Absinthe-minded authors

A peek into the literary world of the English-speaking literati and the adventures that informed their work.

By Nola Evangelista, 5/23/2009 UPDATED 12/17/2010

A new book, Kipling Sahib: India And The Making Of Rudyard Kipling by Charles Allen (Little, Brown) describes a September night in 1884 when the 18-year-old Kipling suffered a severe bout of dysentery and for relief smoked opium and ingested "a stiff dose of chlorodyne." Dr. Collis-Browne's Chlorodyne, patented in 1871, was then a mixture of opium in alcoholic solution, chloroform, and tincture of cannabis. "There is convincing evidence that this double dose hit him with the force of a revelation," writes Allen.

"In modern parlance, it 'blew his mind,' opening the doors of his unconscious hitherto kept tight shut and causing him to lose some of his fearfulness....[it] brought a new dimension to his thinking...freeing him to speak more directly from within himself. It did not mean that he abandoned his former self, far from it. Rather it gave voice to another aspect of his personality, long suppressed: that of his Bombay childhood."

Kipling wrote to his Aunt Edith the following day, "Here am I....with my head still ringing like a bell from the fumes of that infernal opium, plotting and planning and crowing on my own dunghill as though I were one of the immortals."

Allen continues, "His letters show that from the time on he continued to rely on opiates, in the form of opium, morphine and bhang or Indian hemp medicinally taken, to get him through Lahore's hot summer nights." Kipling describes the hot Indian nights in his 1937 memoir Something of Myself, and says he took to roaming the streets at night, visiting opium dens and riding in carriages that smelled of hookah smoke.

Mahbub, a character in Kipling's 1901 novel Kim, says, "News is not meant to be thrown about like dung-cakes, but used sparingly - like bhang." Kim becomes a devotee to a holy man described in Chapter 1 thusly: "He was old, and his woollen gaberdine still reeked of the stinking artemisia of the mountain passes." Artemisia is wormwood, from which absinthe is made.

In Chapter 12, Kim is advised to visit the hakim, a "master of medicine....He sells it cheap, and certainly it makes him fat as Shiv's own bull." Kipling writes: "Kim relaxed, as one augur must when he meets another. The hakim, still squatting, slid over his hookah with a friendly foot, and Kim pulled at the good weed." The "good weed" was possibly tobacco, mentioned throughout the book, in one case as coming from Lucknow (the big city). To this day, the region's tobacco vendors are caught selling hashish.

This curious entry from Kipling's Savoy days appears in Something of Myself: "There was a breakfast with [George Saintsbury] and Walter Pollock of the Saturday Review in the Albany, when [Saintsbury] produced some specially devilish Oriental delicacy which we cooked by the light of our united ignorances. It was splendid!" Saintsbury is best known for writing an ode to the pleasure of wine, a book he dedicated to Kipling.

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, is thought to have been written while the author was on a medicinal dose of cocaine. Stevenson smoked hashish in his youth and ended his life on the island of Samoa, from where he wrote of participating in kava ceremonies.

Irish writer William Butler Yeats was first introduced to hashish by the writer Arthur Symons, who he met in 1890. In February 1894, Yeats and Maud Gonne traveled to Paris, where they took hashish together. In December 1896, Yeats again visited Paris and took hashish. Yeats's biographer R.F. Foster wrote, "In April 1897 he experimented with mescal, supplied by Havelock Ellis, who recorded that 'while an excellent subject for visions, and very familiar with various vision-producing drugs and processes, [Yeats] found the effect on his breathing unpleasant; 'he much prefers haschich', which he continued to take in tablets, a particularly potent form of ingestion." Yeats kept a "visions notebook" and continued to experiment with hashish and mescal in 1898, when "helped by hashish pellets" he wrote, "My soul takes comfort in many excellent divinations."

