The Book of Absinthe
A Cultural Historyby Phil Baker
“Baker’s witty, eminently readable, erudite history of absinthe is a must for the cocktail aficionado.” –Wine & Spirits
La Fée Verte (or “The Green Fairy”) has intoxicated artists, poets, and writers ever since the late eighteenth century. Stories abound of absinthe’s druglike sensations of mood lift and inspiration due to the presence of wormwood, its infamous “special” ingredient, which ultimately leads to delirium, homicidal mania, and death.
Opening with the sensational 1905 Absinthe Murders, Phil Baker offers a cultural history of absinthe, from its modest origins as an herbal tonic through its luxuriantly morbid heyday in the late nineteenth century. Chronicling a fascinatingly lurid cast of historical characters who often died young, the absinthe scrapbook includes Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Aleister Crowley, Arthur Machen, August Strindberg, Alfred Jarry, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Allais, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso.
Along with discussing the rituals and modus operandi of absinthe drinking, Baker reveals the recently discovered pharmacology of how real absinthe actually works on the nervous system, and he tests the various real and fake absinthe products that are available overseas. Written with “seductive verve and gentle insight” (Times Literary Supplement), The Book of Absinthe is a witty, erudite primer to the world’s most notorious drink.
“You can sum up absinthe . . . by doing what Phil Baker does in The Book of Absinthe, which is to open with a murderous madman and close with a taste test that compares one brand of absinthe to antidandruff shampoo. . . . You’ll learn a hell of a lot here from the Britisher Baker [who wrote] a lively investigation . . . into one of the strongest alcoholic drinks ever.” –The Memphis Flyer
“Baker–a dryly witty chap . . . has such an obvious affection for the poets, painters, and plain old assorted nut jobs who stagger, glass in hand, through his narrative.” –Michael Little, Memphis City Paper
“Baker’s witty, eminently readable, erudite history of absinthe is a must for the cocktail aficionado.” –Wine & Spirits
“Magnificent . . . formidably researched, beautifully written, and abundant with telling detail and pitch-black humor.” –The Daily Telegraph
“Hugely entertaining . . . excellent . . . merits prolonged and repeated consumption.” –The Independent
“Packed with enjoyable anecdotes and eccentric absintheurs, and reveals why it has been the most demonized of all alcoholic drinks.” –The Sunday Times (London)
Prologue Three Coffins in the Morning
News of a particularly ugly tragedy swept across the Europeanheadlines in the month of August 1905. A thirty one year old man named Jean Lanfray, a Swiss peasant of French stock, had drunk two glasses of absinthe, taken his old army ri.e out of the cupboard, and shot his pregnant wife in the head. When his four year old daughter Rose appeared in the doorway to see what was happening, he shot her too. He then went into the room next door, where his two year old daughter Blanche was lying in her cot, and blasted her as well. At this point he tried to shoot himself but botched it, and staggered across the yard to fall asleep holding Blanche’s dead body.
Next morning, now in police custody, Lanfray was taken to see the corpses of his wife and children. They were laid out dead – and here creeps in the kind of horribly picturesque touch that might have pleased Dickens – in three di.erently sized co.ns. It must have been a sobering sight.
The public reaction to the Lanfray case was extraordinary, and it focused on just one detail. Never mind the fact that Lanfray was a thoroughgoing alcoholic, and that in the day preceding the murder he had consumed not only the two absinthes before work – hours, in fact, before the tragedy – but a créme de menthe, a cognac, six glasses of wine to help his lunch down, another glass of wine before leaving work, a cup of co.ee with brandy in it, a litre of wine on getting home, and then another co.ee with marc in it. Never mind all that, or the fact that he was known to drink up to .ve litres of wine a day. People were in no doubt. It must have been the absinthe that did it. Within weeks, a petition had been signed by local people. 82,450 of them. They wanted absinthe banned in Switzerland, and in the following year it was. No drink, not even gin in Hogarth’s London, has ever had such a bad reputation.
