A New York Times piece marks the legalization and return to the West of the real, wormwoody absinthe.
Until recently, the green stuff marketed in shops contained replacement ingredients for wormwood, because wormwood contains a terpene called "thujone." This substance was thought to induce the mind-altering effects rhapsodized by the likes of Hemingway, Wilde, and van Gogh -- three stellar figures who did not shine with Phoebus, but orbited in black velvet with Selene. But the distillers of the old pre-ban recipe were able to prevail on European and American authorities to permit the sale of the $60+ bottles of the Green Fairy Potion. I guess with a commodity like that you have lots of money to lobby with, as opposed to the Corn Squeezin's Kartel squirreled away in the smoky woods where I grew up (clear stuff, not green, poured in old Pepsi bottles).
It is entertaining to see the gourmand and sophisticate community doing cartwheels, joyous and revisionist, over absinthe's restoration from its ban in 1912. Wannabe artists and writers (not the most dangerous kind, just annoying and cloying) shudder like debutantes over the allure of -- get this -- "visionary consciousness."
I thought that term belonged to the hesychasts. Imagine my surprise at finding out that it was Oscar Wilde who beat them to the punch.
[Sorry about that last line: I must remember that punishment is the absinthe of humor.]
For those of you who wonder what went wrong with the modern age, which began its extrusion out of La Belle Epoch and Cubism, and went through puberty in the Really Big War (i.e., I'm one of those odd ones who conflate WW's I and II), the Green Muse is certainly one of the signs. Witness these remarks from Edward Rothstein's piece in the Times:
... even those who hailed absinthe saw unsettling shadows. Wilde explained: “After the first glass, 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.”
Absinthe’s effects suggested, it seems, an inherent instability to perception, as if mixing and distilling the shimmer of Impressionism, the nightmares of Expressionism and the skewed images of Surrealism. Van Gogh made a glass of absinthe vibrate with energy. And when Manet, Degas or Picasso painted absinthe drinkers, they appeared introspective, alienated, not because they have been drugged into oblivion, but because they have seen too much.
At least in imagery, then, absinthe reflected a certain view of modernity: A firm, reliable order weakens, giving way to bleak uncertainties.
I guess if you want your kids to grow up like Wilde, van Gogh or Hemingway, teach them the fine art of the louche, drop by drop in the glass. It's fancy, pretty, and exotic, and carries just the right flavor of darkness -- which is exactly what the modern mind is all about.