Absinthe Friends


Decadence will out. While you are crusading against one form of it, it seems, another variety will spring up behind your righteous back. Thus, while we are witnessing a frenzy against the demons of drugs and tobacco on one front, on another, people are starting to sip absinthe again.

Yes, absinthe. The purportedly madness-inducing "green fairy" of 19th-century bohemia is coming back. The Washington Post reports that barmen around London are again learning the old ritual of preparing a glass of absinthe and customers are licking their lips in anticipation of fin de siècle danger.

Many drugs and stimulants have storied traditions, but few can claim the cultural associations of absinthe. A hundred years ago, it was the very nectar of art; the taste of sweet decay; the color of avant-garde transcendence. Oscar Wilde claimed, "A glass of absinthe is the most poetical thing in the world." Hemingway characters drank it in Spain to forget war and women. Painting after painting–most famously by Degas and Manet–depicted "The Absinthe Drinker" seated in a café by a pale green glass, hovering between stupefaction and infinity. A figure in a Rilke poem looks dolefully into a murky cup of the stuff and murmurs, "Spring is here."

Absinthe is bound up with the politics of its era as well, as Barnaby Conrad notes in his rich 1988 chronicle, Absinthe: History in a Bottle. Among the charges made against it was that it was a tool of Jewish conspiracy. But anti-Semites liked drinking it, too, and they were soon obliged with a brand of absinthe that was labeled, "anti-Juive."

What happened to it? Absinthe contains wormwood, which had a psychedelic reputation. Some sensational murders of the time were blamed on absinthe delirium; some scientists decided that the drink could bring on epileptic fits and lead to addiction. Such research is now regarded as worthless, but progressive crusaders in the United States and elsewhere succeeded in getting the liqueur banned.

Britain never did so, the Post reports, because the stuff was never popular there. Green Bohemia, the distributor of the new absinthe, is claiming its variety is quite safe, though it would seem the lure of the drink lies in the reputed risk. In fact, there are no useful data on the long-term effects of imbibing wormwood.

Historian Conrad once tracked down a home-brewed bottle of the stuff on the continent and drank it quietly in his Paris hotel. He dozed off, remembering nothing the next morning until he was drinking coffee. "Then it came to me," he writes, "that at some point in the previous evening, I thought I knew the answer to life; only now I had forgotten it."