Friday, April 4, 2008

Absinthe Series 2: the Green Fairy Muse

Absinthe and its hallucinogenic reputation have contributed to the mythos of it being the drink of artists and poets who harnessed its "lucid intoxication" to produce works of inimitable fantasy. Through these works of visual and written art, the audience can almost taste and smell the bittersweet licorice flavour of la fée verte responsible; the imagery presents itself so vividly as if we are imbuing the green liquid ourselves.
People like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and Ernest Hemingway weren't just casual drinkers; they grabbed their paintbrushes and pens in an effort to manifest how the green fairy affected and presumambly wrecked them. Whether the wormwood-based spirit is accountable is besides the point: the tale is a charming one and thus worth recounting, which we will proceed to do.

Among the many paintings focused on absinthe, there are those which place the emphasis on the ethereal fantasy of the muse and her influence on the psyche and those which depict the sad end of the drinkers coming about via regular consumption of the addictive potion.
In the former category, one such masterpiece is Albert Maignan's Green Muse (1865): It shows a brazen spirit, running her fingers through the poet's hair with a naughty look in her eyes, up to mischief. It seems that she materialises through the fragrant vapours of the alcoholic drink, in a haze of anise and licorice, to make the poet eventually succumb to her charms.
Czech painter Viktor Oliva also focused on the fantasy, painting an almost translucent green fairy perched on the table, invisible to the besotted man sitting there but visible to the viewer who perceives that the vacant look of the drinker is an internal eye to the marvels opened up to him through the magic of the fairy.

On the other hand, Edgar Degas chose to focus on the darker side, using a muddy palette with melancholic overtones in his famous sullen woman who drinks an absinthe cocktail in L'absinthe (1876). Interestingly Degas never named the painting thus and the title must have originated through the dealer or the collector. Edouart Manet, himslef an absinthe consumer, went the same route with his The Absinthe Drinker (1858), showing a standing man, top-hatted, in the shadows, with a bottle of absinthe that has been dregged of its contents lying at his feet.
Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso also devoted copious paintbrushes to the jade liquid. Van Gogh along with Paul Gaugin indulged in heavy absinthe drinking while in Arles, which only augmented the epileptic crises of the former forcing him to retreat to a sanatorium in his twilight years and finally taking his own life. Of course absinthe is not solely to blame: he had been known to ingest turpentine in numerous occasions as well!

But the written word is no poorer when it comes to the green fairy, as we already hinted. The roots go far back:

For the lips of an adulteress drip honey,
And smoother than oil is her speech;
But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
Sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death,
Her steps lay hold of Sheol.
~Proverbs 5:4

French poet Arthur Rimbaud, rebel child-prodigy and nicknamed first "punk poet" knew the feel of the fairy's touch intimately. In the following verse perhaps an allusion to a secret marriage is infered through the use of the word "chalice".
"When the poet's pain is soothed by a liquid jewel held in the sacred chalice, upon which rests the pierced spoon, the crystal sweetness, icy streams trickle down. The darkest forest melts into an open meadow. Waves of green seduce. Sanity surrendered, the soul spirals toward the murky depths, wherein lies the beautiful madness - absinthe." ~Peggy Amond, American poet
This intense, sensual description of the enrapture that absinthe evokes in the poet's soul reminds us of the olfactory journey which we undertake when exploring the unusual aromas of its herbal character.
His poet lover, Paul Verlaine, already an alcoholic before trying absinthe, died in 1896, drinking to the end. He had obviously repented of his absinthe addiction as revealed in his Confessions, published one 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!"
In one of those fits he had destroyed the foetuses of aborted pregnancies that his -no doubt unconventional!- mother kept in the cellar.

Others were more sympathetic. Whether Charles Baudelaire, this magician of smells, speaks of absinthe in his poetry is not conclusive. He certainly insists on wine and opiates, which he mysteriously compares to something merely named "poison" in his famous poem "Le Poison":
"Yet all this pales next to the poison that flows from your eyes, like a green caress, from those lakes where I see my soul in reverse, where my dreams come in throngs to quench their thirst in chasms of bitterness"
~Charles Baudelaire, Le Poison (abridged)

The rumours that American gothic poet Edgar Allan Poe, whom Baudelaire heavily used as an inspiration, along with his drunkeness was also inebriated by absinthe have not been substanciated yet.
"A Queer Night in Paris" by Guy de Maupassant describes the smells and sensations of absinthe in the streets of Paris and makes an overt reference: "M. Saval sat down at some distance from them and waited, for the hour for taking absinthe was at hand” (commonly named "the green hour").

