Balzac, Treatise on Modern Stimulants

This work seems like a challenge to write about for 30 minutes since it is such a short work. 41 small pages. Nonetheless, here some thoughts (unorganized by the end).

Me, enjoying a modern stimulant somewhere in California. 2014.

Though I have read Balzac before, this was in the form of novels (Eugénie Grandet, The Wild Ass’s Skin, Colonel Chabert), and I expected my next foray would be a novel. But when I turned to Twitter for reading recommendations, this came from one particularly well-read friend. And since it was much shorter than the last book he recommended to me (“one of the most amusing books in our language”), it seemed worth a shot.

This little treatise ended up as a perfect follow-up to my reading of The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count of that novel, who keeps his normal fair to a minimum, makes no secret of the substances by which he regulates his sleep. When we first see his hidden palace room, he offers his guest a serving of hashish which brings about deeply satisfying hallucinations. He carries around an emerald which contains his “sleeping pills”, and we see another scene where a child breaks into his cabinet full of vials which induce untold effects.

The substances described by Balzac are far more commonplace, and yet he attributes to them great effect. Sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco. He seems particularly concerned about the vitality of his nation and the health of the next generation:

“We are each the master of ourselves, in accordance with modern law; but if the ruling classes and the proletarians who read these pages believe that it is only themselves who suffer in smoking like a tugboat or drinking like Alexander the Great, they are living a strange fantasy; they adulterate the human race, bastardizing the generations, which will lead countries into ruin. One generation does not have the right to diminish the next.”

Imagine what horror he would have of the last century in which drugs are concocted for the sole purpose of diminishing the faculty of generation, and then demanded as a form of healthcare! Who knows how his ironic and cause-seeking minding would connect the entire demeanor of our most recent generation to the contraceptive chemicals that are now so ubiquitous! But his concern in the present treatise keeps mostly to the effect that his stimulants have on the production of mucus, which is of course vital to passing on life.

Throughout the treatise, he gives a number of axioms, that do not seem equally worth of that name:

  1. For social man, to live is to expend oneself more or less quickly.
  2. Your alimentation alters the next generation.
  3. The fisherman’s catch gives us girls, the butcher brings us boys, the baker is the father of thought.
  4. Drunkenness is a momentary poisoning.
  5. To leave boiling water, especially for a long time, in contact with coffee, is a heresy; to reuse coffee grounds is to subject one’s stomach and organs to tanning.
  6. To smoke a cigar is to smoke fire.
  7. All excesses that harm our mucus systems shorten our life spans.
  8. When France sends 500,000 men to the Pyrenees, it does not send them down the Rhine. The same applies to man.

Some of these seem reducible to each other. 1, 7 and 8 all seem to articulate the thesis that man has a limited amount of “vital energy”. 2 and 3 suggest that this vital energy has an impact on the next generation. 4 to 6 each name some negative effect of a different substance, either poisoning, tanning or burning us from the inside out. This last is especially dangerous, for its harm to the mucus system.

A quote from him on coffee that seems to ring true: “Many people ascribe to coffee the power to provide inspiration, but everyone knows that bores bore us even more after they gave drunk it. Despite the fact that grocers in Paris stay open until midnight, certain authors are not getting any wittier.”

He makes an observation that is perfectly consonant with the opinion of the Count: “In matters concerning material pleasures, the Orientals are truly superior to us.” He does not develop the reason for this, but only goes on to describe the manner and instrument by which the Easterner takes his tobacco. Was this a universal opinion in 19th century France?

I do not know to what extent Balzac’s observations in this treatise are properly scientific. Nonetheless, he paid attention to this subject for the same reason he paid attention to so many things: He wanted to understand everything about man as a social creature, and to display it in his own writing. So at the very least, in the next Balzac novel I read, I can pay attention to the effect of different stimulants in the disposition and vitality of his characters. As I’m currently reading Moby-Dick which has its own scientific asides for chapters at a time, I wonder if the chapters of this treatise could have served a similar purpose in one of Balzac’s novels.

[Another work on my second list of classics.]

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