Higher Grounds

Treatise on Modern Stimulants BY Honoré de Balzac. edited by Pierre Alechinsky, Kassy Hayden, Kassy Hayden. Wakefield Press. Paperback, 80 pages. $12.

The cover of Treatise on Modern Stimulants

“Of all the modern stimulants, coffee had the greatest hold over Balzac,” Kassy Hayden writes in the afterword to her new translation of Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Modern Stimulants (Wakefield Press, $13), which situates this small, wild book firmly in the social, political, and medical scenes of nineteenth-century France. “Coffee helped him sustain his rigorous writing schedule, and he maintained that it gave him inspiration and fired up his intellect. . . . At times euphoric about his drink of choice, he was more often tormented by the knowledge that, although it contributed to his ill health, he could not live without it.” To which I can only respond: same. Ditto Balzac’s observation that what works for him on the caffeine front doesn’t work for everyone: “Everyone knows that bores bore us even more after they have drunk it,” he writes in the section dedicated to coffee. “Despite the fact that grocers in Paris stay open until midnight, certain authors are not getting any wittier.” You can feel the shade across the centuries.

It must be said, though, that in other respects it’s hard to reconcile oneself to Balzac’s thoughts on our mutually adored beverage. (I do, however, share his fondness for what we now call cold-brew, which was apparently known as “cold fusion” long before it became an artisanal pastime for the twenty-first century. Or, as Hayden describes it, “a time-consuming preparation that today is experiencing a surge in popularity among third-wave coffee connoisseurs.”) I can’t, for example, fathom who he might be talking about when he refers to people “with weak constitutions [for whom] coffee creates a congestion in the brain . . . instead of feeling stimulated, these individuals are prone to somnolence. . . . These people could have the legs of a stag, the stomach of an ostrich, but they are poorly equipped for intellectual undertakings.” Then again, I suppose that kind of thing is to be expected when dipping into writing from a time when people believed that “science has now discovered that a diet based on fish influences the gender of our offspring,” and that, as one of Hayden’s excellent endnotes casually drops, “alcoholics and heavy drinkers could spontaneously combust.”

Pierre Alechinsky’s 1989 illustrations from the 2018 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Modern Stimulants.
Pierre Alechinsky’s 1989 illustrations from the 2018 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Modern Stimulants.

Balzac was born in 1799, just in time to come of age in the burgeoning world of French gastronomy—“a signifier for good food or . . . food as both an art and a science.” Treatise on Modern Stimulants was first published in 1839 as an appendix to a reissue of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s seminal work The Physiology of Taste. This was a promotional gambit on the publisher’s part after the success of an 1838 edition of Brillat-Savarin’s book with another Balzac essay, “The Physiology of Marriage,” attached. Treatise on Modern Stimulants was actually intended to be part of a study on human behavior called Pathologie de la vie sociale (Pathology of Social Life), accompanied by, among other pieces, already published essays on “elegant living” and a “theory of walking.” Balzac never pulled off that project; he died at fifty-one, quite possibly due to the deleterious effects of too much coffee, which he often consumed in the form of ground beans with no water added. One imagines it might have been a counterpart to La Comédie humaine, his collection of fiction and essays comprising more than a hundred interwoven pieces that take on the full breadth of French society in the first half of the nineteenth century, from the period after the Revolution through Restoration and beyond.

But never mind the unrealized compendium. The Treatise on its own is a marvel of brash opinion (“You know this, smokers!”), contemporary science, politics, and experiential memoir. It begins with a stern explication of “The Subject at Hand,” the scourge of five contemporary stimulants: alcohol, sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco. The argument is simple: Consumption of these “substances . . . has become so excessive in recent times that modern society has changed immeasurably.” Then, fully embracing the au courant idea that “moral and physical hygiene could transform mind and body, and consequently would have a positive effect on society,” Balzac asserts that “the destiny of a nation is dependent on its food and diet.” By way of example, he notes that “grains created artistic peoples. Spirits killed the Indians. I call Russia an aristocracy propped up by alcohol. Who knows if the abuse of chocolate did not contribute to the degradation of the Spanish nation, which, at the moment it discovered chocolate, was about to re-create the Roman Empire?” As for the Turks and the Dutch, tobacco was their downfall, and Germany wasn’t far behind. As he later explains in the section of the book on tobacco, “Smoking nations, like the Dutch, who were the first smokers in Europe, are essentially apathetic and limp. . . . Holland will always belong to whoever wants to take it—it exists only because of the jealousy of other governments which will not let it become French.”

Indeed, of his five substances, Balzac holds that tobacco “triumphs over all the others” in terms of its ill effects. In writing about it, he outlines the social hierarchy of his day, revealing a sort of physiological noblesse oblige tied to that idea of moral hygiene and the belief that “the public’s diet . . . is a huge component of policy and it is the most neglected.” Of smoking, he writes:

If given a choice between bread and tobacco, the poor will never hesitate. . . . The Corsican bandit, hiding behind inaccessible rocks, or on a beach where he can keep an eye out, will offer to kill your enemy for a pound of tobacco. . . . Given a choice between his beloved and a cigar, a dandy would not hesitate to leave his woman.

It’s an entirely different matter when he turns to his own experiences smoking a hookah with none other than George Sand. The water pipe lends “a kind of aristocratic superiority to the wide-eyed bourgeoisie,” and the smoke it produces “ascends to the brain like scented and melodious prayers rising toward heaven. . . . You catch your fluttering hallucinations as a child does with a butterfly net, running after dragonflies in a divine meadow.”

It’s a perfect, evocative description of what it feels like to be buzzed from nicotine (or, perhaps, from smoking a mix of tobacco and patchouli, which is the only other substance Balzac mentions here). Even better is his marvelous recollection of a single night of drunkenness at the opera, undertaken purely in the name of research, of course. The music “reached down to me through shining clouds, plucked clean of all human imperfection, yet full of artistic sentiment and imprinted with the divine,” he rhapsodizes. Out in the streets again after the performance, he

tasted one of the most powerful and fantastic pleasures in the world, indescribable ecstasy, a delight that one feels when crossing Paris at half past eleven at night, rapidly transported among the streetlamps, watching the movement of a myriad of shops, lights, signs, silhouettes, groups, women under umbrellas, astonishingly lit street corners, squares in shadow; all while observing, through the ribbons of rain, a thousand things that one wrongly believes one has already seen somewhere in the full light of day. And everywhere the feathers and lace, even in the cake shops.

Then, lest you find yourself tempted to go out and try it, he announces, in one of the axioms that structure the book: “Drunkenness is a momentary poisoning.” With a few more words about gastric juices and infertility, he signs off from the subject. That there might be any kind of inconsistency in his repeated disparagement of the very substances that clearly provide him such pleasure never seems to cross his mind.

About sugar and tea, Balzac has much less to say—though he does manage to note that “tea gives the English their morals, makes their skin pallid, makes them prone to hypocrisy and backbiting,” not to mention that (note to self) “where women drink tea, love is defiled at its very core.” I’ll be sure to bring these things up on my next trip to England, where no doubt the populace is looking for another way to cut back. Or maybe I’ll just recommend that they switch to coffee, that elixir that calls forth the best in us, inciting action rather than dreamy reverie: “It blazes and shoots sparks up all the way to the brain. . . . Ideas march like the battalions of a great army onto the battlefield where the battle has begun. Memories charge in, flags flying; the light cavalry of comparisons advances at a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes in with its convoy and its charges; witticisms appear like snipers; characters rise up; the paper covers itself in ink.” In these turbulent times, we need all the help we can get. Why not start with breakfast?

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).