The Limits of “Revisionist History”

Led astray by love for the late bloomer (Gladwellocalypse, Part 1)

Concluding not too long ago, I wrote a series of articles commenting on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses. At the beginning, I was thinking about the ways that the types he was theorizing applied to my own medium of video games but then as I read further, I began to question the whole notion he was laying out. As he extended from the painters he began with to those working in other media, his taxonomy of creator styles seemed weaker and weaker to me, until I ultimately decided that he was on one hand recapitulating the classical and romantic aesthetics established long ago and on the other dealing in codswallop.

So why did I invest so much time and thought to something that I ended up feeling this way about? Well, sometimes understanding a different point of view can be useful and other times it can turn out there’s nothing to be gained. I’ve read (and sometimes stopped reading) plenty of books over the years that I’ve disagreed with.

This time, just as when I turned away from political satire, I’ll tell you, it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.

However, unlike that incident, this is not a positive event where my eyes were opened, as is often my experience of reading his works and sources. Instead it was a letdown. I’ve been reading him since The Tipping Point, and have typically enjoyed his fresh perspective, interesting research, and engaging writing style. But this was a definite slip up, and I set out to trace the reasons for it.

The piece in which I learned about the book was the “Hallelujah” episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, which was mainly about music. More specifically, it was about the constant remixes that certain “Cézanney” musicians have done, most notably Leonard Cohen, and his many variations of the song the piece takes its title from, “Hallelujah”.

But unlike the book review referenced in the satire paradox, which crammed massive depth into a relatively concise piece, Galenson waxed prolix, with dozens of charts and deep dives into specific aspects of his theory with which I happen to disagree. So in a bang-for-the-buck analysis alone, score one for the London Review of Books.

So why did Gladwell repeat and endorse Galenson’s ideas? I set out to learn, and here’s what I found:

On C-SPAN’s Q&A in 2009, host Brian Lamb asks him which of his pieces he’d spent the most time on. Gladwell has a ready answer:

There’s a piece in What the Dog Saw called “Late Bloomers”, which took three years to get into the magazine. […] I read this book by an economist from Chicago named David Galenson in which—I thought was so fascinating—in which he talked about how genius comes in two very different forms: he talked about the conceptual innovator, who is the person who has the big bold idea, and he talked about the experimental innovator, who is the person who succeeds—creates through trial and error. And the conceptual innovator is the prodigy, right? And the person who works through trial and error is the late bloomer.

And I loved this idea so much because he was dignifying the late bloomer. Which I thought—there was something wonderful in there, but I had a devil of a time finding the right stories to illustrate that point. Because I like—when I have an academic argument—I like to find narratives that complete it. And it just was really hard to find the right ones. But sometimes you have to be persistent.

That time around, he found Ben Fountain for his late bloomer, and his prodigy was Jonathan Safran Foer. I’ll reserve judgement here as I haven’t read the piece, but since Gladwell reopened the subject, I can only deduce that he was not satisfied.

In retrospect, the first red flag should have been the title of Galenson’s book. Gladwell, like myself is not a fan of the term genius as too charged: unattainable and alienating. And it’s an idea that he’s already refuted himself.

Second, Galenson is, as Gladwell notes above, an economist. He is a complete outsider to the field of art history, and looking for a yardstick with which to measure a group of people that he has no real understanding of.

I am a fan of Freakonomics, the work of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, just as Gladwell is. The pair seem to be thorough in their research and careful to establish causal relationships rather than correlations. But beyond their work, economics has been reviled throughout its history, with Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle dubbing it “the dismal science” already in the 19th century. And as Mark Twain claims Benjamin Disraeli said on the topic,

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Actually, Disraeli never said it, it’s been generally attributed to Twain himself, but clearly predates either of these uses. Misquotes, and poorly attributed quotes strangely have become a minor theme of this article. Certainly, there have been advances in economics but having some professional insight into how big data is mined and interpreted (also one of the main tools the Freakonomics guys bring into play), I can tell you mistakes are common, and careful scrutiny often uncovers mistaken assumptions.

Back to the topic of so-called geniuses, I’d say, using an argument I learned from Gladwell, that these prodigies are explained by the “10,000-Hour Rule” he cites repeatedly in Outliers. Their supposed precociousness actually relates tautologically to the fact that they started early, Mozart being a notable example. Meanwhile “late-blooming” artists like Cézanne fit better under the heading of perfectionists like Rick Barry in another RevHist article, “The Big Man Can’t Shoot”.