In his autobiographic essay "Discoveries" (1906), Yeats wrote in the chapter ‘Concerning saints and artists’:

I took the Indian hemp with certain followers of Saint-Martin on the ground floor of a house in the Latin Quarter. I had never taken it before, and was instructed by a boisterous young poet, whose English was no better than my French. He gave me a little pellet, if I am not forgetting, an hour before dinner, and another after we had dined together at some restaurant. As we were going through the streets to the meeting-place of the Martinists, I felt suddenly that a cloud I was looking at floated in an immense space, and for an instant my being rushed out, as it seemed, into that space with ecstasy. I was myself again immediately, but the poet was wholly above himself, and presently he pointed to one of the street-lamps now brightening in the fading twilight, and cried at the top of his voice, ‘Why do you look at me with your great eye?’

There were perhaps a dozen people already much excited when we arrived; and after I had drunk some cups of coffee and eaten a pellet or two more, I grew very anxious to dance, but did not, as I could not remember any steps. I sat down and closed my eyes; but no, I had no visions, nothing but a sensation of some dark shadow which seemed to be telling me that some day I would go into a trance and so out of my body for a while, but not yet. I opened my eyes and looked at some red ornament on the mantel-piece, and at once the room was full of harmonies of red, but when a blue china figure caught my eye the harmonies became blue upon the instant. I was puzzled, for the reds were all there, nothing had changed, but they were no longer important or harmonious; and why had the blues so unimportant but a moment ago become exciting and delightful? Thereupon it struck me that I was seeing like a painter, and that in the course of the evening every one there would change through every kind of artistic perception.

"Symons himself composed the poem 'Haschisch,' which is included in his book Amoris Victima (1897)," writes José Francisco Batiste Moreno in his astonishing paper LEOPOLD BLOOM'S TEA-POT. Moreno adds, "In December 1902, with introductions from Yeats himself, Joyce moved to Paris where he met, among others, Symons, and a city once again overcome by the deliquescence of hemp; especially the colorful artistic life of Montmartre, that around the turn of the century was experiencing a new cycle of a true psychotropic revolution based on the green hempen pill...In English literature, our topic operated mainly in the realm of fantasy, exotic adventures and police stories..."

Moreno speculates that James Joyce was talking about another kind of "tea" in this passage from Ulysses (1922), part of an episode identified with the Homeric “Lotus Eaters”:

In Westland row he halted before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read the legends of lead-papered packets: choice blend, finest quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea. Must get some from Tom Kernan. Couldn’t ask him at a funeral, though....The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing around in the sun, in dolce far niente. Not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness.

Why would Leopold Bloom need to buy tea from a friend, instead of a shop, and why couldn't he ask him for it at a funeral? Is black tea really a "flower of idleness?"

Joyce mentions "haschish" in Finnegans Wake (1939), making references to Hector France’s popular anthology of tales translated to English, under the title Musk, Hashish and Blood (Carrington, Paris, 1899): "blood, musk or haschish, as coked, diamoned or penceloid, and bleaching him naclenude from all cohlorine matter." Cohlorine may also refer to Kipling's Chlorodine, a mixture of opium in alcoholic solution, tincture of cannabis and chloroform.

Somerset Maugham's book The Moon and Sixpence, set in the 1880s and 1890s, "uses absinthe as a symbol of the incomprehensible lure of French culture," according to Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle by Jad Adams (2009 Tauris Parke, London). In Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), he writes of protagonist Philip Carey, "by virtuous perseverance he had learned to drink absinthe without distaste."

Maugham visited Ramana Maharishi's ashram in Tamil Nadu, India in 1938. Christopher Isherwood reportedly helped him translate a verse from the Upanishads for the epigraph ("The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard") in his 1944 book The Razor's Edge, which begins:

"I HAVE NEVER BEGUN A NOVEL with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it. ....This book consists of my recollections of a man with whom I was thrown into close contact only at long intervals, and I have little knowledge of what happened to him in between. I suppose that by the exercise of invention I could fill the gaps plausibly enough and so make my narrative more coherent; but I have no wish to do that. I only want to set down what I know of my own knowledge. ...I have invented nothing."