Chapter One What Does Absinthe Mean?
“You tell me you have become an absintheur – do you know what that means?” Marie Corelli, Wormwood
What does absinthe mean? It is one of the strongest alcoholic drinks ever made, with an additional psychotropic potential from the wormwood it contains, but the idea of absinthe has developed a mythology all of its own. Even the word has a strange ring to it. It barely sounds like an alcoholic drink at all, although it does sound like a substance of some kind, recalling amaranth – a never-fading .ower symbolising immortality – and nepenthe, a sorrow-lulling drink or drug, and also a carnivorous plant.
As we shall see, wickedness is often to the fore when people talk about absinthe, particularly in the English-speaking world. But it isn’t quite sin that we’re dealing with here, although it’s somewhere in the same spectrum. Absinthe doesn’t necessarily have the creeping luxuriousness of sin. It’s too powerful, for one thing. Absinthe – particularly in France – has often meant something a bit more brutal and degraded: it isn’t so much about sin as vice.
Having begun as a tonic in Switzerland at the close of the eighteenth century, absinthe became associated with the French colonial army in Algeria by the middle of the nineteenth. Taking a glass of absinthe became respectable and almost universal bourgeois habit under the gilded Second Empire, but by the Empire’s end it was already developing two rather more particular and dangerous meanings. It was associated on the one hand with poets, painters, and Bohemianism in general, and on the other with working class alcoholism (particularly after the horrors of 1870–71, when the Franco-Prussian War was followed by the uprising and annihilation of the revolutionary Paris Commune). The absinthe problem grew worse in the 1880s, when failing grape crops resulted in absinthe becoming cheaper than wine. Eventually these meanings came together at the junction where Bohemia meets Skid Row, spelling out a generalized ruin for artists and workers alike. Absinthe – no longer “the green fairy” but “the green witch” and the “queen of poisons’ – became the demonized object of a moral panic. It was by now strongly associated with insanity, and it became popularly known as “the Charenton omnibus’, after the lunatic asylum at Charenton. “If absinthe isn’t banned,” a French prohibition campaigner wrote, “our country will rapidly become an immense padded cell where half the French will be occupied putting straitjackets on the other half.”
The French did ban absinthe in 1915, scapegoating it for the national alcohol problem, and for the French army’s unreadiness for the First World War. But it lived on in Spain and Eastern Europe, and now, in the aftermath of a new .n-de-si”cle, absinthe is back, bringing all its connotations with it. For three recent writers on the subject, absinthe has a spread of meanings: for Regina Nadelson it suggests ‘sweet decadence” and “a history rich in carnal and narcotic connotation”, while as a social problem, it was “the cocaine of the nineteenth century”. For Barnaby Conrad its history is one of ‘murder, madness and despair”, and it ‘symbolized anarchy, a deliberate denial of normal life and its obligations’. And for Doris Lanier, absinthe was “associated with inspiration and freedom and became a symbol of French decadence” – so much so that for her the word “absinthe” evokes “thoughts of narcotic intrigue, euphoria, eroticism, and decadent sensuality”.
And in addition to all that, absinthe will always be associated with the old .n-de-si”cle: the 1890s of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Dowson at the Caf” Royal, and the French symbolists who preceded the English Decadence, such as Verlaine and Rimbaud. In London, before the current revival, attitudes to absinthe were always bound up with impressions of Paris, and with what Aleister Crowley says somewhere is “the average Cockney’s idea of Paris as a very wicked place”. It is an attitude to France and all things French that lasted well into the second half of the twentieth century. Take Lou Reed’s line “like a dirty French novel – ooohhh” on the Velvet Underground track ‘some Kinda Love”, or Patti Smith on the cover of the Smith fanzine White Stu., posing with a lurid pulp edition of Montmartre writer Francis Carco’s novel Depravity.”