And in the end it’s a false dilemma. Talking on the level of creator styles, and definitely setting aside the notion of genius, I could be placed by Galenson into the former category: I obsessively played and made games as a child, and discovered D&D as an excellent sandbox in which to explore storytelling, worldbuilding, how games could be improved or not through rules changes, etc. By the second half of high school I was thinking about how to parlay that work into getting paid, and other opportunities lacking, I created one myself, running a game at a local community center. From there, getting into video games was a much easier step, and games I’ve worked on have the critical acclaim and awards to demonstrate a healthy career trajectory.

But I also might be called a late bloomer. Even though I started early, my first real successes didn’t come until I was nearly 30. And even those, I lucked into: I always had big ideas, always tried to execute the best game I could, but a project’s scope and genre, whether it used an IP or was original, the skillsets and abilities of the team, the limitations of the tools or platform, how the game was marketed, if we could manage to get it on the shelves in time for Christmas shopping, all were factors over which I had zero control. The Christmas-shopping timing for games has proven to be something of a fallacy since the bad old days of games. Also, “shelves” are a metaphor rather than a reality today.

And that’s the biggest fallacy both Galenson and Gladwell engage in: success is not a meritocracy. The Impressionists broke away from the Salon just when the bourgeoisie became wealthy enough to afford art, and their scenes of natural beauty just happened to be the sort of stuff that appealed to the tastes of these buyers. The official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris was the most important art event in the Western world from 1748–1890 taking place annually or biennially. The Impressionists got tired of trying to produce works of the scale and style the Académie preferred and so decided to hold their own exhibition. Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, better known as Vienna Secession similarly broke from the Gesellschaft bildender Künstler Österreichs (Association of Austrian Artists) of the official Künstlerhaus, and similar movements occurred across Europe. If we recontextualuze the Dadaists into that position (for example), they’d have been art history footnote at best. As their provocation is directed at the “serious art world” and the middle classes, it’s doubtful they’d have made any friends at all.

The current buzzword that encapsulates this notion is market fit. It’s suggestion is that before you create your magnum opus, you consider for a moment who the audience for said work might be. Woody Allen’s famous quip:

80 percent of success is showing up.

Also contains the same idea: being in the right place at the right time trumps a lot of cleverness, skill, or what have you. This is unfortunately one of those quotes for which there are various versions, it seems to have been attributed to Allen, and later claimed by him… which I guess proves the point.

The opposing point of view is summed up in the slightly paraphrased Field of Dreams line:

If you build it they will come.

The actual quote is “… he will come.” This is a very American, manifest-destiny, build-a-better mousetrap, will-to-power myth. And furthermore it’s far from a benign one. It’s the one that Randian asshats pat themselves on the back with: their success proves their worthiness, setting aside the silver spoon they’ve gummed since birth, and all the breaks they’ve had along the way, and people who are not successful just didn’t have the bootstrapping grit they should have, and so exist only to be vilified, exploited, or ignored.

Despite my hyperbolic title, this is not an article about how Malcolm Gladwell is a hack who’s wrong about everything, and who you’d do well in the future to avoid reading, let alone citing. This piece is about that one time that Gladwell got it wrong. I submit that people have built careers out of being wrong most of the time, and being well intentioned, but not quite having your point nailed once in a while is exceptional.

I want to be clear that I remain a big fan of Gladwell. Mainly it’s important to understand how personal biases play into our errors. This is a case where Gladwell hasn’t found the research to back up his value for the late bloomer, and lacking that, hasn’t found a narrative to go along with it. As someone who (I hope) continues to grow intellectually and as a creator, I hope he finds them.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: The Unfit “King”

Part 2 Addendum: Golf No Softball

Part 3: Descent into the Absurd

Promiscuous Creators, Promiscuous Audiences

The rewards of ecumenical book juggling

When I recently mentioned that I typically read multiple books simultaneously, I almost said it was a bad habit; I almost apologized for it. But in fact, I’ve always done it, sometimes returning to books I’ve begun reading years later, and non, je ne regrette rien.

For one thing, there are lots of reasons to stop reading books, some books you’re not ready for, and need to put off and read something else. Sometimes you find another book that you want to read immediately, so it jumps the queue, and the rest of the list gets pushed back.

