Thursday, 1 January 2009


Bohemia is a dirty word. At least it was to an ex of mine who used it as an insult to cover an array of aspects of my life he couldn’t cope with – ‘You’re so... erm, bohemian’ he would spit, before glaring into the shallows of his bitter pint. I irritated him even more by being happy with that label. 
He was right. I am and I don’t mean in the wears-the-same-boots-as-Sienna-Miller hijacked shoddy heat magazine redefinition of the word either. As such, rewind to January 2008 and you won’t be too surprised to find that, while I may not be cutting off my ear in Paris I am in San Franscisco, my new favourite place, I am sitting at the bar of Vesuvio, on my last few dollars, swapping scrawled poems for drinks with understanding bar staff, and slyly people watching. I am also, finally, writing my first book. All around me a serious-looking literary crowd of writers, wannabe writers and culture vulture tourists are sipping from misty liquid. Murmuring. To one another. To themselves. Cocktail du jour? Absinthe + sugar + water. Self-appointed ‘existential tour guide’ sitting at the bar tells me it has recently been made legal again.
Absinthe in North Beach, land of the Beats, a mere stumble from Ferlinghetti’s City Lights. Not quite the glittering dance halls of the Belle Epoque but I’m still I am struck that it ticks perfection check boxes. Heavy drinking and thinking American Ernest Hemingway loved absinthe, describing it in his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls where the hero tastes absinthe and recalls his earlier life in Paris: ‘One cap of it took the place of the
evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosks, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont,  of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ille de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy.’
The passage translates to my experiences of Frisco, and yet in Versuvio the world seems far too civilised; far removed from the legacy of La Fée Verte. The Green Fairy. The bohemian party starter. The queen of poisons. A decadent delightful spirit to capture. Luminary, literary and luminescent.  A heady concoction of alcohol and distilled herbs including grand wormwood and green anise and perhaps fennel and hyssop. Psychoactives and aphrodisiacs. Lust and visions. There is a long list of creative types who have fallen under her oh-la-la spell: Degas, Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Jarry, Paul Verlaine, Ernest Dowson, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Conder, Pablo Picasso, Gauguin, Walter Sickert, Edgar Allen Poe, William Rothenstein, James Whistler, Baudelaire, Manet, Rimbaud, Joyce and Hemingway.
The Green Hour bloomed in late nineteenth century Paris, and Montmarte was bursting with new cafes and cabarets haunted by the bohemian glitterati – 30,000 had opened across the city by 1869. Places like Brasserie des Matyrs (Baudelaire drank there), the Café du Rat Mort (the literary and the lesbians adored it) and the infamous Chat Noir, which was set up by Theodore Salis, a painter and boasting regulars Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie and the poet Charles Cross who liked to sink 20 absinthes a night.

During the reign of Napoleon III (1852 – 1870) absinthe was still too expensive for the masses and was in the main enjoyed by the fashionable bourgeoisie. Marketed as an aperitif, The Green Hour started at 5pm, and many an artist, a writer, a ‘bohemian’ sought out absinthe, the green goddess, to quench their thirst for ideas. A particularly thirsty such man was the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec whose work boozed through the music halls and the Moulin Rouge. It is well documented that he carried a hollow walking stick filled with a draught of absinthe, and fellow artist Gustave Moreau believed that Lautrec's paintings were ‘entirely painted in absinthe’. While Lautrec clearly doted on the drink, he himself commented that: ‘To me, in the colour green, there is something like the temptation of the devil.’