Depravity is certainly the keynote of Marie Corelli’s 1890 anti-absinthe novel Wormwood, a book so sublimely over the top it makes The Phantom of the Opera look like Pride and Prejudice. It tells the story of Gaston Beauvais, a once decent and intelligent man who becomes a complete moral leper through his fatal encounter with absinthe, and brings total ruin upon himself and all around him. “Let me be mad”, cries Beauvais:
. . . mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world! Vive la folie! Vive l”amour! Vive l”animalisme! Vive le Diable!
Corelli soon makes it clear that aside from the absinthe, Gaston has another .lthy personal problem. He is French. The morbidness of the modern French mind is well known and universally admitted, even by the French themselves; the open atheism, heartlessness, .ippancy, and .agrant immorality of the whole modern French school of thought is unquestioned. If a crime of more than usual cold-blooded atrocity is committed, it generally dates from Paris, or near it; – if a book or a picture is produced that is confessedly obscene, the author or artist is, in nine cases out of ten, discovered to be a Frenchman.
” Carco (“the author”, says the jacket, “of ONLY A WOMAN and PERVERSITY”) was an eminent French novelist before the “Berkley 35 cents Library” got its hands on him, a winner of the Grand Prix du Roman of The Acad’mie Fran”aise and a member of the Acad’mie Goncourt.[. . .] There are, no doubt, many causes for the wretchedly low standard of moral responsibility and .ne feeling displayed by the Parisians of today – but I do not hesitate to say that one of those causes is undoubtedly the reckless Absinthe-mania, which pervades all classes, rich and poor alike. Everyone knows that in Paris the men have certain hours set apart for the indulgence of this fatal craze as religiously as Mussulmans have their hours for prayer. . . The e.ects of its rapid working on the human brain are beyond all imagination horrible and incurable, and no romanticist can exaggerate the terri.c reality of the evil.
It must also be remembered that in the many French caf’s and restaurants which have recently sprung up in London, Absinthe is always to be obtained at its customary low price, – French habits, French fashions, French books, French pictures, are particularly favoured by the English, and who can predict that French drug-drinking shall not also become ” la mode in Britain?
Having been introduced to “the Fairy with the Green Eyes’ by his friend Gessonex, a mad artist, Beauvais embraces destruction by way of a melodramatically horrible descent that takes him to the Paris morgue and the cemetery at P’re Lachaise en route. “You tell me you have become an absintheur,” says Gaston’s father ‘do you know what that means?”
“I believe I do,” I replied indi.erently. “It means, in the end, death.”
“Oh, if it meant only death!” he exclaimed passionately. . . . “But it means more than this – it means crime of the most revolting character – it means brutality, cruelty, apathy, sensuality, and mania! Have you realised the doom you create for yourself. . .?”
Gaston ends up a veritable Mr Hyde, “a slinking, shu.ing beast, half monkey, half man, whose aspect is so vile, whose body is so shaken with delirium, whose eyes are so murderous, that if you met me by chance in the day-time, you would probably shriek for sheer alarm.”
But you will not see me thus – daylight and I are not friends. I have become like a bat or an owl in my hatred of the sun!. . . At night I live; at night I creep out with the other obscene things of Paris, and by my very presence, add fresh pollution to the moral poisons in the air!”
It is easy to laugh at Marie Corelli, but perhaps she deserves our grudging respect. And she makes absinthe sound like something the Addams Family might crack open at Christmas: this is absinthe as bottled doom.
The history of absinthe has some sobering themes: addiction, ruin, and mortality. Bitter rather than sweet, the aesthetic charge it carries is not so much beautiful as awesome, or sublime in the old sense of the word (the sense in which Edmund Burke used it in his proto-Gothic essay “A Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”). The sublime involves awe, and feelings not unlike terror. A writer on the Internet mentions the Old Absinthe House at New Orleans and notes that the marble bartop is “allegedly pitted from ancient absinthe spillage. One wonders, though, what absinthe does to the human body if it can eat through solid rock” [my emphasis]. It is probably the water dripping and not the absinthe at all, but the frisson is palpable; people want absinthe to be fearful stu., with the distinctive form of pleasure that fearful things bring.