I started reading Prague in Black and Gold probably in 2002, and finished it a few months ago. As my fencing coach says when I or other members of the club miss a few sessions, “Life happens.” I was absolutely sure I wanted to read this book, and enjoyed it when I did, but other things just took me away from it for over a decade.

Sorry, not sorry.

For another thing, form is a concern: some books work great with Kindle on my phone, others, particularly ones with lots of illustrations need to be hard copies, and others still are very large and heavy, which precludes me from reading them anywhere other than home. This point alone means I’m probably actively reading at least three books at any given time.

And reading multiple books at once can be rewarding as well, when the books begin to talk to one another. Reading Jorge Luis BorgesOn Writing at the same time as Old Masters and Young Geniuses reminded me that the classical and romantic aesthetics might actually be the wheel David Galenson was attempting to reinvent in the latter book.

And while simultaneity is fun, just running into unexpected references, differing points of view, and even contradictions, is illuminating regardless: In the Land of Invented Languages which I am reading now is colliding with Borges’ “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (“El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins”) from whenever I read it last. Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language (La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea) also covers some of the same ground as In the Land of Invented Languages. The Borges and Eco overlaps are a surprise—I was expecting more on Klingon….

While I am aware that the common factor is me, and so this might sound nearly tautological, I actually don’t think it is.

For one thing, I try to mix things up. I try to choose not only dissimilar books to read simultaneously, but when I finish a book, I try to choose a new one that’s also different from it. There are, naturally, some authors that I cycle back to, but I try to give new and different ones a chance as well.

So obviously if I read Eco, I can expect to encounter Borges, Doctor Mirabilis, Roger Bacon, The fake letter of Prester John, and various heresies that seem minor now but would result in a trip to the stake in the 13th century. But I enjoy reading him because unexpected things also come up like Candomblé in Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault), Schtroumpfs (Smurfs) in Kant and the Platypus (Kant e l’ornitorinco), or the difficulties inherent in using hotel room fridges in “How to Travel with a Salmon” (“Come viaggiare con un salmone”).

A little while back, I was reading Eco’s History of Beauty and Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC simultaneously and both were discussing Futurism. Discussing the title of the album Drums and Wires, XTC frontman and primary songwriter Andy Partridge says:¹

We were going to call the album Boom Dada Boom. I’d been reading about the Futurists, I’d been reading Dadaism, because I liked the mischievous nature of it[…]

One of the reasons I’ve long been a fan of XTC, is that Partridge, the interviewee in the book, is a bit more thoughtful than most musicians: I’d go so far as to call him an artist. He has thoughts not just about his music, but about videos, and album covers, that in turn stem from knowledge in movements in art, literature, film, and various other cultural phenomena.

Partridge brings up Futurism again in discussing the song “Roads Girdle the Globe”:²

I was reading a lot about the Futurists at the time—you know, the Italian art movement? The sort of thing they would write would be in praise of speed, and motorcars, and machines. I think there were big dollops of that in there as well—so, the lyrics are quasi-Futurist.

And Eco’s book is not just about “beauty” either (I’ve said the “real” title should be History of Aesthetic Culture in the West): he discusses movements in the fine arts as well as those in literature, philosophy, architecture, decorative arts, fashion, etc. and how they bear on one another. He discusses the views of Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti, one of the main figures in Futurism:³

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the time was ripe for the futurist exaltation of speed and, after having called for the murder of moonlight because it was useless poetic garbage, Marinetti went so far as to state that a racing car was more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.

And while it might seem unrelated, this violent and iconoclastic art movement is very relevant to XTC in the late ’70s, when a similar one was occurring in music. Partridge himself coined the now-ubiquitous term “Punk Wars” to describe the anti-aesthetic that branded intelligent lyrics “insincere” and musical proficiency “self-indulgent”, and he’s thinking here about which side he’s on.

The song’s lyrics include:⁴

Hail mother motor
Hail piston rotor
Hail wheel

And later:

Your iron, oil, and steel
Your sacred three

Lines replacing old-timey religion with the worship of the automobile, which fit well with Futurism’s tenets, and might’ve easily found a place among the Warboys of Mad Max: Fury Road. But in the end, Partridge doesn’t endorse Marinetti: he’s satirizing both Futurism and the idea that having cars everywhere is a good idea, and just the fact that his message has that much nuance is also anti-punk.

