In the gutter, looking at the stars

Absinthe mythology is as dark, alluring, and angsty as a heroin chic lead singer of any ’90s band. Admittedly, I’m looking hard at you, Hope Sandoval (of Mazzy Star, lately of the Warm Inventions), but from the 1990s, I could also look farther back and into the 1890s. Oscar Wilde sang lead for a band of one as it were, and is a wonderfully iconic and ironic figure when it comes to “absinthe fiction,” considering that at least three well-known quotes regarding absinthe are attributed to him, despite the fact that some assert he barely ever indulged in the drink.

One particularly famous quote of Wilde’s with regard to absinthe (and unarguably the lengthiest) is as follows: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas.If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust.The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. “Don’t you see them?” I said to him. “Mais non, monsieur, il n’y a rien. [“No sir, there is nothing.]”

This type of fanciful exaggeration of the power of absinthe undoubtedly served as a two-edged sword in terms of the future of the drink, as it both inspired some souls to sample it for the first time with the hopes of gaining some sort of artistic enlightenment, while it simultaneously fueled the fires of the abstinence contingent who zeroed in on absinthe as the primary cause for the decline of Western (European) civilization, even as other alcohols were ignored. In truth, the concept of alcoholism as an disease which could accurately be diagnosed had not yet gained a foothold, and the “drys” actually gave the thumbs up to anyone and everyone drinking as much wine as they wanted, so long as they gave up hard liquor and spirits made from “industrial” alcohol. Ah, those heady days of yesteryear.

Within this rather topsy-turvy environment, Oscar Wilde posited a famously rhetorical question about absinthe: “What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” A legion of conservative zealots with a complex agenda responded with force.

And yet, as easy as it is to castigate these folks as being single and/or simple-minded for vilifying one alcohol over another, there’s no doubt that absinthe has a certain allure to it which other drinks do not. Perhaps it’s the almost hypnotic ritual of its preparation with the sugar and the spoon; or maybe it’s in how there is a mild but noticeable “awakening” effect after enjoying a glass, an effect which does not instill artistic talent in those who may lack it, but can provide a warm, healthy atmosphere in which creativity may bloom.

Regardless of the reasons, there was and will always be a certain romanticism associated with a dose of absinthe, and while the melodrama surrounding it ultimately may have caused more harm than good in terms of the future of the drink, a dramatist as fine, witty, and pointed as Oscar Wilde could hardly disagree that it was worth it. In point of fact, he reserved what may have been his plainest, most earnest words for the drink, which is as beautifully simple and complex a pronouncement as any I could ever dream up:

“A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world.”

Today isn’t the anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birth, or death, or any other date of note during the course of his lifetime. As such, it’s the perfect day to raise a toast to the chap, and so I do. This one’s for you, Oscar.

Oscar Wilde, 1882.

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2 Comments

  1. absinthegeek said,

    April 6, 2012 at 1:31 am

    It would be interesting to know which absinthe brands Oscar Wilde was preferring. Anyways, a toast on Mr Wilde and cheers to you! 🙂

    • April 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm

      Mr. Wilde frequented the Café Royal in London (where he is said to have written his famous passage about the three stages of absinthe, and felt imaginary tulips brushing his heels on his way home), but I’ve never been able to discover which brands they served there in the 1890s. I’m tempted to simply play the odds and assume Pernod Fils. A hearty cheers to you as well!


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