by Jamie Kiffel
© '97 - 2003
This article may not be reprinted in whole or in part
without express permission of the author.
For those more interested in flouting authority than in being proper and healthy, however, absinthe was also closely identified with the counterculture. Absinthe was romanticized and captured in artwork and writings by playwright Alfred Jarry, Van Gogh, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Picasso, and many others. It almost seems as if there was no artist who lived during the great collective binge who did not revel in absinthe. All these artists were exemplary of an alternative lifestyle, many going mad or simply acting like it (facts that would later be used by prohibitionists as proof for absinthe's evils). Simply looking at the artwork of the time is revelatory: Degas' famous L'Absinthe (1876) pictures two forlorn-looking café-squatters staring, disheveled, out beyond their opaline drinks. Although the people pictured were merely actors, this painting later roused intense Francophobia in England. Edouard Manet, however, dared to paint an actual street bum with absinthe, titled The Absinthe Drinker (1859). The man leans on a wall, vacuous-eyed and bundled in rags. Manet's work signified the beginning of modernist realism in painting, and thus, absinthe and a movement against the mainstream are linked in his work. Even more unusually, Van Gogh (introduced to absinthe by Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin) painted many of his works in ochres and pale greens, which are the colors of absinthe. Many of these paintings also depict the bar in which Van Gogh drank absinthe, and himself with glasses of the apéritif. Some believe that Van Gogh went mad from absinthe poisoning.
Certainly, with all this artistic madness about, drinkers were aware of the possible dangers of absinthe. I speculate that this was another part of the drink's seductiveness: the growing spectre of prohibition gave absinthe a forbidden fruit appeal as well as the attraction of flouting authority. As Barnaby Conrad explains, "By the fin de siècle. . .the glass of green absinthe shimmering on a café table symbolized anarchy, a deliberate denial of normal life and its obligations"(x). The prohibition movement was expanding, leaving a long trail of "absinthe kills" posters and images of frightening skeletons pouring the "green devil" into the mouths of poor unfortunates. Just as today's skull and crossbones pictured on English "Death Cigarettes" draws hip consumers to buy the product, the image of absinthe as evil also attracted drinkers. As an additional bonus, absinthe drinking was easy to flaunt, for it involved convoluted-looking paraphernalia that could be attractive as well as collectible (Marie-Claude Delahaye displays her vast collection of absinthe accessories in her book, L'Absinthe: Histoire de la Fée Verte).
The great collective binge began to slow to a skull-splitting halt beginning with a pair of unfortunate "absinthe murders." The first, committed by Jean Lanfray on August 28, 1905 in Vaud, Switzerland, is an excellent example of isolated incidents revealing, in hindsight, underlying causes for banning a drug. Lanfray, a 31-year-old farmer, viciously gunned down his wife and child, then attempted to kill himself. It was found after the murder that Lanfray had been drinking absinthe. It was also found at this time that Lanfray had drunk, over the day: a creme de menthe, a cognac and soda, seven glasses of wine, brandy-laced coffee, another litre of wine, and another slug of brandy. When the police learned that Lanfray sometimes drank up to five litres of wine a day, they might have been interested, but when they learned that he had drunk two glasses of absinthe on the day of the murders, the newspapers authoritatively named the Lanfray case the "absinthe murder"(Conrad 1-3). Within a few weeks, over almost 85,000 signatures were gathered in favor of banning the drink. Shortly thereafter, in Geneva, an absinthe-binging man named Sallaz killed his wife with a hatchet and a revolver(Conrad 4). Here, an anti-absinthe petition gained a formidable 34,702 signatures(Conrad 4). Ideas of wormwood as a cure for drunkenness were apparently ignored or totally disregarded. Why were the authorities so interested in blaming absinthe over all the other drinks Lanfray (and possibly Sallaz) had drunken, rather than, for instance, the excessive amounts of wine he had imbibed?
An especially important point to investigate here is the general public's misunderstanding of alcoholism at this time. To begin, in the midst of the prohibitionist excitement, the word "absinthism" came to lose its specificity. As Delahaye writes, "absinthisme et alcoolisme furent confondus, et [un] alcoolique était tout simplement dénommé un (buveur d'absinthe)"
("absinthism and alcoholism were confused, and an alcoholic was simply deemed an "absinthe drinker.")(140). I discovered this when I was reading a Christian, American, prohibitionist tract from the turn of the century entitled Absinthe and the Drink Demon. I was confused to find that the tract tells tales describing only alcoholics in general, and rarely mentions absinthe drinkers specifically.
