Gwen Tuinman



James Joyce

Absinthe — Downfall, Catalyst, Ritual


It was Cathy Marie Buchanan who first brought absinthe to my attention. In her novel, The Painted Girls,  Antoinette van Goethem reveals that she must fend for herself and her two younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte, with “Papa dead and Maman turned to absinthe”.   I made a quick enquiry online and jotted a note on the edge of the page:

My curiosity about this drink was further heightened by my recent research of James Joyce, the controversial Irish poet and author of the famed Ulysses. He was a known absinthe drinker in the heyday of its popularity among members of the Europe’s creative elite.

What is Absinthe?

Absinthe is an herbal liqueur comprised largely of wormwood. 7636c194c8327b8b898096087ba5f9f3It tastes distinctly of anise or licorice with a fennel undertone. When first poured into the glass, the colour is green and clear. 

The glass  is specially designed to facilitate an effect called the “louche”, a milky opaque cloud that blooms in the absinthe.  This is achieved when an absinthe fountain  drips icy water through a sugar cube. The icy sugar water passes through the vents of the spoon and drops into the glass.  The louche is what absinthe drinkers refer to poetically as “the green fairy“.

In the 1830’s, French soldiers serving in Algeria consumed absinthe for medicinal purposes: as an antiseptic, to combat dysentery, and to alleviate symptoms of fever related to malaria.  When they returned to Paris, victorious, the flavor of absinthe gained favour with the middle class.


 Absinthe consumption was made very fashionable by the elite. Lower quality absinthes were made available to the poorer class.  It’s rise in popularity coincided with a wine shortage in the late 1800’s. By 1910, the French demand for absinthe exceeded the demand for wine.

The “Green Hour”, comparable to North Americans’ happy hour, was instated at cafes and bistros at 5 pm. The social convention was to drink one glass only due to the highly potent alcohol content of 70%. Absinthe addiction overwhelmed the population.  Some people hid their increasing consumption of the drink by having one glass — at several consecutive cafés.

149cdb4106fce523eba492f9b95ccd41Chronic absinthe abuse was believed to cause hallucinations and excitability, notably the same symptoms of alcohol addiction. The green colour of absinthe is attributed to naturally occurring chlorophyll in the herbs.  Cheaply made absinthes made by unscrupulous manufacturers, used harmful toxic chemicals to duplicate the green colouring and the milky affect of the louche.

“Absinthe madness” allegedly overtook Jean Lafray who, after two glasses of absinthe, murdered his pregnant wife and his two small children. (He consumed several kinds of alcohol that day.) The public cried out for a ban on absinthe out of fear that it induced psychosis and criminal behavior, thus a significant motivator for the Temperance movement.

Tansy, one of the herbs used in the production of absinthe, contains a regulated neurotoxin called thujone. Mid nineteenth century medical research determined that drinks containing thujone were more addictive than regular alcoholic beverages, hence absinthe was banned in Europe, the USA, and Canada.




Absinthe was accredited with stimulating creativity in the artist community.  There appears to be little medical evidence to support that claim. Thujone  is related to THC found in marijuana, but in order to feel its affects, an excessive quantity would need to be consumed. In 1868, a Paris newspaper refuted this claim:

“Literary men, professors, artists, actors, musicians, financiers, speculators, shopkeepers, even women, yield themselves up to its seductive influence — to those undeniable provocations which seem, they say, to impart renewed activity to an enfeebled brain, developing a world of new ideas, and which thus, it is believed, have inspired many a noble work of imagination and literature and art. It may be so; but then those who habitually excite the brain with absinthe soon discover that they can produce positively nothing without its aid, and that a time arrives when heavy stupor supersedes that excitement of the intellectual faculties which seemed so easy and harmless.”

Several artists and writers swore by the inspiring affect of absinthe: Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Gaugin, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ernest Hemmingway, to name a few. A glass of absinthe can be found in their art, be it in oil paints or verse.



Part of absinthe’s allure is the ritual involved in serving the drink. 9afdf7b50abeb4e8ca6bb0f011814cd0

First, pour one ounce of absinthe into the glass.

Then lay the vented spoon across the mouth of the glass.  Set one or two sugar cubes on top of the spoon.

Next, drip water from a chilled carafe, or an absinthe fountain, onto the cube so the sugar water drips through the slots in the spoon.  When the sugar water mixes with the absinthe, the louche will appear in the glass.

Add a total of 3-4 ounces of water depending on taste preference.