Richard Klein has argued that cigarettes are sublime. They have, he says, “a beauty that has never been considered as unequivocally positive; they have always been associated with distaste, transgression and death.” Co-opting Kant into his argument, he de.nes the sublime as an aesthetic category that includes a negative experience, a shock, a menace, an intimation of mortality, the contemplation of an abyss. If cigarettes were good for you, says Klein, they would not be sublime: but,
Being sublime, cigarettes resist all arguments directed at them from the perspective of health and utility. Warning smokers or neophytes of the dangers entices them more powerfully to the edge of the abyss, where, like travellers in a Swiss landscape, they can be thrilled by the subtle grandeur of the perspectives on mortality opened by the little terrors in every pu.. Cigarettes are bad. That is why they are good – not good, not beautiful, but sublime.
If we follow Klein’s argument, then absinthe is even more sublime.
So, to contemplate the history of absinthe is a pleasure with a shudder in it. It is not unlike the feeling invoked by Thomas de Quincey in his discussion of what he calls the ‘dark sublime”. He argues that it is not only great things that are sublime (mountains, or storms), but that small things can be sublime as well, by virtue of their associations: the razor, for example, with which a murder has been committed, or a phial of poison. . .
But enough of all this ruin and darkness. It is time to call the .rst witness for the defence.
Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) commandeered the legacy of the late nineteenth-century occult revival so e.ectively that in the twentieth century his name was virtually synonymous with magick. He liked to be known as The Great Beast, after the monster in the Book of Revelations, and when he was vili.ed by the Beaverbrook newspapers in the 1930s he achieved widespread notoriety as “the wickedest man in the world”. Somerset Maugham knew him in Paris – the character of Oliver Haddo in Maugham’s novel The Magician is based on him – and of the many verdicts on Crowley, Maugham’s is the most succinct: “a fake, but not entirely a fake.”
In Paris, Crowley hung out in the upstairs drinking room at a restaurant called Le Chat Blanc in the Rue d”Odessa (where Maugham met him). This was back in the days when Pernod was a major brand of absinthe, and not the pastis it was later forced to become. Crowley was an inveterate practical joker, and when his long su.ering friend Victor Neuburg came to join him in Paris, The Great Beast couldn’t resist giving him some advice:
He had been warned against drinking absinthe and we told him that was quite right, but (we added) many other drinks in Paris are terribly dangerous, especially to a nice young man like you; there is only one really safe, mild, harmless beverage and you can drink as much of that as you like, without running the slightest risk, and what you say when you want it is “Garcon! Un Pernod!”
This advice led to various misadventures. Crowley’s own absinthe drinking took place not in Paris but in New Orleans, where he wrote his absinthe essay “The Green Goddess”: What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? The e.ects of its abuse are totally distinct from those of other stimulants. Even in ruin and in degradation it remains a thing apart: its victims wear a ghastly aureole all their own, and in their peculiar hell yet gloat with a sinister perversion of pride that they are not as other men.
But we are not to reckon up the uses of a thing by contemplating the wreckage of its abuse. We do not curse the sea because of occasional disasters to our marines, or refuse axes to our woodsmen because we sympathise with Charles the First or Louis the Sixteenth. So therefore as special vices and dangers pertain to absinthe, so also do graces and virtues that adorn no other liquor. For instance:
It is as if the .rst diviner of absinthe had been indeed a magician intent upon a combination of sacred drugs which should cleanse, fortify and perfume the human soul.
And it is no doubt that in the due employment of this liquor such e.ects are easy to obtain. A single glass seems to render the breathing freer, the spirit lighter, the heart more ardent, soul and mind alike more capable of executing the great task of doing that particular work in the world which the Father may have sent them to perform. Food itself loses its gross qualities in the presence of absinthe and becomes even as manna, operating the sacrament of nutrition without bodily disturbance.