I think from the above it can be agreed that Maugham's book is nonfiction, with only names and other details of the characters changed "to make sure that no one should recognize them." Ergo it can be said rather unequivocally that Maugham, who appears throughout the semi-autobiographical book as observer and literary detective, "outs" himself as an absinthe drinker (and describes the secret of making martinis) in this passage:

Isabel, always tactful, knowing that nine men out of ten are convinced they can mix a better cocktail than any woman (and they're right), asked me to shake a couple. I poured out the gin and the Noilly-Prat and added the dash of absinthe that transforms a dry Martini from a nondescript drink to one for which the gods of Olympus would undoubtedly have abandoned their home-brewed nectar, a beverage that I have always thought must have been rather like Coca-Cola.

The book has an opium-smoking character, Sophie (who is brutally murdered, moreso by Isabel who sets up her downfall than by the man who wielded the knife). Larry, the philosophically minded young man who gives up his fortune to tromp around in India, smokes a pipe throughout the book while Maugham smokes his cigarette, blowing smoke rings at times.

Isabel tempts the troubled Sophie off the wagon with a liqueur called zubrovka, introduced to the group by Isabel's uncle Ellliott, who says of it, "We used to drink it at the Radziwills' when I stayed with them for shooting. You should have seen those Polish princes putting it away."

The waiter poured out a glass of pale green liquid and Isabel sniffed it.

"Oh, what a lovely smell."

"Hasn't it?" cried Elliott. "That's the herbs they put in it; it's they that give it its delicate taste....it smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it's so soft on the palate and so comfortable, it's like listening to music by moonlight."

Still in existence, Zubrovka's name comes from zubr, the Polish word for the wisent (European bison), "an animal that is particularly fond of eating buffalo grass."

Poems by Charles Baudelaire of Le Club des Hashishins and Arthur Rimbaud, who took absinthe and hashish, are found in Sophie's room after her death. Seems she tried to take a short cut to the enlightenment Larry was seeking. In the end, he respected her more than Isabel (to whom he had once been engaged.)

Pernod Fils was the most popular brand of absinthe throughout the 19th century until it was banned in 1915 [source: Wikipedia]. During the Belle Époque, Pernod Fils name became synonymous with absinthe, and the brand represented the de facto standard of quality by which all others were judged. Pernod is depicted as a green drink in the 1963 movie Irma La Douce, whose heroine (Shirley MacLaine, pictured) is known for her green stockings. With absinthe gaining some commercial exposure by appearing in a range of movies, including From Hell, Euro Trip, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Moulin Rouge!, Pernod-Ricard's newly formulated absinthe (with the petite wormwood that is now legal) has enjoyed some modest success in France and other countries in the EU.

An absinthe-laden cocktail called the Sazerac has a pivotal role in the 1948 film The State of the Union, in which Spencer Tracy plays Grant Matthews, an airplane manufacturer drafted to run for president.

At the film's climax, Buck the substitute bartender is asked if he can make the favorite drink of a Judge's wife named Lulubelle: a Sazerac. He replies, "yes, it's asb...absinthe and..." Thus we are assured the drink will contain absinthe.

Grant's wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) decides to join Lulubelle in her libation, saying, "If we're going to have a high tariff, I might as well get a little high myself." She hasn't had a drink since the last time her rival Kay Thorndyke (Angela Landsbury) was at her home, when Mary drank martinis (the Somerset Maugham kind?) and threw Kay out. She's soon slinging one-liners at everyone in the room and moving the plot right along.

Absinthe seems to have been a preferred beverage of Sheldon Whiteside, The Man Who Came to Dinner in the 1942 film. Whiteside, based on and played by the theater critic Alexander Woolcott, is the unwanted guest of staid Ohio industrialist Ernest Stanley. The 1939 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, on which the movie was based, has this interesting scene:

JOHN (manservant): And Sarah has something for you, Mr. Whiteside. Made it special.

