The other night I had one of those dreams that had all the narrative juices going… at some point in the dark warp of early morning it turned lucid, and I scrambled to remember characters, speech patterns, plot. I was certain upon waking I would shove all that meat into a novel.
Drinking from the uncontrolled spigot of inspiration is unlike anything else – the heady rush of images, the feeling of gratitude for the gift, the trepidation that one wrong breath or a misfiring neuron might derail the thought into the dark, inaccessible place where it originated.
The Muse is fickle. Artists and writers have been invoking her blessing at least since Homer. Getting a whisper from her – or not – can make or break a piece, a day, a life. After Enlightenment told humans “it’s all in your head,” artists have had to turn inward to find her. That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder so many artists and writers want to sneak inside the unconscious through chemically opened doors.
I just finished Andrew Shaffer’s book Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. This well-researched book is stuffed with writers’ chemical habits both known and surprising to me. There are all the usual suspects like Poe, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac, and I’d heard about Balzac’s record of 50-some cups of coffee one day, but Thomas de Quincey was a new name. The chemicals were all well known too. For the sake of your time, Dear Reader, I’ll focus on one substance in particular: absinthe.
New Orleans is rich in absinthe lore. Being a port city with a heavy Euro-influence means that stories from the creation of the Sazerac – a drink once involving absinthe and still the official drink of the city – to the green lanterns lit when it was “l’heure verte” – the Green Hour, precursor to “Happy Hour” – directed people towards the drink. There’s a permanent absinthe exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum here in New Orleans. A whole corner of the museum (“our ever-expanding exhibit,” the museum guide told me) devoted to everything to do with the liquor.
Absinthe accouterments are pretty. Even the name – the Green Fairy – invokes lovely imagery. Writers and artists were particularly drawn to the drink’s beguiling beauty. It seemed every Modernist, from Manet to Guy de Maupassant, was enamored with absinthe culture. Maupassant has a wonderfully comic story, “A Queer Night in Paris,” about a middle-class notary getting snared into revelry by some painters in Montmartre. The night starts with “the hour for taking absinthe” and quickly spins out of the notary’s control. Fifty years later, a girl in a Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” complains about the taste:
“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
The subtexts of the conversation between the woman and man here are abortion and their souring relationship. Reportedly, Hemingway himself quite loved the taste, getting it in Spain and Cuba after it was banned in France and America. But in the late 1800s, everyone drank it. Phylloxera – a vine-loving insect – killed two thirds of Europe’s vineyards from the 1860s to 1870s. Lack of wine played a big part in absinthe’s rise in popularity from the 1870s onward. It was everywhere, gracing bistro tables across Europe.
Absinthe paired well with the Decadents – the name given to artists at the end of the nineteenth century who favored Romanticism and rejected the so-called progress of the Victorians. Literary provocateur and absinthe-lover Charles Baudelaire proudly accepted any label that was formerly an insult. Critics liked to lampoon him with not only the “decadent” label, but also “charogne poesie” – decaying carcass poetry. Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud also have (among other scandalous stories) legends concerning their absinthe intake, though Verlaine was more the addict. One of the most famous English Decadents was another absinthe aficionado, Oscar Wilde.
“Absinthe has a wonderful color, green,” he wrote. “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
The exhibit I saw had all kinds of information about how famous drinkers liked their dosage:
Hemingway? Absinthe and champagne.
Van Gogh? Rumor has it he carried a hollow cane, filled with absinthe.
Poe? Absinthe and Brandy.
Shaffer writes of the Decadents’ usage: “The anise-flavored liquor was extremely high in alcohol (ranging from 55 to 72 percent by volume) and was alleged to have hallucinatory effects…. While many creative types indulged in absinthe for inspiration, the high alcohol content led many of them, including Verlaine, to become run-of-the-mill alcoholics.”
