Intense Turkish Coffee and Our Primary Nervous Flux

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I obviously love my daily siesta, but there are people who never even consider resting at midday. My brother Ed is one of them. He’s a CPA, relaxed, well-adjusted, and says he never remembers taking a nap. Another might have been Honore de Balzac, a French novelist and playwright who, according the The Writer’s Almanac, drank twenty to forty cups of “intense Turkish coffee every day” and smoked lots of pipe tobacco. He claimed to have once worked forty-eight straight hours interspersed with only three hours rest, but in the end all the caffeine probably killed him.

Balzac’s essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” parses his obsession with and dependence on coffee: “Coffee affects the diaphragm and the plexus of the stomach, from which it reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations that escape complete analysis; that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it.”

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Portrait of Honore de Balzac (Credit: Steve Hammond)

And Balzac was all about his “nervous flux” sparking. He favored drinking coffee before eating to maximize its effect. As the acid eats away at the “stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae,” “everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

If coffee had this effect on me, writing would be the last thing I’d want to do. I have plenty of agitation of my own. Other than an appreciation for wine and beer, I’m a chicken about stimulants or depressants. About twenty-five years ago, just before daughter Elena was born, I smoked hash with some friends and had the mother of all panic attacks. Ever since, I’ve been phobic about any drug that might make me lose control and freak out. During a bout with bronchitis a few years ago, I took cough syrup with codeine but couldn’t bring myself to use the prescribed inhaler, which might have messed with my temperamental heart rate. In short, my “primary nervous flux” generates too much electricity as it is. I need to power down, not ramp up.

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A Powering-Down Aid

Whether my powering-down siestas contribute anything to humanity is doubtful, but nobody can say that coffee didn’t work for Balzac and world literature. He wrote almost one hundred novels, short stories, and plays, and according to Wikipedia, his work influenced Proust, Zola, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Faulkner, and Kerouac.

en: Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sow...

Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sowgen, 1825, miniature on ivory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the final year of his life, Balzac married Ewelina Hanski, whom he loved for many years, though she was married. Her husband Waclaw died in 1841, but it wasn’t until 1850 that Balzac was able to marry her. “On 14 March 1850, with Balzac’s health in serious decline, they drove from [Ewelina’s] estate in Wierzchownia (village of Verkhivnia) to a church in Berdyczow (city of Berdychiv, today in Ukraine) and were married. The ten-hour journey to and from the ceremony took a toll on both husband and wife: her feet were too swollen to walk, and he endured severe heart trouble” (Wikipedia). Five months later, Balzac died at fifty-one. “His wife had gone to bed and his mother was the only one with him” (The Writer’s Almanac).

Would a daily hour of oblivion have tempered the great author’s lust for caffeine? Maybe, but his work flashed out of his “nervous flux”; Balzac wouldn’t have been Balzac without coffee. Sumus quod sumus (we are what we are).

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Balzac’s Tomb (Photo Credit: Joop van Meer)

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