Temptation, yes, yet absinthe was also a muse, providing the subject matter of many famous works. Edouard Manet painted an absinthe drunk titled The Absinthe Drinker(1859). Picasso immortalised her in Woman Drinking Absinthe (1901), The Absinthe Drinker (1901) and Two Woman Seated in a Bar (1902) and most famously, following the drink’s ban, in his cubist bronze Absinthe Glass. But she wasn’t loved by all. Massive controversy surrounded Degas’ Impressionist painting L'Absinthe(1875-1876) at the time. It is a fairly innocent scene depicting the painter Marcellin Desboutin and actress Ellen Andrée sitting at a table with a coffee and an absinthe before them. Just the one although Ellen, a tad vacant, appears to be in an absinthe reverie. Naughty girl. The painting was hissed at during auction and called all manner of terrible things. Things like ‘immoral’, ‘loathsome’, and ‘degraded’. Bet Damien Hirst is gutted Degas got there first.
Absinthe got a bad rap from the moral high ground in part because women were drinking it. Which is obviously terrible. Who will wash the clothes? The Belgian Félicien Rops could not stop himself obsessing over drawing women absinthe drinkers in Parisian dance halls. He completedBuveuse d'Absinthe in 1865 and then, clearly not feeling the inspirational power of absinthe himself, drew different models in the same pose for the next 30 years. 1876 was a good year, describing one of his models he wrote: ‘It is a girl called Marie Joliet who arrives every evening drunk at the Ball Bullier and who sees with eyes of electric death.’ I want to hang out with her, she sounds fun.
It wasn’t just the artists who were trapped in an emerald fairy gaze. The writer HP Hugh recorded: ‘The sickly odour of absinthe lies heavily in the air. The absinthe hour of the Boulevards begins vaguely at half-past five [...] but the deadly opal drink lasts longer than anything else.’ Indeed troubled English poet Ernest Dowson wrote the poem ‘Absinthia Taetra’, in dedication to the drink: ‘The man let the water trickle gently into his glass, and as the green clouded, a mist fell from his mind.’  He also said of it: ‘Whiskey and beer are for fools; absinthe for poets; absinthe has the power of the magicians; it can wipe out or renew the past, and annul or foretell the future.’
In a future that outlived Dowson references to absinthe still run rife. The artist’s muse, she sparks visions – she was the eighteenth century’s LSD. Pretty little pop fairy, Kylie Minogue in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge plays temptress, seducing the type-type-typewriting playwright Ewan McGregor with her cheeky drink-me ways: ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music.’ And, for a movie-magic moment, they are.
Like all good drugs, the taking of Absinthe has its rituals. You should not drink Absinthe neat, like Manny in the sitcom Black Books (‘The Big Lockout’ episode). He may only have ended up with a bad hangover but Bernard was not completely wrong when he refers to it as ‘the drink that makes you want to kill yourself instantly.’ The official reason behind the banning of her 110º -plus proof influence was death-related, which provided the air of the illicit – that flash of desire, fear and intrigue that flares in irises at the mention of her intoxicating name. Absinthe et Absintheurs (Henri Balesta, 1860) describes the ritual in a typical cafe scene:  ‘In the morning, at lunchtime, the habitués invaded the bistro. The professors of absinthewere already at their station, yes, the teachers of absinthe, for it is a science, or rather an art to drink absinthe properly, and certainly to drink it in quantity. They put themselves on the trail of the novice drinkers, teaching them to raise their elbow high and frequently, to water their absinthe artistically, and when, after the tenth  little glass, the pupil rolled under the table, the master went on to another, always drinking, always holding forth, always steady and unshakeable at his post.’
It was an arty drink, with iconic drug culture references, cooking up on spoons dropping liquid into sugar cubes. Colours and forms shape-shifting such that preparation made one an apothecist, alchemist, sorcerer. ‘Absinthe has a wonderful colour, green. A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?’ so said Oscar Wilde. He described the effects of absinthe in stages: ‘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.’  But what goes up must crash down. ‘What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? 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’ – Aleister Crowley, The Green Goddess(1918). The English resistance to all things French, especially absinthe, the ‘French poison,’ was strong. In Marie Corelli's 1890 novel Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, one of her characters comments: ’There are, no doubt, many causes for the wretchedly low standard of moral responsibility and fine feeling displayed by Parisians of today - but I do not hesitate to say that one of those causes is undoubtedly the reckless Absinthemania, which pervades all classes, rich and poor alike.’
The cult of ‘Absinthemania’ is interesting; the drink stopped being something just for bohemians and instead was taken on by the masses, The Green Hour being something akin to a Saturday night out in any town or city in Britain – the chain bar pub crawl. It cheapened the experience. It worried the government. They decided drink was the downfall of the people, and that they needed to be protected from themselves. They latched onto bohemian outbursts and eccentricities as choice examples of absinthe’s detrimental influence upon the people. Very likely, there were backhanders from the flailing wine industry too.
Absinthemania: are all great artists mad, or simply under the influence; do the alcohol and drugs cause the creativity and or the madness or is it the other way round? Chicken and egg questions that are not original, nor exclusive to absinthe or Van Gogh. There are concrete reasons for the associations of madness and absinthe – it contains thujone, a psychoactive chemical that can invoke epileptic reactions in the brain and hallucinations. Question: in the case of Van Gogh, then, did absinthe cause his psychosis? Answer: it may not have helped matters but his family’s history of psychosis probably had a lot more to do with things. Drinking, drugs, madness – what they can do is allow a looser association of ideas matched with romance or despair. They also dampen the ability to be able to record or remember the profoundly brilliant ideas you have had, a help and a hindrance; worse, they can blot out productivity completely.
Van Gogh suffered from depression and epilepsy, and had psychotic episodes. He was a bit eccentric. He liked to paint outside at night time. He ate oil paints and drank turpentine. Cutting off your ear, though? Blame his drinking ‘buddy’ Paul Gaugin. He should have told him, ‘mate, I think you’ve had enough.’ and taken him for a chips or curry or tucked him up in bed with a bucket close at hand. Dreams and nightmares, visions and blindness. Whether Van Gogh went mad from absinthe poisoning or not, the drink certainly influenced his work, evident in his absinthe-toned palette, the repeated motif of the absinthe glass and absinthe bars in his creations.
French poet Paul Verlaine also drank absinthe and was also a bit disturbed, but by the sounds of things his mother wasn’t that sane herself. She kept the foetuses from her three miscarriages preserved in jars in the pantry. Verlaine was an alcoholic before he found absinthe though, and his tumultuous relationship with Rimbaud didn’t help matters much. In and out of hospitals and mental institutions he drank absinthe until the end (1896) despite publishing these words cursing it the year before: ’...later on I shall have to relate many [...] absurdities which I owe to my abuse of this horrible drink: this drink, this abuse itself, the source of folly and crime, of idiocy and shame, which governments should tax heavily if they do not suppress it altogether: Absinthe!

