|The Effects of Absinthe - "Secondary Effects"
The most controversial aspect of absinthe is the question of its so-called
"secondary effects" - that is, the effects on the drinker over and above those
obvious ones caused by the alcohol itself. Drug like and even hallucinogenic
effects are claimed by some users (and less reputable manufacturers), but
there is little or any evidence of these.
The effect of well-made absinthe varies from person to person, but is typically
no more marked than the mild “buzz” one gets from drinking tequila. Generally, it
can best be described as a kind of heightened clarity of mind and vision,
warmed by the effect of the alcohol. This seems to wear off after 20 or 30
minutes. Some users report unusually vivid dreams. A significant percentage of
drinkers experience nothing unusual at all, outside of the effects of the alcohol
itself. Since absinthe is 55% -72% alcohol, the alcohol's effects will in any event
limit the amount of thujone you can ingest.
The evidence for more dramatic effects either doesn't exist, or is highly
controversial. Perhaps the most often quoted passage is a description by the
great poet and playwright Oscar Wilde of a night drinking absinthe at the Cafe
Royal. Although not an alcoholic (at least till the last year of his life), Wilde, was a
regular absinthe drinker during the time he lived in France. His descriptions of
the effects of absinthe are, on the face of it, dramatic:
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see
monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the
third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.
One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I
had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and
began to pile the chairs on the tables.
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‘Time to go, Sir’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor.’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must
go now, Sir.’
‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer.
‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again.
‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up
and passed out into the street I felt - the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins.”
What's interesting though - and little known - is that this famous quote isn't sourced from any of Wilde's books, or from his letters, or
from any contemporary interview. It originates in this form from a book of humorous reminiscences called "My Three Inns" written in
1949 by an eccentric hotelier called John Fothergill. Fothergill had moved briefly in Wilde's circle as young man, and in his book - filled
with picaresque and obviously embellished tales - he quotes Wilde as above. The fact that he was writing 50 years after the event, and
that many of the other anecdotes in the book are clearly exaggerated for comic or dramatic effect, are important caveats routinely
ignored by those who seize on these words as evidence of absinthe's drug-like effect. It's highly likely that this quote was substantially
embellished by Fothergill (or perhaps based on the much simpler version published by Ada Leverson in 1930 - see below). Wilde
himself of course certainly wasn't averse to exaggerating for dramatic effect, or occasionally just making things up. If it relates to a real
event at all, most likely it refers simply to a dream, not to some sort of waking hallucination.
‘Two extracts from hotelier John Fothergill's 1949 "My Three Inns".
Above: A brief introductory passage.
Right: The section dealing with Oscar Wilde.
Click on the images to enlarge.
The myth that absinthe is an aphrodisiac seems to be of largely modern origin - it's seldom if ever mentioned in the pre-ban or even
immediate post-ban period. One probable origin might be Maurice Zolotow's article in the June 1971 issue of Playboy - a
fascinating and sometimes amusing period piece, which contains this passage of purple prose:
"I remember a girl I knew in my bachelor days. An American, she had worked as a model in several haute couture salons in Paris and
had acquired a taste for absinthe. We were at her place one evening and she asked me if I would like to have a martini as a nightcap.
I said I was game, though I favored cognac and water in the evening, when the lights are low and the music is throbbing on the
high-infidelity. She stirred up a pitcher of martinis and brought it on a tray with glasses and a bottle of absinthe. She set the tray on the
coffee table, or, rather, the martini table. Now, I don't know whether this voluptuous creature had ever heard about thujone or knew that
vermouth means wormwood, but she poured two chilled martinis and said she was adding a little absinthe to hers and would I like
some in mine, and I said why not. I found out that night that "Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder." We slowly sipped our martinis
and, frankly, I didn't like the flavor; but then, as the elixir went into my stomach and the minute fraction of thujone coursed through my
veins and arteries, I experienced a slow surge of sexual hunger as she suggested I make myself comfortable. She kicked off her
shoes and I slipped off my loafers and we slowly continued sipping and stripping, and I didn't feel at all self-conscious, because it was
as if everything rational was drifting out of myself and going outside to the hall elevator. You could say that a guilty conscience is that
part of the human being that is soluble in absinthe. I experienced a more than usual desire for this girl, whom I customarily yearned
for even without absinthe martinis, and we murmured things and sipped a second martini and were slowly kissing and caressing. By
then, we were as naked as two absinthe-crazed jaybirds and we soon floated into her double bed."