The chemical in absinthe said to produce hallucinatory effect is thujone. Temperance crusaders in the US and Europe isolated this compound to wormwood, a key ingredient of absinthe. The wormwood plants on display at the Food and Beverage Museum looked like sagebrush to me. No wonder – thujone is also found in cypress, oregano, and common sage. Modern scholars, however, say the amount of thujone that would cause hallucinations is so great, that the imbiber would long be dead of alcohol poisoning before experiencing said hallucinations. In R. Winston Guthrie’s book A Taste for Absinthe, vintage bottles that were recently uncorked tested levels far below previously believed for both thujone and alcohol content.
Absinthe was banned in 1912 in America and 1915 in France … thanks in large part to political pressure from winemakers who wanted back onto bistro tables after their Phylloxera curse ended and the growing Temperance Movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
So absinthe hallucinations? Not so much. Modern scholarship tends not to romanticize rampant substance abuse by writers. I remember a professor of mine at the Iowa Summer Writers Festival bemoaning Raymond Carver’s alcoholism: no illusions that it aided his craft, but wonder that he could craft stories at all in spite of his disease. Shaffer writes:
Fitzgerald couldn’t write while drinking. “For me, narcotics are deadening to work. I can understand anyone drinking coffee to get a stimulating effect, but whiskey – oh, no,” he said. When a reporter told him that This Side of Paradise didn’t read as if it were written on coffee, Fitzgerald said, “It wasn’t. You’ll laugh, but it was written on Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola bubbles up and fizzes inside enough to keep me awake.”
Of course, Fitzgerald was a massive alcoholic, draining two liters a gin a day sometimes… on his way home from rehab.
We know certain artists and writers are depressed, and many are drawn to depressants as coping mechanisms. But as readers, don’t we sometimes want to be shocked and scandalized by genius behaving badly? Genius exists in a separate realm from the ordinary life, much like the Muse. It is special, inaccessible, removed.
Our desires as listeners and consumers figure so heavily into these books and legends. Literary Rogues is a rollicking, hilarious read. I found myself cataloguing the worst offenses to my husband (the chapter on the Marquis de Sade figured heavily, as it was the most insanely shocking). But the most honest passages I found concerning one of these “bad boy writers” was in the introduction to Wyatt Mason’s I Promise To Be Good: the Complete Letters of Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud has long been a literary bad boy, from his skyrocketing talent to his famous gun-wounding by Verlaine. Mason is talking about the liberties biographers take in fictionalizing the lives of their subjects, and how omission is as powerful a tool as inclusion. Mason has compiled Rimbaud’s letters into English, most for the first time:
And once you have read these letters, this absence will seem, initially, troubling. But only initially, because to read them makes abundantly clear why they haven’t appeared in English: they problematize many of our ideas about Rimbaud. They muddle the sexy myth by clarifying the sober man.
Rimbaud, after all, renounced Verlaine, poetry, and Europe, moving to Africa to become a merchant for his remaining days (which were short, but far more numerous than his tumultuous, poetic days in France). He lived a much quieter life without poetry. Perhaps he would have ended happier than most wayward writers if illness hadn’t felled him at 37.
We want to read about teenage Rimbaud, genius Rimbaud. Hearing details of Oscar Wilde’s consumption, and Verlaine’s absinthe addiction, is both satisfying and sad. It’s the part of the legend we feel belongs to us, the celebrity we can talk about at parties. We can say these creative people tapped into their genius by combining their conscious and unconscious minds, their brains and narcotic. But that would be the easy thing to say, and the easy things are never the true ones.
As for the dream I had the other night, it dissolved quickly, leaving only scraps of sentences I can make neither head nor tail of now. If I look at it charitably in the daylight, it’s derivative of a piece I’m already working on. Me, I’m in no danger of becoming a genius – but like Fitzgerald’s sentiment, I find zero creative productivity in alcohol. But that’s not to say that I haven’t, on occasion, gotten some decent writing done in bars.
(Photographs taken at the Absinthe Exhibit, Southern Museum of Food and Beverage, New Orleans)
And you, Reader? Do you ever rely upon the effects of coffee or use the unconscious mind in your work?