A reduction in the quality of the absinthe on offer may also play a role in the myths and folklore of absinthe madness. Greedy absinthe producers were lowering their costs and cheating customers by adding toxic chemicals and flavourings to absinthe including copper sulphate which gave it a brighter green colour and antimony trichloride which turned the liquid milky when water was added. These, combined with the high alcohol content, may well be the culprits of the absinthe ‘crazes’.

Absinthe, absent for almost a century. Back by idle demand. Quite a legacy for a tipple that most likely got its name from a word that translates as ‘undrinkable’ (the Greek absinthion) despite being invented at the arse end of the eighteenth century by a travelling salesman as a cure-all potion and recommended for the treatment of epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic, headaches and worms. Absinthe stepped over to the dark side in the 1880s when the price dropped dramatically and people started knocking it back like tramps. The French drank absinthe more than wine. Imagine. More than wine! In 1874 it was just artist, poets and rich kids (70,000 litres of absinthe a year) but by 1910 it was EVERYONE(36,000,000 litres of absinthe a year). By 1913 important people got a bit annoyed and started saying words like prohibition. Absinthe was too popular, too famous, too loved. She needed a Britney-style meltdown. She needed to be blamed for alcoholism and social instability. In 1905, Lanfray, a Swiss farmer got gun happy. He shot himself and his whole family. He’d drunk some absinthe (and plenty of other alcohol including wine, he was steaming). It was latched onto by politicians and the wine industry, who were desperate to claw back favour amongst the drinking public. By the outbreak of the First World War Finance Minister Ribot tried to convince the National Assembly that voting for the bill to ban absinthe was an act of national defence. It was blamed for mass desertion among the troops – panic, panic – and banned in France in 1915.

Some people moaned but nothing really happened on the absinthe front until 1994 when Marie-Claude Delahaye opened an absinthe museum in 1994 in Auvers-sur-Oise. Three years later John Moore (The Jesus and Mary Chain) drank absinthe after a gig in Prague and wrote about the drink in The Idler magazine. The magazine's editors had a light bulb moment and set up a company to import it because it wasn’t actually illegal to do so. You can now buy and drink something that is called ‘absinthe’ again. It isn’t the same as original absinthe. It isn’t anywhere near as strong (about an eighth of the original alcohol proof) and the thujone levels are restricted. I doubt it’ll lead to you cutting off body parts or creating something that may be described as ‘immoral’, ‘loathsome’, and ‘degraded’ but if you’re really lucky my ex may call you ‘bohemian’ down the pub.
Absinthe Makes the Art Grow Wonder, says Susie Wild