Turning back to Marinetti, it’s important to note that the avant-garde, regardless of time, place, or medium, deals in provocation. They deliberately go against the grain of whatever the dominant forces in their medium are in order to trigger a response. Eco describes it thus:⁵

[T]he avant-garde has provocatively flouted all aesthetic canons respected until now. Art is no longer interested in providing an image of natural Beauty, nor does it aim to procure the pleasure ensuing from the contemplation of harmonious forms. On the contrary, its aim is to teach us to interpret the world through different eyes, to enjoy a return to archaic or esoteric models, the universe of dreams or the fantasies of the mentally ill, the visions provoked by drugs, the rediscovery of material, the startling re-presentation of everyday objects in improbable contexts, and subconscious drives.

And despite some of the crazy ideas of the Futurists, the concept of the beauty of the machine, not a part of the aesthetic of Marinetti’s time, has today become firmly embedded in our culture. This means the notion is effectively an expansion of the definition of art, which, in the end, is a good thing.

The specific worship of the internal combustion engine, and in particular automobiles maybe less so, and part of what Partridge is satirizing, but it was the future then—if he were alive today, Marinetti would doubtless be wondering where our personal spacecraft are:⁶

We must steal from the stars the secret of their amazing, incomprehensible speed. So let’s take part in the great celestial battles; let’s tackle the star-shells fired by invisible cannons; let’s compete against the star known as 1830 Groombridge, which flies at 241 kilometers per second, and against Arcturus, which flies at 430 kilometers per second.

People among the literati, academicians, philosophers, who don’t have their heads up their own asses have known for some time that so-called low culture matters. Works like Eco’s Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (Il costume di casa), and Barthes’ Mythologies (another convergence from my reading list) are not “slumming it” by looking into matters like pro wrestling or (non-Nietzschean) Superman. Rather than being dismissive of pop culture because of its very popularity, they seek instead to analyze its widespread appeal. In this interplay of cultural forms, from Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriations of pulp pages of comics onto canvases hanging in museums to Takashi Murakami’s “Superflat” concept, it’s important to recognize that there is just one ecosystem.

Then we come to games. Games remain largely narrow and self-referential, and some even say, anti-intellectual. One idea has it that games are entertainment and not art, but those who hold this view are just as ridiculous as those who look down on games as puerilia.

Even in Hollywood, arguably even more dumbed down than games, there at least used to be some recognition of this, with one example coming from the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, which discusses at length the false duality of artist and entertainer.

It makes sense to me that operating only at the poles of what is really a continuum is extremely limiting and, ultimately, boring, both for creators and audiences. Many of my favorite things contain elements of both. Even watching this movie about how Truffaut’s book, also titled Hitchcock/Truffaut, cemented Hitch’s status as an artist, many of the clips from his films made me laugh out loud, and yet these entertainments gave me still greater respect for his artistry.


  1. Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt, Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC, 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Umberto Eco, History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza), 2004.
  4. Lyrics transcribed from Andy Partridge, “Roads Girdle the Globe”, Drums and Wires, XTC, 1979.
  5. Eco, 2004.
  6. Quoted in ibid.

How “Les Misérables” Sent Me to the Emergency Room

(Re)-creating Hugo’s Chope

A few years ago, I ran across Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” The author has long been among my favorites, and I generally read anything of his I can find. One of the elements of this piece was his idea of rereading books:¹

[T]o read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings.

Jorge Luis Borges, another of my favorite writers, had similar ideas, which he summed up rather pithily thus:²

[R]ereading, not reading, is what counts.

When Borges wrote this, he meant that in reading a well-known book such as, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, even if it is the first time you have done so, you already know about it. The story is so famous, so much referenced by other books, directly or indirectly, that in effect, you are actually rereading it. But he also meant it more literally, that a great work bears rereading, and he is well known to have repeatedly read the works of Poe, Stevenson, and Kipling, among many others.

