|Absinthe Books X - Absinthe et Absintheurs by Henri Balesta
Published in 1860, Absinthe et Absintheurs is no more than an extended pamphlet, a modest and crudely printed
publication of less than a 100 pages and measuring, in the original, just 4" by 6". Yet its influence on the prohibitionist
movement was out of all proportion to its size: it laid out the case against absinthe with a clarity and vigour that have
never been equalled, and it's been quoted in almost every book about the drink published since.
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At the time Balesta was writing (and for the next decade), absinthe was a relatively expensive drink compared to wine. But when absinthe
producers brought out cheaper (and more dangerous) concoctions, the price dropped and the average man could afford it. For example, in
1873 a glass of absinthe cost only fifteen centimes while a kilo of bread was fifty centimes and a bottle of good Bordeaux might be a whole
franc. Balesta's observations on class distinctions among absinthe drinkers also predict the way fin de siècle socialist politicians would
denounce absinthe as a poisoner of the working class:
"And do not think that absinthomania is the vice peculiar to the rich and idle of your society. The man of the people, the workman, has not
been spared its ravages. He too has given himself up, bound hand and foot, to the demons who tempt him. And yet, how much disaster do
the vices of the poor bring in their train! The rich, the idle, the useless must find ways to kill time, their deadliest enemy; if he occasionally
kills himself, what does it matter? He dies alone, he is not linked to anyone, it only concerns himself.
"But the poor man, he drags five, ten lives with him, and his father, and his mother, both ailing who nourished him as a child so that he
could care for them in their old age, and his wife and children.... He borrows on tomorrow's wages.... He drinks to drown his sorrows, he
drinks to forget, and, that night, when he staggers back to his slum, the children ask for bread, his wife reproaches him for his idleness.
Fury grips him, an anger all the stronger because he is at fault and he knows it. He raises his hand against the poor wife who has joined her
misery to his, he strikes her as a reward for ten years of devotion."
Little by little, Balesta brings the sad tale to a close, and the last shred of morality is blown away: "His daughter? He encounters her one
night, coming out of a cabaret, dressed in silk and dragging her shameful luxury along the pavement of the boulevard."
Balesta described a conversation with an unnamed doctor who informed him that there is almost no illness which the abuse of alcohol in
general and of absinthe in particular is not able to bring about. Which one depends on the temperament and the predisposition of each
individual: "Apoplexy, paralysis, chronic illness of the stomach, intestines, liver, gout, dropsy, mental derangement, sterility, impotence,
convulsions, epilepsy, depression, hallucinations and finally spontaneous combustion."
In 1860, a little known young Parisian author and playwright, Henri
Balesta, wrote Absinthe et Absintheurs, almost certainly the first known
book to document the social effects of absinthe abuse, and undoubtedly
the most influential book about the drink ever written. The year 1860,
marked a watershed for drug use throughout the world. In that same
year, Britain enacted the Food and Drugs Act; British mycologist
Mordecai Cooke published his classic work, The Seven Sisters of Sleep,
warning against abuse of intoxicants; the United States legalized opium
traffic with China; and coca and cocaine products started to appear
throughout the Western world. Balesta was probably unaware of these
events; yet as a young journalist about town, he sensed something
happening in Paris's appetite for absinthe.
Balesta's ninety-four page book is divided into seven chapters
describing various Zolaesque case studies of absinthe drinking in
Parisian society, and ends with Balesta's own anti-absinthe appeal. In
one chapter, Balesta details the plight of one Monsieur Aubin, a widowed
cabinet maker from the Faubourg Sainte-Antoine, who out of loneliness,
frequents the cafés and inadvertently makes an absinthe addict out of
his six-year-old daughter. "He loved his daughter too much to leave her
alone or to leave her with hired help, but he did not love her enough to
give up his new pleasures."
One day, the absinthe-loving Monsieur Aubin finds a way to bring the
quiet, pale child out of her sorrow for her dead mother. "He had a
diabolical idea. Calling the little one to him, he offered her a glass of
absinthe, saying: 'Come on sweetheart, drink, that will give you strength
and color in your cheeks.'"
