Absinthe: The Green Goddess

by Aleister Crowley

(Excerpts)

Here, the infamous Magus recounts an experience at the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, still in existence, though no longer serving Absinthe. While varieties of so-called “Absinthe” remain available today, in most cases these are merely concoctions of flavored liqour having no unique quality except for their flavor and having no psychically alchemical effects beyond that of the alcohol content, which can be quite substantial.

 

 I.
 
  Keep always this dim corner for me, that I may sit while the
  Green Hour glides, a proud pavine of Time. For I am no longer in
  the city accursed, where Time is horsed on the white gelding
  Death, his spurs rusted with blood.
 
  There is a corner of the United States which he has overlooked.
  It lies in New Orleans, between Canal Street and Esplanade
  Avenue; the Mississippi for its base. Thence it reaches northward
  to a most curious desert land, where is a cemetery lovely beyond
  dreams. Its walls low and whitewashed, within which straggles a
  wilderness of strange and fantastic tombs; and hard by is that
  great city of brothels which is so cynically mirthful a neighbor.
  As Felicien Rops wrote,--or was it Edmond d'Haraucourt?--"la
  Prostitution et la Mort sont frere et soeur--les fils de Dieu!"
  At least the poet of Le Legende des Sexes was right, and the
  psycho-analysts after him, in identifying the Mother with the
  Tomb. This, then, is only the beginning and end of things, this
  "quartier macabre" beyond the North Rampart with the Mississippi
  on the other side. It is like the space between, our life which
  flows, and fertilizes as it flows, muddy and malarious as it may
  be, to empty itself into the warm bosom of the Gulf Stream, which
  (in our allegory) we may call the Life of God.
 
  But our business is with the heart of things; we must go beyond
  the crude phenomena of nature if we are to dwell in the spirit.
  Art is the soul of life and the Old Absinthe House is heart and
  soul of the old quarter of New Orleans.
 
  For here was the headquarters of no common man--no less than a
  real pirate--of Captain Lafitte, who not only robbed his
  neighbors, but defended them against invasion. Here, too, sat
  Henry Clay, who lived and died to give his name to a cigar.
  Outside this house no man remembers much more of him than that;
  but here, authentic and, as I imagine, indignant, his ghost
  stalks grimly.
 
  Here, too are marble basins hollowed--and hallowed!--by the
  drippings of the water which creates by baptism the new spirit of
  absinthe.
 
  I am only sipping the second glass of that "fascinating, but
  subtle poison, whose ravages eat men's heart and brain" that I
  have ever tasted in my life; and as I am not an American anxious
  for quick action, I am not surprised and disappointed that I do
  not drop dead upon the spot. But I can taste souls without the
  aid of absinthe; and besides, this is magic of absinthe! The
  spirit of the house has entered into it; it is an elixir, the
  masterpiece of an old alchemist, no common wine.
 
  And so, as I talk with the patron concerning the vanity of
  things, I perceive the secret of the heart of God himself; this,
  that everything, even the vilest thing, is so unutterably lovely
  that it is worthy of the devotion of a God for all eternity.
 
  What other excuse could He give man for making him? In substance,
  that is my answer to King Solomon.
 
 
  II.
 
  The barrier between divine and human things is frail but
  inviolable; the artist and the bourgeois are only divided by a
  point of view--"A hair divided the false and true."
 
  I am watching the opalescence of my absinthe, and it leads me to
  ponder upon a certain very curious mystery, persistent in legend.
  We may call it the mystery of the rainbow.
 
  Originally in the fantastic but significant legend of the
  Hebrews, the rainbow is mentioned as the sign of salvation. The
  world has been purified by water, and was ready for the
  revelation of Wine. God would never again destroy His work, but
  ultimately seal its perfection by a baptism of fire.
 
  Now, in this analogue also falls the coat of many colors which
  was made for Joseph, a legend which was regarded as so important
  that it was subsequently borrowed for the romance of Jesus. The
  veil of the Temple, too, was of many colors. We find, further
  east, that the Manipura Cakkra--the Lotus of the City of
  Jewels--which is an important centre in Hindu anatomy, and
  apparently identical with the solar plexus, is the central point
  of the nervous system of the human body, dividing the sacred from
  the profane, or the lower from the higher.
 
  In western Mysticism, once more we learn that the middle grade
  initiation is called Hodos Camelioniis, the Path of the
  Chameleon. There is here evidently an illusion to this same
  mystery. We also learn that the middle stage in Alchemy is when
  the liquor becomes opalescent.
 