Note that Zolotow here is not even talking about a glass of absinthe, but simply a few drops of absinthe added to a martini!
Click on the link below to read an annotated transcript of the complete article.
Click on the Adobe icon to read the full text of Maurice Zolotow's article "Absinthe"
from the June 1971 issue of Playboy Magazine.
writes about Wilde describing the effects of absinthe to her:
writes about Wilde describing the effects of absinthe to her:
"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.' `How do you mean?' `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 laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.' He went on,
'Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clearheaded 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 of the cafe. "Don't you
see them?" I said to him. "Mais, non, monsieur, it ny a rien."'
Ada Leverson (1862-1933) was a friend of Wilde's, and wrote humorous articles for various journals of the era, including Punch and
The Yellow Book.
As a renowned wit and raconteur, it's not surprising that Wilde embellished many of his stories, an embellishment that often grew with
each subsequent retelling. Nor is it surprising that his friends and acquaintances yet further embellished these stories when
recounting them many decades later. Wilde told Bernard Berenson, a more reliable witness than most "It (absinthe) has no message
for me". He also told Arthur Machen "I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well".
Interestingly, the other famous and oft-quoted remark by Wilde on absinthe - "what difference is there between a glass of absinthe and
a sunset?" - , turns out also to have an interesting derivation. It appears first not in any letter of Wilde's, nor in the works of his better
known biographers, but originates from a small volume published in Norway in 1897 "I smaa Dagsreiser til og fra Paris" (In little day
trips to and from Paris) by the Norwegian author Christian Krohg.
Krohg met Wilde in Dieppe in 1897 when he was invited to dinner with him at the home of Fritz von Thaulow (1847 - 1906), a
successful Norwegian landscape painter who'd settled there in 1892. He recounts the following conversation between Von Thaulow
and Wilde, as they were discussing the English symbolist poet Ernest Dowson (1867 - 1900), a mutual friend - and a notorious
"He is very talented! I am a great admirer of his. But it is a shame, it's so sad, that he staggers so much and drinks too much Absinthe."
Oscar Wilde shrugged his shoulders:
"If he didn't do that, he would be quite a different person. Il faut accepter la personnalité comme elle est. Il ne faut jamais regretter
qu'un poëte est soûl, il faut regretter que les soûls ne soient pas toujours poëtes."
"Well, it doesn't matter, what ever you say. The worst is, that I think that what he drinks is Absinthe, and that is so devastating."
"Absinthe," Wilde answered, "has a lovely colour, la couleur verte. Il faut maintenant boire des choses vertes. A glass of Absinthe is as
poetic as every other thing. Quelle différence y a't-il entre un verre d'absinthe et un coucher de soleil?"
Krohg lived in France in 1881-1882 and was a painter himself - amongst others, he met Monet.
Extracts from the 1897 first edition of Krohg's I smaa Dagsreiser til
og fra Paris, with the original quotes from Wilde. Click to enlarge.
This section of the book appeared in English translation in
the Dec 10, 1908 issue of the literary journal The New Age.
Click on the Adobe icon at right to see the full issue - the
Wilde quote is on page 133.
I'm indebted to Markus Hartsmar for the reference to Krohg's book,
and for providing these scans.
hour of drinking a home-made wormwood infusion. Although directed at the same region of the body, the effect was, as described,
anything but aphrodisiac-like in character.