by Jamie Kiffel
© '97 - 2003
This article may not be reprinted in whole or in part
without express permission of the author.
Another important point about these old experiments is that they are often provided in translation from French. In French, "absinthe" means "wormwood." Thus, in an experiment such as Magnan's "On The Comparative Action of Alcohol and Absinthe"(1873), when we read that a dog, upon being injected with "essence of absinthe" experienced delirious epileptic fits, we are actually reading a mistranslation. The dog was injected not with absinthe, but with wormwood, the element within absinthe that is in question. This is important because absinthe only contained "thirty to thirty-five drops of absinthol [wormwood extract] in a quart, and the average glassful contains considerably less than two full drops"(Conrad 154). In fact, "an ounce of absinthe contains much less thujone than is contained in the amount of wormwood oil once frequently prescribed by doctors for alleviation of fever"(Conrad 154). Admittedly, opium and cocaine were once included in household remedies, and were later proven to be highly dangerous even when taken in small amounts. However, the FDA requires the amount of thujone in a food or beverage to be 100 times lower than the amount which will cause at least two different types of animals to have any injury to brain, liver, or foetus(Conrad 153). High Times writer Craig Pyes found that "[t]he intake of thujone in one ounce of traditional absinthe (drunk by a 150-pound man) is fifty times less toxic than the dosage required to cause a minimum toxic reaction in humans, leaving a safety margin of fifty, half of what would be necessary to qualify by FDA standards"(Conrad 154). It has not been conclusively found that thujone causes cumulative damage to the nervous system(Conrad 154), as I also found from the several conflicting experiments I read.
Also noteworthy is the fact that enormous amounts of thujone were used in testing. As Aron writes the amounts proven by Magnan to cause epileptic seizures in animals equal eight to ten absinthes per day in a human being. It is true that some absintheurs, including Paul Verlaine, drank at least this much absinthe per day, but then it seems difficult to tell whether the more dangerous problem in such a case is absinthism or alcoholism.
It is often debated whether the real danger of absinthe is not its low thujone content, but its incredibly high alcohol content (up to 160 proof). Dr. Richard Rappolt, executive editor of Clinical Toxicology, asserted in 1979 that "the most harmful ingredient in absinthe is. . .ethanol"(Conrad 153). The drink's high alcohol content, writes Wilfred Niels Arnold, is such because it is the only way to keep absinthe's oil constituents in solution("Absinthe" 115). Niels argues, however, that the high ethanol content was not absinthe's health hazard, because "it was diluted with water"("Absinthe" 115). This is true, for although there were some drinkers who drank absinthe straight up, they were few. Rappolt also confessed, however, that "What most people object to in absinthe is mostly the name 'wormwood.' It makes them think that little maggots are eating their brains. But there is little known about absinthe"(Conrad 153). The origin of wormwood's name, incidentally, is that it was once used to treat intestinal worms.
Other researchers and writers believe that absinthe's danger came from the fact that it was produced in differing grades, some of which were adulterated with toxic substances. Arnold writes that "copper salts. . .cupric acetate. . .methanol and alcohols higher than ethanol" were used in making inexpensive absinthes("Absinthe" 115). A 1902 study of absinthe titration asserts that there were three grades of absinthe being produced at that time: low, medium, and high-grade, the lowest being made with the cheapest alcohol and the most adulterants, and the highest being the most expensive and pure. Because during the great absinthe binge, most people were drinking the cheapest absinthe available (after all, the majority of the population is the lower- and middle-class), impurities could account for adverse reactions caused by the drink. Today, this might be comparable to the unsafe nature of cheap street drugs, which can be adulterated with anything from rat poison to battery acid.
Also as with today's highly publicized, illicit drugs, not nearly as much absinthe was being drunk during the "great absinthe binge" as it would seem from the title given to the time. In fact, the total amount of absinthe drunk in Paris during these years never exceeded 3%(Aron 261). Thus, we should look to the most publicized cases of absinthism in order to determine if the danger was really worth making so much noise about.