Closing thoughts …

In researching this topic, I soon discovered that absinthe enjoys a near cult following.  There are several blogs devoted solely to this spirit. Some countries continue to ban absinthe while others regulate the thujone content. In Canada, standards vary province to province.  Absinthe is not sold in Saskatchewan.  Some provinces regulate thujone levels while other provinces like British Columbia and Nova Brunswick do not. At any rate, despite the elegant accoutrements and the enticing green, I’ll be sticking with my Merlot.

Please leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you!

absinthe fountain


Son of a Certain Woman–The James Joyce Connection

The Son of a Certain WomanThe Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston rests on a table in my living room where it’s been for a week now.  Wedged beneath it is a spiral bound notebook and an assortment of loose papers bearing crisscrossed mindmaps, diagrams, lists and jot notes.  I thought I would use them to create a sunny bit of stuff to celebrate the greatness of this book.  It is in fact a great book.

The challenge I face is how to narrow the field of discussion.

I’ve seen movies in the theatre where at the end, the credits begin the role, and the audience remains in their seats.  No one speaks. We don’t dart out of the theatre and into the light as is customary because they need time to digest what we’ve have seen.

This is how I felt upon finishing The Son of a Certain Woman. I needed to let the book settle in.

Frank statements made in the first paragraph caused me to say, “Oh my,”  and draw my hand to my throat in a gesture of Victorian unease.  But I read on, accepting Percy as a product of nature and nurture, a product of physiology and questionable parenting.166eb001-d8fd-440d-9369-543c66d4c684

Then, I read the crescendo of the final chapter and thought to myself, that must have been uncomfortable to write. These explicit events must serve something larger in the story, something beyond making the reader gasp.

I should note that until I finished researching, I refrained from reading The Son of a Certain Woman reviews and interviews with Wayne Johnston. I do savour the joy of discovery.

The name “Medina” is unusual, and I wondered about its significance. When I googled cover_ulysses“Medina”, I uncovered a link to Carmelo Medina Casado from The University of Jaén, Spain , author of Legal Prudery: The Case of Ulysses. The author being censored for writing obscenities and blasphemy — James Joyce. Nontraditional families and lifestyles were being censored and declared obscene in The Son of a Certain Woman. Penelope and Medina live in fear that their relationship will be discovered and they’ll be institutionalized by the law and publically condemned by the Church.

Jim Joyce is the biological father of Percy Joyce, absentee fiancé to Penelope Joyce and brother to Medina Joyce.  Did Johnston choose this character’s name as a nod to a controversial author? I soon realized, there was more than a nod.

James-Joyce-9358676-2-402James Joyce (February 2, 1882 – January 13, 1941) was a controversial Irish author and poet. Like Percy, he was notably intelligent and educated in Catholic schools. School records show that he was punished, on several occasions, for vulgar language, as was Percy. In adulthood, he denounced organized religion, referring to it as repressive. He waged war on the Church through his literature. Joyce even went so far as to refuse his dying mother’s request that he confess his sins and kneel at her bedside. If his opposition to religion reminds you of Penelope, you aren’t alone. Joyce also advocated the affair of the eye, the thrill of voyeurism that so captivates young Percy.

Where does the name Penelope fit into this string of  connections? In his book Ulysses, Joyce’s version of The Odyssey, the last chapter is called Episode 18, Penelope. In The Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is pursued by several suitors in his absence, much the same as Penelope Joyce.

Joyce wrote about oedipal relationships and love triangles. In The Son of a Certain Woman, JJ_nora_kids (2)there is a traditional love triangle between Penelope, Pops, and Medina. Percy’s rival  for Penelope’s affection is Medina, his mother’s true love interest. The real life object of Joyce’s affections was Nora Barnacle. Like Medina, she was not a learned woman but she was loyal to the end.

What about Pops?  James Joyce and his wife, Nora, found jj_stanislausthemselves in desperate financial straits in Paris.  They had two children and no means to support themselves.  Joyce called on his brother, Stanislaus, who came to live with them.  Stanislaus was a consistent breadwinner, who not only funded the family, but could be manipulated into babysitting the Joyce children. This is sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it?

And so I’ve learned that Ulysses is unto Wayne Johnston as The Odyssey was unto James Joyce. I could have learned this inside of five minutes with the click of a mouse and a search of the web, but what would have been the fun in that?

Thank you, Mr. Johnston, for alerting me to the word autodidact.  Knowledge has value regardless of how it is acquired. I feel a bit more clever today and will, from here on, dispense of the term “self taught”.

Other links of interest:

James Joyce reading an excerpt from Ulysses:

Wayne Johnston writes about Ulysses connection in  Hazlit :

Are you curious about Brother McHugh?  Click here to discover his James Joyce connection:

 Please continue the conversation.  Leave a comment.

Percy and GJoyce
Son of a Certain Woman meets Son of James Joyce
Do you see a resemblance?

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