The Absinthe Ritual

At the conclusion of our discussion of absinthe cosmology, I declared we could turn our attention to the third tier of Rappaport's hierarchy of religious ideas. However, before we consider that third level generally, let us take a detour to examine its most prominent and significant feature exclusively.

Here we will consider the ritual preparation of absinthe in terms of Rappaport's definition of ritual before returning to our hypothetical survey of religious absinthism.

Much as I enjoy pontificating on the preparation of the Green Fairy's sacrament, to avoid a tiresome explanation I will presume familiarity with the operations of the ritual. If you don't know it or need a refresher, I suggest this resource.

It would be well to begin by recalling Rappaport's definition of ritual itself: "the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers." (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 24, emphasis his.) Or, as I paraphrased it: "ritual is carrying out actions adhering to certain forms and according to specifications set by somebody else, with more or less no change from one instance to the next."

The preparation of absinthe clearly hits all the major points. Because it is an active, participatory rendition of specified actions, it is performative. Those specifications don't change, so their execution is more or less invariant. Naturally, the performance adheres to a particular form. Finally, of course, the details of absinthe preparation come down to us as they are, developed by (or perhaps revealed to) absintheurs of yore before the end of the 19th century.

As we've noted before, the notion of performance is its own can of worms, perhaps an ever larger one than ritual. A post (or two) looking at performance itself is in the cards, but in the meantime you'll have to take my word for it that absinthe preparation is performative. For now, we can briefly highlight two relevant elements of performativity at play here.

The first is that emphasized by my paraphrase of Rappaport's definition and implied by a commonsense understanding of the word: to perform is to carry out something specified. The sense here is close to the formality also included in Rappaport's definition, but the key aspect is the activeness of it. Doing what's involved in the absinthe ritual enlivens it.

Related to that activeness and also commonsensically understood as an entailment of performance is the second element: performances have audiences. In the case of ritual performances, those audiences may include passive observers (as in drama), but in ritual the most important members of the audience are the performers themselves. Performing the absinthe ritual demonstrates to the performers the whole idea system embodied and expressed by the action.

It is perhaps because of the performativity of the absinthe ritual itself that the possibility of an absinthe religion is implied.

Nothing complicated here. The major elements of the preparation (the dose, the sugar, the ice water) are always the same. However, it's worth noting there is a relatively high degree of flexibility in the details. The amount of sugar or water added to the absinthe may be adjusted to taste, for instance, without affecting adversely the premise or performance of the ritual.

We may speculate it's likely invariance might increase if absinthe preparation were indeed regarded as an actually religious ritual rather than a merely ritualistic technical procedure. Alternatively, the accommodating flexibility of the ritual's particulars could prove an adaptive asset to a more decentralized tradition. (We'll return to this point in the next post.)

The preparation is formal inasmuch as it adheres to a form, but here too there's considerable flexibility. Probably the greatest formality, both in keeping close to form and in highest decorum, would've been found among the professors of absinthe who used to prepare the elixir for customers or teach budding absintheurs to do it. No doubt these experts not only had the technical elements of preparing the drink down to a science, but developed their own consistent styles of practicing the art.

Once again, it's a fair guess that formality could grow with the Green Fairy's religion.

That the gist of the absinthe ritual was set down by others before the performers needs no elaboration. However, it is worth noting the minimal specifications encoded in the ritual. As with the low levels of invariance and formality, this relatively sparse specification belies that the absinthe ritual of course is not, or rather has not been a ritual properly so-called.

Until our considerations here of how a religious absinthism might look, the ritualistic preparation of the drink has been informed merely by mystique that could fairly be said to be baseless. Without a higher order of ideas to back it up, the ritual only points to an empty referent. Indeed, as suggested above, the heart of absinthe's allure (aside from misinformation about its hallucinogenic properties and historical association with prominent artists) may well be that the ritual of its preparation implies a whole sacred order that remains mysterious and unknown.

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