WHITESIDE: She has? Where is she? My Souffle Queen!

SARAH (cook): (Proudly entering with a tray on which reposes her latest delicacy) Here I am, Mr. Whiteside.

WHITESIDE: She walks in beauty like the night, and in those deft hands there is the art of Michelangelo. Let me taste the new creation. (...swallows at a gulp one of Sarah's not so little cakes. An ecstatic expression comes over his face) Poetry! Sheer poetry!

SARAH: (beaming) I put a touch of absinthe in the dough. Do you like it?

WHITESIDE: (rapturously) Ambrosia!

The scene didn't make the movie, but interestingly the word "counterfeiting" in the line, "If that's for the Stanleys, tell them they've been arrested for counterfeiting" was changed to "dealing dope" in the film. Mr. Stanley brags of building ball bearings for the war effort, which is what a real Ohio industrialist named Henry Timken did. Timken also grew hemp in Imperial Valley, California in 1917.

When Whiteside's faithful secretary Maggie (Bette Davis) falls for a local newspaperman, they have this exchange:

WHITESIDE: You are drugging yourself into this Joan Crawford fantasy, and before you become complete anesthetized I shall do everything in my power to bring you to your senses.

MAGGIE: Don't drug yourself into the idea that all you're thinking of is my happiness.

Mentioned in the play are Gertrude Stein and Aldous Huxley. In an acting edition, incorporating changes made after Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, Whiteside takes a call from Walt Disney instead of Stein, and says, "Don't worry about 'Fantasia.' It wasn't your fault--Beethoven hasn't written a hit in years." In the 1970s the trippy-before-its-time "Fantasia" became a cult hit among cannabis connoiseurs, and was marketed to them (Newsweek 1970).

Woolcott favorably reviewed the Marx Brothers' early work, leading to their success and a lifelong friendship with Harpo. The character "Banjo" in the play was based on Harpo, and he played the role at the Bucks County, Pennsylvania playhouse, with Kaufman as Whiteside and Hart as Beverly Carlton.

In a 1959 interview on BBC TV's Showtime, Chico Marx was asked how his brother Groucho got his name. Referring to the times when marijuana was legal and the Marx Brothers were a Vaudeville act (around 1920), he replied, "We used to wear a little bag around our neck, called a Grouch bag. In this bag we would keep our pennies, some marbles, a couple of pieces of candy, a little marijuana, whatever we could get...(laughter from the audience)... because, you know, we were studying to be musicians (big smile to the crowd). So that's where Groucho got his name."

In Animal Crackers (1930), Captain Spaulding (Groucho) takes Konjola, a patent medicine, for fatigue and melancholy (he also shot an elephant in his pajamas). An antique bottle of Konjola is pictured here; made of 22 juices from natural plants, it was the subject of a 1944 libel suit in California.

The Marx Brothers' hilarious irreverence won their movies a strong following on college campuses during the 1960s and 70s, when pot-smoking students had a similar attitude towards authority. After being named president of Freedonia in Duck Soup (1933), Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly sings,

You're not allowed to smoke
or tell a dirty joke
And whistling is prohibited
If chewing gum is used, the chewer is pursued
And in the hoosegow hidden
Whatever form of pleasure are exhibited
Report to me and they will be prohibited
It's as I say, so shall it be
This is the land of the free.

In 1968 director Otto Preminger cast Groucho as a character named "God" in a movie he was making called Skidoo, a pro-LSD comedy adventure film. In his book Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, Paul Krassner writes that Groucho asked Krassner to turn him on to LSD, so that he would know whether or not to glorify it in the movie. They took it together and the experience was a positive one for Groucho. A week later, he told Krassner that some Hog Farmers had turned him onto marijuana on the set of Skidoo. "You know, my mother once warned me that LSD would lead to pot," Krassner said. "Your mother was right," said Groucho.



What unites Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Joyce, Somerset Maugham and The Marx Brothers?