The most debated and written-about absintheur is Vincent Van Gogh. Although he was hardly known while he lived, his case is similar to that of many other renowned artists who were his contemporaries. Van Gogh was an outcast and a depressive who suffered from epileptic fits(Hemphill 1084) and bouts with psychotic attacks(Meissner). He also drank a lot of absinthe while living in Arles with Paul Gauguin, became an absinthe addict who painted outside at night with candles hooked to his hat, and was sent to a sanitorium in 1888 after he was forced out by a petition from people in his town who were frightened by his bizarre ways(Meissner 287). He never acted violently, excepting when he sliced off his own ear during a psychotic fit, and an apocryphal claim from Gauguin that Vincent once threatened him with a razor(Hemphill 1085). Arnold writes that "[c]ommon observation suggested that frank mental deterioration often attended excessive imbibing of absinthe"("Vincent" 3042). Van Gogh did drink excessive amounts of absinthe, and he did suffer from mental deterioration. However, one does not necessarily follow the other.
Van Gogh's family had a history of mental illness. He not only drank absinthe, but also tried to drink turpentine on several occasions (and we know not on how many occasions he succeeded). Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. He was clearly unwell beyond any absinthe drinking he did. I propose that the same was true of most 'absinthe-mad' artists. Alfred Jarry, for example, praised absinthe as a goddess, and was also obsessed throughout most of his life (since long before he encountered absinthe) with his invented, turd-shaped character, "Père-Ubu." Paul Verlaine was an absintheur, as well. His family life was less than ordinary: Verlaine's mother kept the fetuses of her earlier, miscarried pregnancies preserved in jars in the pantry(Lanier 48). Verlaine destroyed these one day during an "absinthe fit." Verlaine began drinking at 17 or 18(Lanier 50), and was already an alcoholic before he found absinthe. It seems to me that all of these men had reasons beyond absinthe for acting oddly. I also believe that by nature, most artists have counter-cultural personalities, for their occupation goes against the mainstream. Thus, it is not unusual that these people have strange quirks in addition to an absinthe habit, showing that the so-called results of their absinthe addictions cannot be isolated from the strange ways they had to begin with.
Along the same lines, Doris Lanier states that as a product of an age of uncertainty, absinthe seduced many of the gifted people and many of the period's greatest talents were among its victims. Already emotionally unstable, or isolated because their talents, these people turned to absinthe: it appealed to their imagination, eased their loneliness, and comforted them in their despair. . .It may be that, even without absinthe, they would have destroyed themselves, but it is difficult to overlook the fact that one of the side effects of overindulgence in absinthe is a preoccupation with death(153). I agree with Lanier up to the point where she claims that absinthe caused a preoccupation with death. It seems equally probable to me that the people who were interested in absinthe were also interested in death, and that they were drawn into the drink's culture because they found people who had the same interests indulging in the drink, as well. Its poisonous-looking verdure and its intricate spoons are surely fitting decor for any Gothic horror film. People of this dark mindset were, I believe, attracted to the drink for these reasons; they were not attracted to the drink and then made into death-addicts by it.
It is important, finally, to note as Conrad does that although there were certainly terrible cases of absinthe addiction and possible ruin resulting from it, "for millions of Frenchmen who drank it in moderation, absinthe was little more than a pleasant, refreshing drink"(x). Let us note as well that absinthe is not, after all, the only drink that contained, or contains, thujone. In fact, vermouth, bitters, and even Chartreuse, all of which are still easily obtainable almost anywhere in the world, contain small amounts of thujone. Aron writes that, at least at the time that absinthe was popular, these drinks all contained equal amounts of thujone to absinthe(262). It is because of the vastly inconclusive evidence for absinthe's dangers and because so many other substances, most notably cigarettes, are fully proven to cause permanent physical damage and death and yet remain legal, that I believe that the ban on absinthe should be lifted.
This past summer, I sat in a dark luncheonette, deciding what type of apéritif would go well with the goulash I had ordered. Of course, this decision-making was really just nervous pretense; I knew immediately what I would have when I looked at the drink list. It was one of the few apéritifs I recognized, listed ingenuously along with other Czech elixirs I could barely read, let alone pronounce. I ordered my absinthe. I believe it cost about $1.00. I didn't know much about the drink at the time, except that it was supposed to cause hallucinations and that it was only legal in the Czech Republic. It was brought to me in a tiny, crystal-cut liqueur glass. It was pale emerald green, just as it is in the paintings that helped to make it infamous. It reeked of spirits and anise. I lifted it and touched my tongue to it, then drew back in horror. It was like drinking green fire. The vapors were noxious and flooded my nose, choking me. I tried valiantly, but could not force down more than half a teaspoonful. I had no absinthe hallucinations and I felt betrayed by la fée verte, but I was not ready to give up.