There is another other section of particular interest, where Crowley considers absinthe and artistic detachment. There is beauty in everything, he says, if it is perceived with the right degree of detachment. The trick is to separate out the part of you that really “is’, the part that perceives, from the other part of you that acts and su.ers in the external world. “And the art of doing this’, he adds, “is really the art of being an artist.” Absinthe, he claims, can bring this about.
At one point Crowley raises the already rather Masonic tone of his essay even higher by quoting a poem in French.”Do you know that French sonnet “La légende de l’Absinthe?” “, he asks the reader. It would be surprising if very many readers did, because he had written it himself. He published it separately in the pro-German propaganda paper The International (New York, October 1917) under the pseudonym “Jeanne La Goulue”: a famous Moulin Rouge star painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.
Apollo, mourning the demise of Hyacinth, Would not cede victory to death. His soul, adept of transformation, Had to .nd a holy alchemy for beauty. So from his celestial hand he exhausts and crushes The subtlest gifts from divine Flora. Their broken bodies sigh a golden exhalation From which he harvested our .rst drop of – Absinthe! In crouching cellars, in sparkling palaces, Alone or together, drink that potion of loving! For it is a sorcery, a conjuration, This pale opal wine aborts misery, Opens the intimate sanctuary of beauty – Bewitches my heart, exalts my soul in ecstasy. Aleister Crowley
Absinthe used to be found wherever there was French culture; not only in Paris and New Orleans but in the French colonies, notably French Cochin-China (Vietnam). In his Confessions, Crowley recounts an incident in Haiphong that he found ‘deliciously colonial”. A large building on the corner of a main street was to be demolished, but the Frenchman in charge of the work could not be found. Finally the overseer of the construction workers ran him to ground in a combined drinking house and brothel, where he was solidly under the in.uence of absinthe. But he was still able to talk, and perfectly happy to calculate the explosive charge required using a stub of pencil on the marble slab of his table. He slipped up with his decimal point, however, and a charge of dynamite a hundred times too big took down not just the building on the corner but the entire block. No doubt the absinthe was to blame: as Crowley helpfully reminds us, it is “not really a wholesome drink in that climate”.
Aleister Crowley would be in favour of absinthe. He had to be: he was the wickedest man in the world. For a more impartial judge, we can turn to George Saintsbury. Saintsbury (1845–1933) was once the grand old man of English letters. Unashamedly pleasure-oriented in his approach to literature, he was a master of the connoisseurial “wine-tasting” mode of literary criticism, with its almost mystical overtones. What has been called, “the social mission of English criticism”, had no appeal for Saintsbury. Social conscience was never his strong point, and his idea of heaven would probably have been reading Baudelaire while sending little children up chimneys. George Orwell mentions Saintsbury in The Road to Wigan Pier, with a kind of back-handed admiration for his politics. “It takes a lot of guts,” says Orwell, “to be openly such a skunk as that.”
A bearded, bespectacled, appropriately Mandarin-looking old man, Saintsbury was famed for his extreme erudition, his odd but often brilliant judgements (Proust reminded him of Thomas De Quincey, for example), and his phenomenally rambling syntax. A fragment has been preserved for posterity: “But while none, save these, of men living, had done, or could have done, such things, there was much here which – whether either could have done it or not – neither had done.”
Saintsbury’s extreme connoisseurship of wine and other drinks led to a Saintsbury Society being formed in his honour, back in the hedonistic 1920s, which still exists. Before he died he was particularly adamant that there must never, ever be a biography written of him. What did he have to hide? We don’t know. But here he is on absinthe, from the liqueur chapter of his famous Cellar Book:
. . . I will not close this short chapter without saying something of the supposed wickedest of all the tribe – the “Green Muse” – the water of the Star Wormwood, whereof many men have died – the absinthia taetra, which are deemed to deserve the adjective in a worse sense than that which the greatest of Roman poets meant.” I suppose (though I cannot say that it ever did me any) that absinthe has done a good deal of harm. Its principle is too potent, not to say too poisonous, to be let loose indiscriminately and intensively on the human frame. It was, I think, as a rule made fearfully strong, and nobody but the kind of lunatic whom it was supposed to produce, and who may be thought to have been destined for lunacy, would drink it “neat” [. . .]