  Finally, we note among the visions of the Saints one called the
  Universal Peacock, in which the totality is perceived thus
  royally appareled.
 
  Would it were possible to assemble in this place the cohorts of
  quotation; for indeed they are beautiful with banners, flashing
  their myriad rays from cothurn and habergeon, gay and gallant in
  the light of that Sun which knows no fall from Zenith of high
  noon!
 
  Yet I must needs already have written so much to make clear one
  pitiful conceit: can it be that in the opalescence of absinthe is
  some occult link with this mystery of the Rainbow? For
  undoubtedly one does indefinably and subtly insinuate the drinker
  in the secret chamber of Beauty, does kindle his thoughts to
  rapture, adjust his point of view to that of the artists, at
  least to that degree of which he is originally capable, weave for
  his fancy a gala dress of stuff as many-colored as the mind of
  Aphrodite.
 
  Oh Beauty! Long did I love thee, long did I pursue thee, thee
  elusive, thee intangible! And lo! thou enfoldest me by night and
  day in the arms of gracious, of luxurious, of shimmering silence.
 
 
  III.
 
  The Prohibitionist must always be a person of no moral character;
  for he cannot even conceive of the possibility of a man capable
  of resisting temptation. Still more, he is so obsessed, like the
  savage, by the fear of the unknown, that he regards alcohol as a
  fetish, necessarily alluring and tyrannical.
 
  With this ignorance of human nature goes an ever grosser
  ignorance of the divine nature. He does not understand that the
  universe has only one possible purpose; that, the business of
  life being happily completed by the production of the necessities
  and luxuries incidental to comfort, the residuum of human energy
  needs an outlet. The surplus of Will must find issue in the
  elevation of the individual towards the Godhead; and the method
  of such elevation is by religion, love, and art. These three
  things are indissolubly bound up with wine, for they are species
  of intoxication.
 
  Yet against all these things we find the prohibitionist,
  logically enough. It is true that he usually pretends to admit
  religion as a proper pursuit for humanity; but what a religion!
  He has removed from it every element of ecstasy or even of
  devotion; in his hands it has become cold, fanatical, cruel, and
  stupid, a thing merciless and formal, without sympathy or
  humanity. Love and art he rejects altogether; for him the only
  meaning of love is a mechanical--hardly even
  physiological!--process necessary for the perpetuation of the
  human race. (But why perpetuate it?) Art is for him the parasite
  and pimp of love. He cannot distinguish between the Apollo
  Belvedere and the crude bestialities of certain Pompeian
  frescoes, or between Rabelais and Elenor Glyn.
 
  What then is his ideal of human life? one cannot say. So crass a
  creature can have no true ideal. There have been ascetic
  philosophers; but the prohibitionist would be as offended by
  their doctrine as by ours, which, indeed, are not so dissimilar
  as appears. Wage-slavery and boredom seem to complete his outlook
  on the world.
 
  There are species which survive because of the feeling of disgust
  inspired by them: one is reluctant to set the heel firmly upon
  them, however thick may be one's boots. But when they are
  recognized as utterly noxious to humanity--the more so that they
  ape its form--then courage must be found, or, rather, nausea must
  be swallowed. May God send us a Saint George!
 
 
  IV.
 
  It is notorious that all genius is accompanied by vice. Almost
  always this takes the form of sexual extravagance. It is to be
  observed that deficiency, as in the cases of Carlyle and Ruskin,
  is to be reckoned as extravagance. At least the word abnormalcy
  will fit all cases. Farther, we see that in a very large number
  of great men there has also been indulgence in drink or drugs.
  There are whole periods when practically every great man has been
  thus marked, and these periods are those during which the heroic
  spirit has died out of their nation, and the burgeois is
  apparently triumphant.
 
  In this case the cause is evidently the horror of life induced in
  the artist by the contemplation of his surroundings. He must find
  another world, no matter at what cost.
 
  Consider the end of the eighteenth century. In France the men of
  genius are made, so to speak, possible, by the Revolution. In
  England, under Castlereagh, we find Blake lost to humanity in
  mysticism, Shelley and Byron exiles, Coleridge taking refuge in
  opium, Keats sinking under the weight of circumstance, Wordsworth
  forced to sell his soul, while the enemy, in the persons of
  Southey and Moore, triumphantly holds sway.
 