Within a short time, the child is addicted to the drink. "She was the first
one to demand her share if they forgot to give it to her, and at times she
drank up to two glasses of absinthe in a single evening. But soon a
reaction set in, and it was a terrible one. The most alarming symptoms
appeared: anxieties, a heaviness in the region of the chest, febrile
movements, paralysis of the stomach."
Urged to proceed with the eye-popping last
remark of this exposition, the doctor offers:
“examine the urine of your absinthe drinkers ...
the aqueous matter is disposed of by ordinary
routes yet the alcoholic portion does not undergo
a complete decomposition and is absorbed
throughout the body. Even the muscles are
impregnated. Do you understand now that a body
saturated with alcohol in the right condition bursts
into flames at a given moment, and almost by
Spontaneous human combustion, or 'preternatural combustibility of the human body', was a well-described curio of medicine. Theodric
and John Beck in their Elements of Medical Jurisprudence of 1842 cite a long list of cases, many taken from one Pierre-Aime Lair, who
wrote an article titled 'On the combustion of the human body, produced by long and immoderate use of spirituous liquors'. The Becks,
though not questioning the phenomenon, queried whether alcohol was the accelerant which produced human combustion, saying there is
no proof of 'saturation of the organs', and that even if it were so it would not render a body combustible. An experimenter called Julia
Fontenelle 'immersed pieces of meat for a long time, in alcohol, but on firing it their external surfaces alone was scorched'.' Others
remarked that a person would die from alcohol poisoning long before imbibing enough alcohol to have even a slight effect on the body's
Human combustion found its way into world literature with Charles Dickens's Bleak House of 1852-53 and Emile Zola's 1893 novel Doctor
Pascal, both involving characters with a high alcohol intake. There is a genuine correlation between high alcohol intake and bodies being
consumed by fire, in that heavy drinkers are more careless around smoking materials and fire, and less likely to be in a fit state to respond
promptly to accidents. Late-twentieth-century fire investigators have attributed apparent corporeal combustibility to a 'wick effect' of clothes
slowly smouldering and burning body fat, frying away the body's moisture in advance of the heat source." These bizarre phenomena were
described by anti-absinthe and temperance propagandists as fitting within their exaggerated expectations of harm.
To witness the madness supposedly caused by absinthe, the anonymous doctor cited by Balesta advised him to "go to Charenton", which
is a large mental institution outside Paris. This was a further development in the tale of the ravages of absinthe: that it not only stupefied
with alcohol and hallucinogenic substances, destroyed the health of the individual and undermined the moral fabric of the family, but also
sent a drinker mad. It is interesting that this voluble, anonymous doctor does not himself expound on the mental effects of absinthe, but
refers the hearer to a specialist.
Amid all the horrors of his book — exaggerated, but perhaps not unfounded — there is an interesting picture of the ‘absinthe professors’:
“By late morning, the professors of absinthe were already at their station, yes, the teachers of absinthe, for it is a science, or rather an art to
drink absinthe properly, and certainly to drink it in quantity. They put themselves on the trail of the novice drinkers, teaching them to raise
their elbow high and frequently, to water their absinthe artistically, and then, after the tenth little glass, with the pupil rolled under the table,
the master went on to another, always drinking, always holding forth, always steady and unshakeable at his post."
Maddened with terror, Aubin runs for a doctor who guesses the terrible truth in a single examination of the young patient. "He took the
father aside, questioned him closely and drew out a complete confession. 'Now listen,' he said to him, `you have wasted your daughter by
overstimulating her; in a month she will have lived out her life and it is you that have killed her, you, her father who ought to have protected
her. I pray that you will never regret it.'"
But it is too late. As the doctor had predicted, the child died three weeks later. The day after the funeral, Aubin was found hanged in his
garret. "Condemned by remorse, he had atoned for his crime."