At about the same time I read Calvino’s essay, there was a thing going around on Facebook asking you to list “10 Life-Changing Books”. Mine were:

10. Ulysses, James Joyce
9. The Epic of Gilgamesh
8. Collected Fiction, Jorge Luis Borges
7. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
6. The 13 Clocks, James Thurber
5. Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
4. The Monkey King, Wu Cheng’en
3. The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell
2. Norse Gods and Giants, Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
1. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

I’ve done pieces relating to nearly all of them without referring to the list, because it was so true. The cut, which was quite painful to do—so many great books—only just missed Calvino. I’d have chosen The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (Il cavaliere inesistente and Il visconte dimezzato, really two short novels published in a single volume) as my favorite work of his. All of these I had reread, at least in part, and many of them several times, with the exception of Les Misérables, which suddenly stood out as something I should do. And so I did.

Certainly it isn’t a quick or an easy read. The book contains five volumes and a number of appendices, with my copy running to some 1,232 pages. It covers religion, politics, philosophy, history, and ethics, as well as the epic tale for which these elements form the backdrop.

Nearing the revolution that makes up the climax of the book, we meet a group of republican students who have dubbed themselves Les Amis de l’ABC (Friends of the ABC). The group’s leader is Enjolras, and drawn to him, a misanthrope named Grantaire is also a member. As they are waiting for the hour of the revolution to arrive, they are drinking. Most of them, in true French fashion, consume red wine, but not Grantaire:³

But by midday, Grantaire had gone beyond wine, that moderate source of dreaming. To the serious drinker wine is only an appetizer. In this matter of insobriety there is black as well as white magic, and wine is of the latter kind. Grantaire was an adventurous drinker. The black approach of real drunkenness, far from appalling, allured him. He had deserted the wine-bottle and gone on to the chope, the bottomless pit. Having neither opium nor hashish on hand, and wanting to befog his mind, he had recourse to that terrible mixture of eau-de-vie, stout and absinthe, which so utterly drugs the spirit. Those three ingredients are a dead weight on the soul, three darknesses in which the butterfly life of the mind is drowned; they create a vapor, tenuous yet with the membranous substance of a bat’s wing, in which three furies lurk—Nightmare, Night, and Death, hovering over the slumbering Psyche.

This drink is not given a proper name by Hugo; chope simply means “mug”. My comment when I read this passage was, “Wow, I have to try this.” For one thing, absinthe:

In high school, I did a massive paper on For Whom the Bell Tolls. The subject was forced on me, and I found the book intensely dull. Perhaps I should put something of Ernest Hemingway’s on my list of books to (re-)read, but I’m not sure my opinion would change. In any case, I’m not sure how, when, or where I ran across a passage from Papa’s The Garden of Eden, but it fetishizes absinthe rather well. I didn’t actually read the book, as I was still actively avoiding its author when it was posthumously published  (and I still am). I remember this passage and literally nothing else about it:⁴

[The waiter] came over now holding a glass and an ordinary Pernod bottle and a small narrow-lipped pitcher of water. There were lumps of ice in the water. “Pour Monsieur aussi?” he asked.

“Yes,” the young man said. “Please.”

The waiter poured their high glasses half full of the off-yellow liquid and started to pour the water slowly into the girl’s glass. But the young man said, “I’ll do it,” and the waiter took the bottle away. He seemed relieved to be taking it away and the young man poured the water in a very thin stream and the girl watched the absinthe cloud opalescently. It felt warm as her fingers held the glass and then as it lost the yellow cast and began to look milky it cooled sharply and the young man let the water fall in a drop at a time.

“Why does it have to go in so slowly?” the girl asked.

“It breaks up and goes to pieces if the water pours in too fast,” he explained. “Then it’s flat and worthless. There ought to be a glass on top with ice and just a little hole for the water to drip. But everybody would know what it was then.”

“I had to drink up fast before because two G.N.’s were in,” the girl said.


“Whatyoumacallits nationals. In khaki with bicycles and black leather pistol holsters. I had to engulp the evidence.”


“Sorry. Once I engulped it I can’t say it.”

“You want to be careful about absinthe.”

The elements that struck me were: 1. It’s illegal—if the Gendarmerie nationale catches you with it, you’re in trouble. 2. It involves a ritual of adding water and watching the color change. 3. It’s delicate, if you do it wrong you’ll ruin it. 4. It’s dangerous—you shouldn’t drink it too quickly. I should also note that the booze referred to is the Pernod Fils that was practically synonymous with absinthe, not the Pernod anise liqueur that was created when absinthe was banned.