A person who drinks absinthe neat deserves his fate whatever it may be. The .avour is concentrated to repulsiveness; the spirit burns “like a torch light procession”; you must have a preternaturally strong or fatally accustomed head that does not ache after it.
There is another reason for not drinking it neat, which is that this would lose the ritualistic, drug-like fascination of preparing it according to a method: “you lose all the ceremonial and etiquette which make the proper fashion of drinking it delightful to a man of taste.” More about the various methods later, but Saintsbury’s is one of the most lovingly described. When you have stood the glass of liqueur in a tumbler as .at-bottomed as you can get, you should pour, or have poured for you, water gently into the absinthe itself, so that the mixture over.ows from one vessel into the other. The way in which the deep emerald of the pure spirit clouds .rst into what would be the colour of a star-smaragd [an old name for an emerald], if the Almighty had been pleased to complete the quartette of star-gems. . .
” Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book IV Prologue. Lucretius meant it was bitter.
And here we have to interrupt Saintsbury for a moment, strange old bu.er that he is. He is about to say that watching the pure spirit turn cloudy is a very agreeable experience, but before he gets there he is going to sidle, by way of a footnote,
into a digression about his love of jewels, and the rarity of star gemstones. The star gems, he says in his lipsmacking little note, are
As yet only a triad – sapphire (which is pretty common), ruby (rarer), and topaz, which I have never seen, and which the late Signor Giuliano, who used to be good enough to give me much good talk in return for very modest purchases, told me had seen only once or twice. But an ordinary emerald in cabochon form, represents one of the stages of the diluted absinthe very fairly.
So. He likes the way that absinthe turns .rst into emerald. . .
and then into opal; the thinning out of the opal itself as the operation goes on; and when the liqueur glass contains nothing but pure water and the drink is ready, the extraordinary combination of refreshingness and comforting character in odour and .avour – all these complete a very agreeable experience. Like other agreeable experiences it may no doubt be repeated too often. I never myself drank more than one absinthe in a day. . . Saintsbury’s curious little testimony brings out a number of salient points, all of which we shall meet again later: the strength of absinthe, its bad reputation, the element of ritual involved in drinking it, and its persistent a.nity with aestheticism.
Corelli is against absinthe, Crowley is for it, and Saintsbury is nicely (even exquisitely. . .) balanced. But for each of them, living through the heyday of absinthe, we can see that it was already a mythic substance.
Writing about the idea of an “ideal drink”, Roland Barthes suggests it should be “rich in metonymies of all kinds’; it should, in other words, be rich in all those part-for-the-whole, tip-of-the-iceberg associations and symbolic workings of why we want what we want. People who like the idea of Scotland can drink Scotch; people who believe in transubstantiation can drink the blood of Christ; and people who drink wine can be happy in the knowledge that it’s about grapes and sunshine and good soil and vineyards and what-have-you. When Keats wants wine, in “Ode to a Nightingale”, he wants it “Tasting of Flora and the country-green, / Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! / O for a beaker full of the warm South!” It is not unlike the methods of advertising. Whatever absinthe means, it is not a beaker full of the warm south. It is an industrial product, as synthetic as Dr Jekyll’s potion, and whatever metonymies are in play are not from the rural landscape but from urban culture. Aestheticism, decadence, and Bohemianism are well to the fore, along with the idea of nineteenth-century Paris and 1890s London. As an advert for Hill’s brand of absinthe has it, with no apologies to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince: “TONIGHT WE’RE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S 1899!”
©2001 by Phil Baker. First published in the UK in 2001 by Dedalus Ltd. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.