Oscar Wilde, famous for his sensual side as well as his wit, referenced many fragrant materials in The Portrait of Dorian Gray and wore a carnation on his lapel every day. He spoke of the green fairy thus:
“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?”
“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.

Another Brit shared his passion:
"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, through Oxygenee.com

It was 1918, when Aleister Crowley, famous British occultist who earned the sobriquet "wickedest man in the world", composed a lyrical essay on the aesthetics of absinthe. Named "Absinthe - The Green Goddess" it was allegedly written while waiting for a woman in the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. A lyrical poem, "The Legend of Absinthe", inspired by Greek mythology and devoted to the drink, was found among his manuscripts bearing a phallic symbol at the capital A for Apollo, claiming that absinthe "exalts his soul in ecstasy". {click to read and see the manuscripts}
“Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten . . . Victorianism had been defeated”
~George Watson Yeats, Victorianism, and the 1890s

Ernest Hemingway, arguably a latecomer to the cult after its 1915 ban who must have procured his through Cuba and Spain, wrote of an evening heavy on absinthe in a 1931 letter:
“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all the furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.”
Charmingly punny that he used "woodworm" along with the inferred "wormwood" which forms the basic accord of the green drink!
And again and again he references it: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Death in the Afternoon and in Hills like White Elephants with its controversial, although never bluntly spoken theme of abortion. Jig asks "That's all we do, isn't it? Look at things and try new drinks?" to which the heroine replies that even exciting new things held in waiting for a long time, like absinthe, merely end up "tasting like liquorice". Perhaps absinthe's taste stands as a metaphor for her need for more stability in lieu of their hedonistic lifestyle so far.
"It was a milky yellow now with the water and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. 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.”
~Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, ch.4

To be continued with a breakdown of wormwood and anise perfumes

Paintings by Maignan, Oliva and Degas courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Clip of Van Gohg and Absinthe originally uploaded by Vanroe44 and of Green Fairy , based on Léon Spilliaert's painting "The Absinth Drinker" by Adrammalek on Youtube.


  1. stella polaris15:05

    Inspired by your series, versinthe.net and Absolument Absinthe, we actually bought Père Kehrmann´s absinthe today (the drink!), and look foreward to late this night trying it! But my perfume is Annette Neuffer´s Avicenna - fit for someone Aristotelean inclined in thinking, like me.. :)

  2. I am glad it has inspired what promises to be a delightful evening ;-)
    (just don't drink it the way Depp does in the movie!)

    Avicenna is a fabulous perfume, it has been reviewed her on PS last year.

  3. I think this may be your best series yet, E. I love the wealth of references you've pulled in. When you can get Hemingway and Aleister Crowley together, you know you've got a party! Can't wait for the perfume recs.

    PS. Remember your rec on the Celine Dion book a few weeks ago? I did give it to D as one of his birthday presents, and he loves it! Now I have to wrestle it away from him. He sends his thanks ;-)

  4. Dear M,

    thank you for your wonderful compliment! I am really overjoyed that the work done in this is appreciated :-)

    I am very happy the book was such a success! (and happy belated birthday to him!) It was originally instilled as an idea by Lou and it rang some serious bells in me ;-)

  5. Anonymous08:49

    I don't think I've ever seen such thorough research on a blog before! Thank you!


  6. Abigail,

    thank you so much for your wonderful compliment. It warms my heart, trully :-))

  7. Peggy Amond's poem "RIMBAUD'S POISON" is an eloquent commentary on absinthe and some of its users. I love the imagery in her last book "WIDOW MOON", this poem especially,

    "When the poet's pain is soothed by a liquid jewel held in the sacred chalice, upon which rests the pierced spoon, the crystal sweetness, icy streams trickle down. The darkest forest melts into an open meadow. Waves of green seduce. Sanity surrendered, the soul spirals toward the murky depths, wherein lies the beautiful madness - absinthe."


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