Oscar Wilde

The evidence for more striking 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 Café 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, sensational:

“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.
‘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.”

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.
Here she writes about Wilde’s description to her of the effects of absinthe:

“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.”’

What is 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.

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.
As a renowned wit and raconteur, it’s not surprising that Wilde embellished many of his stories, an enhancement that often grew with each subsequent retelling. Nor is it surprising that his friends and acquaintances also added to 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?” also turns out 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. 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 absinthe drinker:

“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.”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, A glass of Absinthe is as poetic as every other thing. what difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset.”

Illustration from a 1911 article of “Touche à Tout” entitled “L’Age du Zinc,” dealing with alcoholism and absinthe drinking among the bourgeoisie, and their favorite Parisian cafés.