This misunderstanding seems to have a curious usefulness for certain prohibitionists. Lanier explains that "everyone in France continued to share the belief that wine, which was a national beverage, did not contribute to alcoholism, and that, indeed, alcoholism had not been a problem in France until the advent of industrial alcohol"(32). Wine was believed to be healthy and natural, since it came from the land and was a holy and time-honored tradition, not to mention a major source of revenue. Absinthe, however, was made with industrial alcohol, and thus became the major target for temperance groups in the late 1880s. I cannot help but imagine that a major advocate of this belief had to be the wine industry. After all, under the growing threat of Prohibition, how better to draw attention away from your alcoholic product than to make people believe that it is the exception to the "bad" rule? Thus, absinthe, once made attractive by its affordability, became scorned for this very reason. Ideas of its healthfulness were reversed and seen as lies, and Jean Lanfray's wine-drinking was entirely disregarded as the wine industry-threatening absinthe was fingered for condemnation.
It is fascinating to find that many of the very reasons that absinthe was popularized helped to contribute to its banishment, lending credence to the conviction that if something is too good, it will eventually be stopped. An example of this is that, in 1914 in reaction to World War I, French government officials declared that absinthe was weakening the military(Lanier 40). This is a startling change from absinthe's beginnings in Algeria, where the drink was taken to give strength to the soldiers. Absinthe became a convenient way to mobilize France in preparation for war: it was a common evil that could be attacked by all and thus bring the country together in mental readiness as a single, fighting force. In 1915, Henri Schmidt, a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, stated, "Nous attaquons l'érosion de la défense nationale. L'abolition de l'absinthe et la défense nationale, c'est la mÉme chose" ("We are attacking the erosion of the national defense. The abolition of absinthe and the national defense are the same thing.")(Aron 262). People thus gained a patriotic incentive to ban the drink (and conversely, absinthe drinking became anti-French, another irony in light of the many Eiffel Tower-shaped absinthe spoons that were widely used shortly before this time).
One of the greatest reasons behind absinthe's banishment, however, is even more insidious than, although linked to, the belief that it is anti-patriotic: it is the fear of the drink's counter-culture, revolutionary aspect. Lanier writes that absinthe was "almost a symbol of the bohemian spirit"(46). Just as the liqueur became attractive for its exclusive, artistic subculture, it was frightening for this very reason to people outside the knowing, absintheur set. Absinthe had its own slang, which was attractive to those in the know and undeniably irritating, if not terrifying, to those who did not understand the lingo. The drink also had its own dark, shifty set of anti-socialites who were known for their madness, including such shadowy figures as Verlaine, who wandered most of his hours from café to café, drinking opaline, fainting, and having wild attacks of violence. Verlaine was also known for his dark, brooding poetry, which certainly made those who felt excluded from the absinthe culture feel no more enlightened. There was Alfred Jarry, who so adored absinthe that he rode through Paris on his bicycle with green paint on his face and hands, in honor of the Green Goddess. There was also the infamous case of Van Gogh, who finally committed suicide after a long fight with madness, seizures, and a strong addiction to absinthe. While they attracted the counter-cultural, anti-society set, none of these luminaries of infamy won over any converts from the prohibitionist crowd.
The madness that these artists exhibited has frequently been used as evidence that absinthe causes insanity. The part of absinthe that has been pinpointed by researchers as the toxic element is thujone, a narcotic contained in wormwood. Various studies were done at the turn of the century, trying to determine the precise effects of this substance, the most famous being by Dr. Motet in 1859, who found that the substance produced "crises épileptiques" ("epileptic seizures") in dogs(Aron 261). A follow-up study by Louis Marce reported "convulsions, involuntary evacuations, abnormal respiration, and foaming at the mouth"(Lanier 33) in dogs and rabbits which were given absinthe. In 1892, Dr. Isaac Ott wrote that "after the [subjects were injected] per jugular of two drops of essence of absinthe. . .the facial muscles begin with single clonic spasms, passing into a state of tremulous spasm"(Lanier 155). Lanier alludes to the idea that Ott tested humans as well as animals, but does not specify which was used in this case. University of Kansas biochemistry professor Wilfred Niels Arnold explains simply, "the symptoms and extent of the damage from excessive consumption of absinthe could not be attributed to alcohol alone"(Arnold, Absinthe 112). He goes on to suggest that other culpable chemicals came from the variety of leaves and flowers used in the drink's preparation, although a 1932 study by Paul Ricard showed that the other principal ingredient in absinthe besides wormwood (and the only other ingredient in the drink of noteworthy amount) is anise, which has not been proven to be toxic(Aron 262).
