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Ruined by the Green Fairy

[Review of Absinthe: The Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century, McFarland and Co., by Doris Lanier; review first published in Shadowdance, autumn, 1995.]

Toulouse-Lautrec carried his supply in a hollow cane; Hemingway enjoyed slipping down to Havana on his sailboat to order a quick one. Devotees have gone to great and various lengths to obtain their absinthe, the narcotic drink popular with generations of decadent sophisticates, coffeehouse philosophers, and visionary artists. In her entertaining study of the much-maligned beverage, Doris Lanier traces the history of absinthe--fondly called the Green Fairy by devotees because of its distinctive color--from its first appearance in Europe in the 1790s to its eventual demise in a flurry of legal prohibitions just before World War I. Along the way, she explains the proper ritual for the drink'spreparation, details the effects it had on Western society (at the end of the century, 9 out of 10 Parisian lunatics were absinthe addicts), and documents the widespread use of the drink among the artistic and literary set of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Absinthe is made from the leaves and top part of the wormwood plant mixed with such aromatic herbs as angelica root and star-anise. This mixture is then macerated in alcohol for a week, the liquor is distilled, and anise oil is added (to cover the bitter wormwood with a licorice flavor). A pale green in color, absinthe has an alcohol content of some eighty percent. Together with the narcotic effects of the herbs, the drink is extremely potent. And it is, as you might suspect, highly addictive.

Worse, a user detects no ill effects from absinthe until it is far too late to correct them. The drink seems to deliver a simple, pleasing high. Most users report an energetic feeling; Hemingway claimed it helped his sex life. Only later and suddenly do the symptoms appear in the habitual absinthe drinker, rendering their user immediately helpless. Mental breakdown, nervous system collapse, hallucinations, convulsions, and even madness strike quickly. The herbal ingredients of the drink, particularly wormwood, were believed to cause a slow destruction of the nerves, the user blissfully unaware of the damage until his system unexpectedly failed. Sadly, this nerve damage was also inheritable, causing children of absinthe drinkers to be prone to insanity and nervous disorders.

Among the most tragic examples of absinthe abuse was the case of French poet Paul Verlaine, who ended his days stumbling from one tavern to the next, allowing fans and onlookers to buy him cups of the Green Fairy in exchange for being seen with the famous poet. On good days Verlaine would dance on table tops; on his bad days, he would assault those who came too close to him.

Other devotees of the drink included the English poet Ernest Dowson, who claimed that absinthe produced a "curious bewilderment of one's mind ... how wonderful it is!" He died at age 30. Playwright Alfred Jarry, author of Ubu Roi, was an absinthe addict, referring to the drink as "holy water." He died at age 34. And playwright Oscar Wilde continued to drink absinthe even as his health seriously worsened from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis. Speaking of the drink, Wilde claimed: "After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

Picasso, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Van Gogh number among the other prominent writers and artists who indulged themselves in the Green Fairy. Even Jack London gave it a try. The drink and its devotees also appear in paintings by Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. Lanier catalogs a number of poems, stories and novels in which absinthe plays a role, showing how the drink's elaborate preparation ritual and exhilarating effects were common knowledge among many writers in England, France, and America.

Although Lanier calls absinthe the cocaine of its time, it was really something more than that. Like cocaine, absinthe was considered both dangerous and sexy; and like LSD at one time, it was rumored to induce creativity in the artistic and great thoughts in the philosophical. But for many years absinthe enjoyed a social acceptance as well. Several orders of French monks manufactured absinthe along with their usual wine. Competing brands of absinthe were openly advertised and sold; Sarah Bernhardt even appeared in colorful advertisements for one popular brand.

The determined efforts of temperance groups to ban absinthe were unsuccessful until the turn of the century when widespread publicity surrounding several absinthe-induced homicides--including the case of a Swiss man who murdered his wife and child while in a drunken rage--finally pushed the authorities to crack down on the drink. From 1900 to 1915, a wave of prohibition swept Europe as country after country banned the Green Fairy. England held out until the 1930s. Although America outlawed absinthe in 1912, it was still possible to buy a glass in New Orleans, at an establishment known as the Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, until 1926. Today, only Spain and a few Latin American countries still allow the daring to flirt with the Green Fairy.

Lanier's book documents a time when that dangerous pleasure was available to all.

[Since the initial publication of this review, absinthe has enjoyed a comeback of sorts, with distillers in the Czech Republic and other European countries bottling a kind of watered-down absinthe for sale. Time will tell if the Green Fairy has truly sprouted fresh wings.]

--Thomas Wiloch