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Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle Hardcover – April 15, 2004
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From The New England Journal of Medicine
Absinthe, a strongly alcoholic drink with a reputation of mythic proportions, is again in fashion, 90 years after it was banned in France and elsewhere as a cause of madness. The drink, a potent concoction of wormwood, herbs, and between 55 percent and 75 percent alcohol, continues to fascinate, and Hideous Absinthe is one of several recent books on the subject. Jad Adams, a writer of biographies of literary and political figures, focuses on two aspects of absinthe's history: its role in the bohemian literary and artistic movements of France and Britain and the efforts made to ban the drink. By the late 19th century, absinthe was not only a popular aperitif but, Adams neatly suggests, a drink of "display and provocation." Artists and writers celebrated its hallucinatory effects and referred to it affectionately as "the green fairy" or "holy water." Doctors, politicians, and social critics, citing medical research that indicated that one component of wormwood, thujone, caused hallucinations and madness, denounced the drink as "a quick coach to the madhouse" and, in the United States, "the green curse of France." Adams examines the development of these competing myths, which, he argues, were primarily the product of artistic, social, or political preoccupations. The book ends with an acerbic examination of the recent revival of absinthe and its myths, thanks to clever publicity, an increased public tolerance of drug use, and the Internet. Despite its sensationalist title and colorful dust jacket, Hideous Absinthe is a careful and considered account of a drink whose reputation has always exceeded its consumption. Adams examines the careers and often prodigious alcohol intake of such artists and writers as Paul Verlaine, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Oscar Wilde. He is, however, skeptical of claims that absinthe was the source of these artists' creativity or of their sometimes self-destructive drinking habits. Only in exceptional cases, such as Paul Gauguin's perceptions of color, does Adams discern any influence of absinthe. Rather, he stresses that artists and writers in Paris and London used absinthe as one of many symbols to express their defiance of traditional middle-class values. The banning of absinthe only added to its allure, and 20th-century writers such as Ernest Hemingway found the drink a useful device for fashioning an image of manly daring. Adams is equally skeptical of the scientific and medical evidence cited by those who sought to ban the drink. He argues that such supposedly objective evidence was, and in some cases continues to be, shaped by social or cultural influences. His prime example is the work of Valentin Magnan, France's foremost psychiatrist and a leading expert on alcoholism in the late 19th century. On the basis of laboratory experiments in which guinea pigs were injected with high doses of thujone, Magnan claimed that absinthe produced a distinct and dramatic form of madness called absinthism. Adams explores the dubious scientific basis of Magnan's experiments and their popularization in anti-absinthe campaigns. He is equally critical of more recent scientific research on thujone. Adams has read widely on his topic, from obscure poetry to the latest scholarship, and he can nicely juxtapose a scientific report on the supposedly devastating effects of absinthe with a minor poet's witty riposte. He is careful to acknowledge his scholarly sources, making this a useful book for those who want to read further. Historians or specialists on addiction will question some assertions, such as the extent to which women consumed absinthe or the impact of the drink's ban on later prohibition movements. France, after all, banned absinthe, but the French temperance movement was careful to distance itself from American Prohibition, which it judged excessive and puritanical. But even specialists will learn something from this balanced and informative account. Hideous Absinthe might also interest public officials contemplating a ban on reputedly harmful substances or those drinkers who, enticed by clever publicity, have tried absinthe and found its taste to be vile and its effects disappointing. As Adams observes, absinthe will always "fill the role required of it." Patricia E. Prestwich, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2005 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
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Absinthe is a high-proof alcohol drink to which has been added essential oils of wormwood, plus aniseed or fennel, which taste like liquorice and gave the famous clear green color. It became particularly a drink for French Bohemian writers and artists. Adams shows, however, that the poets and painters who concentrated on absinthe as a subject were minor artists busy cultivating a bohemian atmosphere around themselves; the greater artists might have included it as part of their world, but had no particular fascination for it. Wormwood has a chemical called thujone within it, which might be a mild hallucinogen, but there is question that it would have had any significant effect at the dose provided in absinthe. What certainly would have had effect is the high amount of alcohol in the drink. Absinthe's widespread adoption scared the French government, which listened to the experts blaming it for everything from anarchy to population decline to the rise of Jews. A national ban was eventually enforced in 1915. In England, absinthe never had much of a hold, as it was seen as representing everything corrupt about France. In the US, those who provided alcohol during prohibition had little interest in this particular aperitif, and when prohibition was lifted, absinthe remained on the list of banned drugs. It was still available to American expatriates in different countries in Europe, and when the Cold War ended, tourism to such places as Prague brought a new boom in absinthe-drinking.
Except that there was little to match the extravagant reports of a century before. Absinthe became trendy with some rock stars (one ad campaign said, "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1899"), and it isn't surprising that their experiences of it did not meet those of the introverted Parisian artists that had gone before. Part of the problem is that they are not drinking the same thing. Absinthe from eastern Europe did not smell of aniseed, did not have oils so that it did not turn cloudy during the preparation ceremony, and did not have nearly enough wormwood to cause mental effects above those from the alcohol. Any chemical artistic inspiration just wasn't there. In a fascinating work of history with short biographies of famous drinkers of the time, Adams shows that the problem wasn't chemical. Absinthe met the expectations of a particular crowd of artists who gave it a particular reputation at a particular time. Even if the absintheur rock band Sugar Cubes (lead by the famous Björk) had the absinthe that Van Gogh drank, it would be a bit much to expect equivalent masterpieces.