Before leaving Prague, I bought a bottle of Radomil Hill Absinthe and packed it deep in my carry-on luggage. I hoped I would not be stopped by customs on my way back into London Heathrow Airport. I figured I would plead "dumb American" and have no problems. I mostly did not want to have my drink confiscated, however. On my way through customs, I was stopped. I could not believe it. I tried not to break a sweat. I was taken into a small tent by a jolly, English customs officer who rummaged through my satchel, tossing my dirty laundry and shampoo bottles aside. He reached deep into my bag, and announced, "Ha!" I held my breath. He drew out...my yellow, stuffed, plush lion. "See what I found!" he boomed. "Your cuddly bear!" he laughed loudly. I laughed too, out of enormous relief.
The absinthe came back into the states without a hitch, and it stands to this day unopened, a mysterious souvenir I know I cannot drink, both for physical reasons (I can't choke it down) and for sentimental reasons (I can't believe I have it at all). Imagine my shock when I read an article from the London Daily Telegraph, written in 1997, stating, "Cancel your flight to Prague. There is something strong, green and legal waiting for you in south London"(Neill 10). It seems that after experiencing absinthe in Prague, this gentleman returned home to be told by a friend that a pub in South London, the Fridge Bar, serves Absinto, a Portuguese version of absinthe. (This brand of absinthe was legal in Spain until 1994.) The gentleman did in fact find the drink there. He was as surprised as I am, and so he called Customs & Excise to determine if he had committed an illegal act. "It isn't banned, and we have no record of it ever being banned"(Neill 10), he was told. Here lies the confused reality of absinthe. Although few people know it, it never was banned in London.
Absinthe is not quite illegal in Switzerland, either. According to Swiss law, "it is not illegal to drink absinthe, but it is illegal to distill, sell, or transport it"(Conrad 149). You may draw your own conclusions as to what that means for the availability of the drink in the Swiss Val-de-Travers, where absinthe was invented. Did I hear someone say "bootlegging?" Just don't let anyone catch you asking for it too loudly.
Absinthe enthusiasts and artists are not the only people interested in having the ban lifted on the Green Goddess. Margaret Burri writes that in the late 1980s, French politicians began lobbying for the repeal of the ban. They feared that Spain, which had never outlawed absinthe at that time, would begin to sell it to other countries when it became a full member of the European Economic Community in 1992. Possibly recalling the absinthe boom of the late 1800s, these French officials wanted a part of the profits(Burri 27). Although this did not happen, Kathleen Knox wrote in 1996 that Radomil Hill has plans to start exporting his surplus absinthe to Britain, Sweden, and California.
Judging by a recent article from Newsweek, America is ready for absinthe's return. The Seattle Loft, a coffee house dedicated to fin-de-siècle culture, is decorated with Victorian books, violet water bottles, and antique absinthe bottles. Although none of these bottles are filled, patrons are having their own small, intimate absinthe parties with homemade absinthe. "The stuff is cheap, accessible, and easy to make," one patron is quoted as saying. Indeed, recipes for absinthe are available all over the internet (some better than others), and the ingredients for absinthe are easy enough to find at any herbalist--and legal. Absinthe may have medicinal uses, as well. A 1992 article from La Revue Médicale de la Suisse Romande investigates how wormwood might be useful in a vaccination against malaria. This is not shocking, considering wormwood's medicinal past.
Absinthe has been subverted so well and for so long that few people have heard of it at this point, let alone know that it is illegal. I feel it is not long before it will be legalized, if only because it is another item to be sold and taxed, and because it was never proven that it is actually dangerous in the first place. I do feel that too much thujone is undoubtedly poisonous, and I do not doubt that it caused seizures in laboratory animals. If I eat too many vitamins today, I might also have seizures, but my vitamins are legal and even promoted for good health. I believe it is time that the green fairy be let out of her dark and dusty cellar and allowed to fly freely through and back into the bars of the world once again, adding mystique, intrigue and something slightly Victorian to the culture of legal intoxicants.