Monday, August 3, 2015

Absinthe: the guillotine of the soul

            In 1869, alarming news about the dangers of drinking absinthe swept north from New York City, through Albany, all the way to Malone, near the Canadian border. A “brilliant writer” from the New York press and a “talented lady” had ruined themselves physically and mentally by drinking absinthe. Comparing the drink to opium and morphine, the article warned readers that absinthe “obtains an all-powerful control over its votaries, deadens the sensibilities, and is, indeed the guillotine of the soul.”

            Results of experiments on animals by Dr. Valentin Magnan, a respected French physician and an authority on alcoholic insanity, gave weight to warnings that absinthe caused vertigo, convulsions, hallucinations, insanity and criminality. According to Dr. Magnan, the effects were permanent and hereditary—children of an absinthe drinker stood a good chance of developing a serious mental illness.
            Dr. Magnan’s 1869 experiments on guinea pigs, rabbits and cats were well publicized in New York State. He compared the effects of pure alcohol and absinthe on the animals by putting one in a glass case with a saucer full of pure alcohol, and another in a case with a saucer of the essence of wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, one of the plants used to make absinthe and from which it takes its name.
            The animal exposed to absinthe soon “fell on its side, agitating its limbs convulsively, foaming at the mouth and presenting all the signs of epilepsy.” The animal, forced to get intoxicated by pure alcohol, “behaved like an ordinary drunkard. He became lively, then reeled about, and at last lay down and fell into a heavy sleep.”
            The warnings about the danger of using absinthe came primarily from opponents of alcohol abuse and public drunkenness. Interestingly, as the nineteenth century wore on, French wine makers encouraged their efforts. They had seen most of their vineyards destroyed during the Great French Wine Blight and the shortage of wine led to higher wine prices. To curb their growing expenses, absinthe manufacturers stopped using wine alcohol and began using cheaper industrial alcohol made from beets and grain. The result was an inexpensive absinthe, cheaper than wine, which greatly appealed to working class drinkers.
            A distilled spirit made from the essences of a number of plants including anise, fennel, hyssop, and wormwood, absinthe has high alcohol content, typically 110 to 144 proof (55 to 72 per cent alcohol). Because of its traditionally bright yellowish-green color, absinthe has been known by a number of nicknames including the green muse, the green torment, the green oblivion, and its most popular nickname, the green fairy.
            During the second half of the nineteenth century, absinthe enjoyed a surge of popularity in France where more absinthe was consumed than in the rest of the world. Artists, writers and poets such as Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Arthur Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde were said to have been inspired by the green fairy.

            Absinthe also made its way into the U.S. The Absinthe Room opened in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1874 and attracted prominent literary figures including Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. In New York City, the Absinthe House opened its doors for business and soon absinthe drinking became all the rage with bohemians and their wannabees.
            As absinth became more popular in New York State, alarm bells about its usage rang louder. In 1879, a doctor reviewed the use of absinthe, “an unusually deadly poison,” in an article for the British magazine, the Contemporary Review. Reprinted in the New York Times, the story concluded that heavy use of absinthe can cause “epileptiform convulsions” and unconsciousness which can last for six or seven hours. The doctor warned that in the worst cases, the absinthe user can become a “confirmed epileptic.”

            The anti-absinthe drumbeat continued into the last years of the nineteenth century. For example, an 1893 article in the New York literary magazine Current Literature entitled “Confessions of an Absintheur” and written by “A Slave to the Green Fairy,” began with the author saying, “I know what absinthe means! Madness and death!”
            The movement to ban absinthe was given a huge boost in 1905 when a Swiss laborer murdered his two children and pregnant wife after a day long drinking bout with wine, brandy—and two glasses of absinthe. The crime and its connection with absinthe were highly publicized and support for a ban on absinthe skyrocketed.
            In 1912, following the lead of the Congo Free State, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland and Holland, the U.S. banned the importation of absinthe. A doctor speaking for the government said absinthe was being banned because it was “dangerous to health,” “one of the worst enemies of man,” and because users risked becoming “slaves to this demon.”
            The ban on absinthe in the U.S. lasted almost 100 years. In 2007, the federal government lifted its ban and the green fairy returned to New York State. At first, sales soared and in 2010, New York State absinthe was distilled in Walton, a town in the foothills of the Catskills in Delaware County, and in Gardiner, a town in neighboring Ulster County.
            In the past few years, sales of absinthe have leveled off. Some analysts have suggested that the drop may have occurred because consumers were disappointed by the “green fairy effect” or they did not like absinthe’s licorice-like taste.

            Another explanation for the drop may be found in commentary about absinthe widely attributed to Oscar Wilde. He said, “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

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