Absinthe Isn’t Special and You Aren’t Special for Drinking It

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by Xan Holbrook

I see you there. You’re twirling your Hercule Poirot ‘stache, adjusting your pince-nez specs and drinking espresso from a cup so small you hold it with tweezers.

Sitting there, in your Fort Greene café, keeping an eye on the Penny-Farthing you rode here on. Watching the world go by, people coming, going, babies screaming, cars driving, lights changing, sun rising to its present golden peak, like the Flaneur you’re not. You’ve spent a day’s wages on that cup you’re drinking, plus gratuity, then you’re going to crank open that Macbook (High Sierra, because anything later is for posers) and flick on OpenOffice. You’re finally going to do it. This morning, after allowing one final assault to the senses, you’re ready. You’re so goddamn ready. Ever since you saw Moulin Rouge that epochal summer when you were 12. Ever since you discovered the word existential. Ever since your parents drove you from Slickpoo, Idaho and dropped you off at Kingsborough Community College. 

You’re a latter-day post-impressionist, channelling all your angst into ecstatic beauty, like everyone else who has completed a creative writing MFA. But your work…it’s going to be fucking amazing.

You’re finally going to get to work on your novel

Just one thing, Monsieur. Nothing personal, as this is a public service I’m doing here, but just a quick reminder…

Absinthe is not the drink you think it is. But it’s not your fault that you think it’s the key to whatever je ne sais quoi that les bohèmes possessed. It’s their fault.

I’m not just saying from personal experience, although I have drank it. I was 15, and hadn’t yet turned to writing. I was at a mate’s house, where we would drink anything that wasn’t nailed down, and then play Mario Kart 64 while blind pissed. I was the only one in the room who knew how to pronounce the drink, and purportedly knew what it did to your brains, but the exercise was one in anti-climax. It was one burning shot among many. Not that you could convince anyone else of this.

In case you weren’t aware – absinthe, AKA la fée verte, AKA fucking rancid wormwood bollocks (© Jess Holbrook, 2007) was the drink most associated with the Paris-based bohemians of La Belle Époque. A time noted by relative peace and prosperity – for rich people – in France, and an explosion in creativity.

France – then, as now – could be incredibly snooty and bourgeois about la culture (no, you use too much French), and many of the best writers, painters, poets and sculptors were thought of as barbarous, and an insult to civilization. In 1886, rebelling against the crusty official society, or Salon, of the French Government, a group of visionaries including Gaugin, Cezanne, Signac and Pizzaro formed the Societé des Artistes Indépendents, just as the Impressionists had to fight against L’Academie des Beaux-Arts to get their work recognized twenty years previously.

Of this bunch, arguably the most famous is Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, or just Toulouse-Lautrec. Although his art would rub shoulders with such cultural meteors as van Gogh, his work is the other side of the coin to the madman of Provence. Far from angst-ridden and lonely, ol’ Henri spent his time rendering Paris’ prostitutes, drunks, rakes, hustlers and wastrels in explosive color. As such, the bloke had a reputation for partying that preceded him. Starting out as a beer drinker – bad enough for a French aristocrat – he moved into throwing back glass after glass of Absinthe.

Here’s the thing – Absinthe was a drink which attracted scorn in heaping measure, by people who drank and who didn’t. The Temperance Movement hated all drink on general principle, and the wine industry – arse backward as it was and is – saw Absinthe as an existential threat, so the two formed a perverse and unholy alliance to stop people drinking the green stuff.

The repeated calls for people to stop drinking it only increased the resolve of those who did, so that it became, like Pabst Blue Ribbon later, a rallying point for urban bohemia. I dare say, however, that no one will claim that they were inspired to create their Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by a can of flat pisswater.

All well and good, but what’s with all the hallucination stuff? Isn’t it the booze of the beyond?

This notion can be put down to three things. One is bullshitting. The Temperance and Wine lobbies spread false rumors about what the drink did to you – madness, murder, robbery, debauchery, you already know the drill (the drink was banned in Switzerland after a violent drunk killed his family after hours of brandy and other liquor, only to top it off with a glass or two of fairy juice. The Swiss wrote the ban into their constitution. I’m not joking).

The press smelt hysteria, and came up with their own brand of nonsense which fed into what people were already chatting. Since the people who hated the drink either never drank at all, or never drank Absinthe, then those who did claimed these effects as their own, including the idea that it made you more creative, or that it expanded your consciousness. Once again, you know the sodding drill.

Two is the joyous lack of health and safety in Victorian France. I’ll say it yet again for the folks who somehow haven’t read my glorious oeuvre already, but if you think you can drink, then get your lips around a bottle of yesteryear’s atomic tipple. The more conservative estimates measure the strength to have been from 45 to 70 per cent, but in reality this would have been way, way stronger.

Third is the great big monkey on every creative’s back during the 19th Century. Opium. Opium everywhere. Especially in your drinks.

I’m not a fan of living in the past, but I get that some people must. It’s fine to have an idealized time in your mind, as long you know that it is mere fantasy. Some people have Middle Earth, some have the 20s, others have Paris in La Belle Époque, or even just their college days. But they were just as terrified, confused, frightened, and self-conscious as you are now.

Finish that coffee. Write that novel. Do it because those things are ace. But, for the love of Jesus, don’t think the answer comes in a bottle. And get that shit off your face.

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