behaviour of young bohemians like this pair--who were the ones to give all the rest, and their drink of choice, such a bad name. Absinthe: the outlet of frustrated dreamers whose wickedness and promise of sweet transport came from the drinker, not the drink. The green fairy holds up a mirror, and the reflection can be lovely--or terrible.

* I confess, I have never tried absinthe. I would love to, but it's hard to find--especially a good, faithfully crafted variety, not one of the many imitators.
** Production resumed in fits and starts in the late twentieth century. Today, in most countries the drink is, finally, legal once more.

Images:
- 1896 poster advertising Absinthe Robette, by T. Privat-Livemont [via link] (I have this on my wall)
- The preparation of absinthe [via link]
- La Muse Verte by Albert Maignan (1895) [via link]

Sources:
- Raoul Ponchon, "Sonnet de l'Absinthe" [via link]
- Ernest Dowson, "Absinthia Taetra" [link]
- Conrad, Barnaby III. Absinthe: History in a Bottle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.
- Wikipedia [link]

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