Another famous study in 1874 by Dr. Magnan compared the action of alcohol and absinthe, determining that absinthe alone, unlike alcohol alone, causes epileptic seizures in man. He writes, "absinthe. . .does not require, like alcohol, to prepare its way, for it, as is shown by physiological experiment, it can rapidly give rise to hallucinations and delirium before the alcohol contained in the liqueur of absinthe has had the time to produce trembling in man"(Magnan 411). The precise amount of absinthe administered in this experiment is not stated.
Margaret Burri, a historian, wrote for the Maryland Medical Journal in 1994, "thujone causes hallucinations, convulsions, and permanent damage to the nervous system"(Burri 27), demonstrating that, whether or not this has been definitely proven, this attitude toward thujone persists today. This is not without cause, for as recently as September, 1997, a Washington man suffered kidney failure following his imbibing essential oil of wormwood, which he purchased over the internet (Southeastern Newspapers Corporation). The very properties that make absinthe interesting, then, to those who wish to change their physical state (be it for health, pleasure, or artistic reasons) have been used to show its dangers.
The ritual of absinthe drinking, made nearly sacred by absintheurs, is another reason that absinthe became distasteful to prohibitionists. Charles Perry describes this sentiment best in a recent Los Angeles Times article. He writes, "absinthe-drinking certainly was a drug scene.. . .[the method of preparing the drink was] a ritualistic absorption that reminds us of a junkie shooting up"(Perry H6). He explains how the swirling green color of the drink came to have the same connotations in the 1890s that psychedelic mandalas had in the 1960s. Both signified "druggy ecstasy"(H6). The drink's strange, mystical preparation probably frightened those who were out of the absinthe loop into fearing absinthe yet more.
Finally, absinthe was one of the first alcoholic drinks advertised to and publicly enjoyed by women. Picasso painted several famous pictures of female absinthe drinkers, including the highly unsettling image The Absinthe Drinker (1901). This portrait pictures a painfully gaunt, red-lipped, black-haired and bony woman preparing her absinthe while staring vacantly into space. Dark figures hover in the background. When the portrait was painted, ideas of women's liberation were only just beginning, and they were undoubtedly very upsetting to many Victorian-era men who were comfortable with their lives as they were, where women were sexually silent and socially so, as well. The fact that women were showing up in bars as well as on absinthe posters, gaily enjoying alcohol along with men, may have inspired many men to oppose absinthe with the underlying reason that they were opposing women's liberation. They were able to disguise their sentiments with the claim that absinthe was unhealthy.
Naturally, the question that all these reasons for banishment raises is: are the claims of absinthe's toxicity legitimate? The answer is a complicated one, and not definitive. This uncertainty is what is interesting about it, however: the idea that maybe absinthe is not as dangerous as it is often said to be. In recent times, so little has been said about absinthe at all that the idea that it might not be singularly more harmful than any other liqueur has hardly been explored.
The most obvious place to look for evidence of the truth of absinthe's toxicity is to the studies that are so often quoted as proof of its dangers. It seems most notable that the majority of these studies were performed between 1880 and 1905. Although this does not make them worthless, it is at least important to realize that almost all the reports on absinthe today are based on the results of these same, very few experiments, so if any are incorrect, most modern absinthe literature is also incorrect. It is also tempting to assume that the experiments performed at this time were not as precise as those that could be performed today, simply because most equipment today is more advanced than that used when these experiments were done. It is interesting to examine, for instance, one widely-cited experiment by Rubert Boyce, M.B., performed in 1894. Boyce experimented with the results of absinthe stimulation on cats' brains. Boyce removed different parts of the cats' brains in order to determine how the absinthe affected each part. He found that epileptic fits were caused in the remaining cerebral lobes when either lobe was removed and absinthe administered, and that no fits resulted when the hemispheres were both removed and absinthe administered. Thus, it was found that absinthe affected the brains of cats, causing fits(Boyce 273). What I noted about this briefly described experiment is that a "fit" is not defined in the abstract, making it difficult to determine how dangerous these might be. Also, we do not know how precisely the organs were removed and how carefully the observations were taken (we are not given a chart of timed results), and finally, human beings are not cats, so we do not know if the results would be the same in people.