Sometime in the ’90s it started being manufactured in Europe again, and though the ban was lifted in the US much later, I discovered I could get it shipped here. It arrived in boxes labeled “printed material” that sloshed when you shook them. Since then I graduated past flaming sugarcubes to ice water, and to cocktails like Sazerac, Corpse Reviver №2, and my favorite, the Green Beast.

Stout, of course, is also excellent: on a trip to Kerry with my brother and his Princeton crew buddies, we’d learned to ask, “How’s the Guinness?” We’d sip the dark, cool, frothy stuff if the reply was positive and resort to the not entirely disagreeable and apparently less finicky alternative of Smithwick’s if not.

Eau de vie, I’ll admit, I had to look up. I had a vague idea of what it was, but found that it’s essentially a highly distilled brandy, generally made from fruit other than grapes. Its role in the recipe is not to impart any kind of flavor but simply to booze it up, so a decent vodka would have the same effect. In fact, the definitions of vodka and eau de vie overlap, such that essentially anything fermented and distilled to 80 proof is vodka, hence Cîroc (made from grapes) is an example of an eau de vie vodka.

I looked around for a recipe and came up empty: all the searches simply pointed back to the Hugo passage. I checked it in French, which did not reveal anything new. So I looked at beertails for something similar.

Most beertails are… lame. Apart from the classic Snakebite, most of them involve watering down beer, which was the opposite of what I was trying to do. Snakebite is simply equal parts hard cider and beer. Shandy is a more typical beertail: beer and a citrus soda. Then I found Hangman’s Blood.

Like Grantaire’s drink, Hangman’s Blood was a literary one, described by Richard Hughes in his novel, A High Wind in Jamaica.⁵

[Captain Jonsen] went on board, and mixed several gallons of the potion known in alcoholic circles as Hangman’s Blood (which is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter). Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.

It sounds awful—like something we’d have made in high school by skimming from 10 different bottles of booze with the idea that our parents wouldn’t know. I tried Hangman’s Blood—for science—it’s surprisingly not terrible. And here, the evil captain is using it to make people drunk so he can take advantage of them at an auction—Hughes even goes so far as to use the word “poison” to refer to it.

And yet Anthony Burgess seems to have sworn by the drink. In the ’60s, William S. Burroughs seems to have been Burgess’ frequent drinking buddy—quite possibly members of the “alcoholic circles” Hughes mentions. He recorded the recipe as:⁶

Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne… It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.

Boiling all that down, here’s the recipe:


  • 1 2/3 ounces gin
  • 1 2/3 ounces whiskey
  • 1 2/3 ounces rum
  • 1 2/3 ounces port
  • 1 2/3 ounces brandy
  • 6 ½ ounces Guinness Extra Stout
  • 4 ounces Champagne


  • Pour all the liquors into an Imperial pint glass.
  • Add the stout.
  • Add the champagne.

Based on this information, I took a stab at the appropriate formulation, fiddled with the results a bit and so created, or recreated, the abyssal drink of Les Misérables. I began drinking them and inflicted them on all my friends. Since it didn’t have a real name, I dubbed it La Chope Hugo.

The recipe runs thus:


  • 12 ounces stout
  • 2 ounces eau de vie
  • 1 ounce absinthe


  • Pour cold stout into a chilled glass
  • Pour eau de vie and absinthe into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until chilled. Strain into glass over stout.

While I have provided these recipes here, please understand that this is not to say that I recommend that you make, or worse yet, imbibe them. Please recall for a moment the title of this piece, and also the words of Hemingway—a man who literally drank himself to death. OK, technically Hemingway used a shotgun to off himself because of his ill health, but his damaged liver and unwillingness/ inability to stop drinking was a major reason for that. And technically, these are the words of a character in his book, but it appears to be more or less autobiographical:

You want to be careful about absinthe.

Goddamn right and the Chope absolutely will drown the butterfly life of your mind.


  1. Italo Calvino, “Why Read the Classics?”, The New York Review of Books, 1986.
  2. Jorge Luis Borges, “Utopia of a Tired Man” (“Utopia de un hombre que esta cansado”), English version published in The New Yorker, 1975.
  3. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862, this is from the Norman Denny translation, 1976.
  4. Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden, 1986.
  5. Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica, 1929.
  6. Anthony Burgess, “Yin and Bitters”, Manchester Guardian Weekly, November 1966.