The poor giving absinthe to children – generally to quieten young ones, rather than to liven them up – became a common theme. It was the
subject of Jean-Francois Raffaelli's picture 'Au Cafe, l'Absinthe Pernod' of around 1885, in which a woman of the barrier region of outer
Paris sits at a wooden table and leers as she doses a child in her arms while her husband slumps on the table, head in his hands and
pipe in his mouth, looking on in an absinthe stupor. A version of this painting was published in L'Assiette au Beurre 1901, under the title
Balesta made the prescient point that
working-class absinthe abuse blighted
wives and children and damaged
whole families, in a way that middle-
class Bohemian self-destruction
tended not to.
After describing the drink on the
boulevards, Balesta directs his reader
to search in the back-bars or caboulots
for the absinthe drinker to be found in
one of these wretched places:
“Gloomy, overcome, falling under his
own weight, his complexion marbled
by reddish marks, his eyes dim, his
lips discoloured, his shoulders bowed
by premature age, he stays there
entire days in the same place, alone
and a stranger to those who pass
around him, drinking, drinking,
emptying his glass only in order to fill it
Peer-group pressure makes the novice
drink, so it is important to do it properly:
“It is a solemn trial for the amateur. This
is the moment to show himself, to take
his place in the esteem of others, to
gain the good opinion and respect of his
contemporaries. Waiter, an absinthe
What a moment for the beginner! He is
going to realize the dream of two years.
He raises his glass slowly, looking for
the last time at the contents, then raises
it to his lips. He is going to drink. He
drinks. The desire is satisfied, the
dream realised. Absinthe is no longer a
myth to his palate. Ugh! How awful it is,
says the poor devil to himself, making a
face, and yet everyone drinks it. But he
is being watched. Delicious, this
absinthe, very novel, I have never
drunk anything like it, he exclaims with
a delighted expression, which is indeed
against his heart and against his
stomach. The second swallow goes
better. The third is better yet.
In every circle of young men one finds a veteran whose speciality is "making the absinthe". As soon as he picks up the carafe, the
conversations are suspended, the pipes go out, all eyes are on the absinthe-maker, following all the details of the operation to which he
devotes himself without missing a single one. The waiter himself, hands behind his back, a four-sous-tip smile on his lips, puts on a good
show and nods approvingly. The absinthe-maker, feeling himself the point of cynosure of all eyes, secretly enjoys the admiration that he
inspires and strives to be worthy of it. He holds the carafe in a free and easy manner, raising it up to eye level with an elegant sweep of the
arm, then he lets fall the water drop by drop into the glasses with a judicious slowness, in such a way as to gradually effect the combination
of the two liquids.
There it is, the shibboleth of the absinthe drinker: it is by the greater or lesser degree of chic with which he carries off this delicate operation
that the connoisseurs can distinguish the real absinthe professional. . . unfortunately for the inexperienced novice. The waiter himself
assists in the task of forming an opinion on the customer; he shrugs his shoulders with an air of pity and takes on the most scornful tone he
can manage to murmur, "What a joker! He doesn't even know how to make an absinthe."
In the end Balesta's typical absinthe drinker ends up a total addict: "He drinks it in the morning, he drinks it at noon, he drinks it in the
evening, he drinks it at night, he drinks it all the time. He drinks it when he is happy to celebrate his happiness. He drinks it when he is sad
to kill his sadness. But, alas, nothing vibrates any more in him, everything is empty, everything is dead, only remorse, that last wreckage of
his sinking, still survives."
Balesta was an impressionable young man
when he wrote Absinthe et Absintheurs. Over
the next half-century, he watched absinthe
consumption increase more than fiftyfold in
France. and his views about its dangers to the
working class become the accepted wisdom.
Not much is known about the rest of Balesta's
life, except that he wrote a book in 1883 about
two famous crimes and published plays and
short stories - the last one in 1906 - about
Parisian life before disappearing into obscurity.
But the influence of his remarkable book was to
long outlive him, and secure him a permanent
place in the strange and convoluted history of
La Fee Verte.