  The poetically similar period in France is 1850 to 1870. Hugo is
  in exile, and all his brethren are given to absinthe or to
  hashish or to opium.
 
  There is however another consideration more important. There are
  some men who possess the understanding of the City of God, and
  know not the keys; or, if they possess them, have not force to
  turn them in the wards. Such men often seek to win heaven by
  forged credentials. Just so a youth who desires love is too often
  deceived by simulacra, embraces Lydia thinking her to be Lalage.
 
  But the greatest men of all suffer neither the limitations of the
  former class nor the illusions of the latter. Yet we find them
  equally given to what is apparently indulgence. Lombroso has
  foolishly sought to find the source of this in madness--as if
  insanity could scale the peaks of Progress while Reason recoiled
  from the bergschrund. The explanation is far otherwise. Imagine
  to yourself the mental state of him who inherits or attains the
  full consciousness of the artist, that is to say, the divine
  consciousness.
 
  He finds himself unutterably lonely, and he must steel himself to
  endure it. All his peers are dead long since! Even if he find an
  equal upon earth, there can scarcely be companionship, hardly
  more than the far courtesy of king to king. There are no twin
  souls in genius.
 
  Good--he can reconcile himself to the scorn of the world. But yet
  he feels with anguish his duty towards it. It is therefore
  essential to him to be human.
 
  Now the divine consciousness is not full flowered in youth. The
  newness of the objective world preoccupies the soul for many
  years. It is only as each illusion vanishes before the magic of
  the master that he gains more and more the power to dwell in the
  world of Reality. And with this comes the terrible
  temptation--the desire to enter and enjoy rather than remain
  among men and suffer their illusions. Yet, since the sole purpose
  of the incarnation of such a Master was to help humanity, they
  must make the supreme renunciation. It is the problem of the
  dreadful bridge of Islam, Al Sirak--the razor-edge will cut the
  unwary foot, yet it must be trodden firmly, or the traveler will
  fall to the abyss. I dare not sit in the Old Absinthe House
  forever, wrapped in the ineffable delight of the Beatific Vision.
  I must write this essay, that men may thereby come at last to
  understand true things. But the operation of the creative godhead
  is not enough. Art is itself too near the reality which must be
  renounced for a season.
 
  Therefore his work is also part of his temptation; the genius
  feels himself slipping constantly heavenward. The gravitation of
  eternity draws him. He is like a ship torn by the tempest from
  the harbor where the master must needs take on new passengers to
  the Happy Isles. So he must throw out anchors and the only
  holding is the mire! Thus in order to maintain the equilibrium of
  sanity, the artist is obliged to seek fellowship with the
  grossest of mankind. Like Lord Dunsany or Augustus John, today,
  or like Teniers or old, he may love to sit in taverns where
  sailors frequent; or he may wander the country with Gypsies, or
  he may form liaisons with the vilest men and women. Edward
  Fitzgerald would see an illiterate fisherman and spend weeks in
  his company. Verlaine made associates of Rimbaud and Bibi la
  Puree. Shakespeare consorted with the Earls of Pembroke and
  Southampton. Marlowe was actually killed during a brawl in a low
  tavern. And when we consider the sex-relation, it is hard to
  mention a genius who had a wife or mistress of even tolerable
  good character. If he had one, he would be sure to neglect her
  for a Vampire or a Shrew. A good woman is too near that heaven of
  Reality which he is sworn to renounce!
 
  And this, I suppose, is why I am interested in the woman who has
  come to sit at the nearest table. Let us find out her story; let
  us try to see with the eyes of her soul!
 
  . . . .
 
 
  VI.
 
  Ah! the Green Goddess! What is the fascination that makes her so
  adorable and so terrible? Do you know that French sonnet "La
  legende de l'absinthe?" He must have loved it well, that poet.
 
  . . .
 
  What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? The
  effects of its abuse are totally distinct from those of other
  stimulants. Even in ruin and in degradation it remains a thing
  apart: its victims wear a ghastly aureole all their own, and in
  their peculiar hell yet gloat with a sinister perversion of pride
  that they are not as other men.
 
  But we are not to reckon up the uses of a thing by contemplating
  the wreckage of its abuse. We do not curse the sea because of
  occasional disasters to our marines, or refuse axes to our
  woodsmen because we sympathize with Charles the First or Louis
  the Sixteenth. So therefore as special vices and dangers
  pertinent to absinthe, so also do graces and virtues that adorn
  no other liquor.
 
