The characteristic alcoholic beverage of French city dwellers during the famous fin-de-siècle era, absinthe is forever associated with the world of belle epoque cafés and the Parisian artistic avant-garde. Following the end of the political repression of cafés under Napoleon III, emperor of France during the 1850s and 1860s, and the extensive rebuilding of the capital city under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, prefect of the Seine, Parisian café culture flourished. At the same time, an epidemic of phylloxera, an aphid-like insect, wiped out large portions of the French national wine crop. As a result, Parisians turned increasingly to liqueurs and aperitifs, and by around 1890 absinthe had emerged as the drink of choice.
Absinthe liqueur is distilled from the soaked leaves of wormwood, a course, shrublike plant. As served in the late nineteenth century, the drink was typically 140 to 160 percent proof, which explains the term's alleged origins in the Greek words for "impossible to drink." A key active ingredient is the toxic chemical thujone. The drink's color is a distinctive emerald green, hence its nickname la fée verte (the green fairy). L'heure verte (the green hour) likewise became slang for happy hour. The method of preparation was distinctive: consumers poured a shot (or two) of pure absinthe along with a carafe of water through a lump of sugar resting on a slotted silver spoon into an empty cone-shaped glass. (The elegantly shaped spoons are now collectors' items.) The taste of absinthe is thick and licorice-like.
The drink was associated with fashionable middle- and upper-class persons who frequented the stylish cafés, café-concerts, and brasseries that populated the French capital. Cheaper derivations were marketed to the lower classes. The late nineteenth century was also the golden age of the French poster, scores of which depicted the drink as glamorous and desirable. Its erotic associations were manifest; many paintings and posters represented the drink as a seductress that is simultaneously alluring and destructive. The drink's reputation was further enhanced by the idea that it heightened artistic creativity, reminiscent on this score of opium and hashish during the Romantic era.
Although absinthe is mentioned in many earlier works, including Egyptian papyri, the Bible, and ancient Syrian texts, it was French writers and painters of this period who lavished their attention on absinthe: Édouard Manet's early work Le buveur d'absinthe (1859; The absinthe drinker) takes the libation as the central subject of a painting,
whereas the green glass figures as a background object in canvases by Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among many other painters. Provocatively, Edgar Degas in L'absinthe (1876) and Pablo Picasso in Woman Drinking Absinthe (1901) depict besotted female drinkers. French poets from Charles Baudelaire to Paul Verlaine and beyond imbibed notoriously. In his Dictionnaire des idées reçues (posthumously published in 1913; Dictionary of received ideas), Gustave Flaubert wrote "Absinthe: Extra violent poison. One drink, and you're a dead man" (1976 translation, p. 293). Its intoxicating, if not toxic, powers were legendary. Laboratory experiments reputedly caused animals to lapse into epileptic seizures, and van Gogh's well-known convulsions have been interpreted as absinthe-induced.
By around 1910, French men and women were drinking 36,000,000 liters (9,510,000 gallons) of absinthe yearly, which accounted for 90 percent of all aperitifs consumed in the country. By this time, the national craze was increasingly perceived as a medical and social problem. Contrasting with the colorful marketing images of the drink as fun and pleasurable were a growing number of public health posters, which visually linked the drink with dipsomania, self-destruction, and death. Indicatively, in both positive and negative representations, absinthe was invariably incarnated as a female figure. The pathological concept and category of alcoholism (as opposed to the popular notion of drunkenness) were comparatively new at the time. French temperance societies crusaded against the drink, but it took World War I to force a change in governmental policy toward a product around which a thriving industry had grown up. Fearing chronic absinthism in the army, the wartime government outlawed the beverage in March 1915. Since then, its sale has remained illegal in France. Nevertheless, it can still be purchased in Spain, Portugal, and the Czech Republic, although in much lower alcoholic concentrations and under regulation by the European Union. Critics have mischievously pointed out that the outlawing of absinthe coincides in time with a decline in creativity within the French cultural arts.
Both within and outside France, the lore and legend of absinthe remain powerful; cafés, restaurants, foods, rock bands, and all manner of popular-cultural paraphernalia continue to sport the name.
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Mark S. Micale
ab·sinthe / ˈabˌsin[unvoicedth]/ (also ab·sinth) • n. 1. the shrub wormwood.2. a potent green aniseed-flavored liqueur. Prepared from wormwood, it is now largely banned because of its toxicity.