  The word is from the Greek apsinthion. It means "undrinkable" or,
  according to some authorities, "undelightful." In either case,
  strange paradox! No: for the wormwood draught itself were bitter
  beyond human endurance; it must be aromatized and mellowed with
  other herbs.
 
  Chief among these is the gracious Melissa, of which the great
  Paracelsus thought so highly that he incorporated it as the
  preparation of his Ens Melissa Vitae, which he expected to be an
  elixir of life and a cure for all diseases, but which in his
  hands never came to perfection.
 
  Then also there are added mint, anise, fennel and hyssop, all
  holy herbs familiar to all from the Treasury of Hebrew Scripture.
  And there is even the sacred marjoram which renders man both
  chaste and passionate; the tender green angelica stalks also
  infused in this most mystic of concoctions; for like the
  artemisia absinthium itself it is a plant of Diana, and gives the
  purity and lucidity, with a touch of the madness, of the Moon;
  and above all there is the Dittany of Crete of which the eastern
  Sages say that one flower hath more puissance in high magic than
  all the other gifts of all the gardens of the world. It is as if
  the first diviner of absinthe had been indeed a magician intent
  upon a combination of sacred drugs which should cleanse, fortify
  and perfume the human soul.
 
  And it is no doubt that in the due employment of this liquor such
  effects are easy to obtain. A single glass seems to render the
  breathing freer, the spirit lighter, the heart more ardent, soul
  and mind alike more capable of executing the great task of doing
  that particular work in the world which the Father may have sent
  them to perform. Food itself loses its gross qualities in the
  presence of absinthe and becomes even as manna, operating the
  sacrament of nutrition without bodily disturbance.
 
  Let then the pilgrim enter reverently the shrine, and drink his
  absinthe as a stirrup-cup; for in the right conception of this
  life as an ordeal of chivalry lies the foundation of every
  perfection of philosophy. "Whatsoever ye do, whether ye eat or
  drink, do all to the glory of God!" applies with singular force
  to the absintheur. So may he come victorious from the battle of
  life to be received with tender kisses by some green-robed
  archangel, and crowned with mystic vervain in the Emerald Gateway
  of the Golden City of God.
 
 
  VII.
 
  And now the cafe is beginning to fill up. This little room with
  its dark green woodwork, its boarded ceiling, its sanded floor,
  its old pictures, its whole air of sympathy with time, is
  beginning to exert its magic spell. Here comes a curious child,
  short and sturdy, with a long blonde pigtail, with a jolly little
  old man who looks as if he had stepped straight out of the pages
  of Balzac.
 
  Handsome and diminutive, with a fierce mustache almost as big as
  the rest of him, like a regular little Spanish fighting
  cock--Frank, the waiter, in his long white apron, struts to them
  with the glasses of ice-cold pleasure, green as the glaciers
  themselves. He will stand up bravely with the musicians bye and
  bye, and sing us a jolly song of old Catalonia.
 
  . . . .
 
  There is beauty in every incident of life; the true and the
  false, the wise and the foolish, are all one in the eye that
  beholds all without passion or prejudice: and the secret appears
  to lie not in the retirement from the world, but in keeping a
  part of oneself Vestal, sacred, intact, aloof from that self
  which makes contact with the external universe. In other words,
  in a separation of that which is and perceives from that which
  acts and suffers. And the art of doing this is really the art of
  being an artist. As a rule, it is a birthright; it may perhaps be
  attained by prayer and fasting; most surely, it can never be
  bought.
 
  But if you have it not. This will be the best way to get it--or
  something like it. Give up your life completely to the task; sit
  daily for six hours in the Old Absinthe House, and sip the icy
  opal; endure till all things change insensibly before your eyes,
  you changing with them; till you become as gods, knowing good and
  evil, and that they are not two but one.
 
  It may be a long time before the veil lifts; but a moment's
  experience of the point of view of the artist is worth a myriad
  martyrdoms. It solves every problem of life and death--which two
  also are one.
 
  It translates this universe into intelligible terms, relating
  truly the ego with the non-ego, and recasting the prose of reason
  in the poetry of soul. Even as the eye of the sculptor beholds
  his masterpiece already existing in the shapeless mass of marble,
  needing only the loving kindness of the chisel to cut away the
  veils of Isis, so you may (perhaps) learn to behold the sum and
  summit of all grace and glory from this great observatory, the
  Old Absinthe House of New Orleans.
 
  V'la, p'tite chatte; c'est fini, le travail. Foutons le camp!

 

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