BY MATTHEW HERBERT
The 19th century novelist Honore de Balzac died at 51, of drinking too much. Coffee, not booze. His typical writing schedule was to nap through the early evening, awake at midnight and work through and often past the dawn, downing 10, 12, even 15 cups of black coffee. He was an addict. A glorious addict.
Balzac’s ovations to coffee have become famous. This is probably his best known:
This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensign to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.
I can relate. I’m an addict, too, and I find that coffee-fueled ideas leap to life, where they might have lain fallow, indistinct, unremarked. Ever since my undergrad days, when coffee enabled me not just to understand Plato’s dialogues but to emerge through them from the Cave and lay hold of the Forms Themselves, I have drunk strong coffee virtually every morning of my life, always reading, occasionally writing.
Balzac, to put it modestly, lacked self-control. He claimed to have worked 48 hours straight through once, downing cup after cup of the strong stuff. When coffee in its liquid form failed to sustain his comet-like genius, he ingested the beans straight, roasted and ground. His habit wrecked his stomach, causing ulcers which he ignored, soldiering through on caffeine, covering his paper with ink. The endless onslaught of coffee first dissolved the mucus lining of his stomach then attacked the smooth muscle tissue of the stomach wall itself. This was the price paid for the Human Comedy, Balzac’s collection of 91 finished novels, stories and essays, and 46 unfinished works that made him a genius.
Although we cannot be sure what killed Balzac, we can make a fair guess. After his stomach wall became ulcerated, it likely developed a perforation, and the ghastly flora and fauna that inhabit one’s stomach and so merrily digest one’s food, killing off in the process all but the hardiest microbial invaders, oozed out to envelop and infect the surrounding organs, at speed. Sepsis acts quickly, often lethal in less than a day, when caused by the leakage of gastric juices.
Like Balzac, I also suffer gastritis, and although I am only guessing, it is likely caused by too much coffee, strung along by love of words, as it was for him. It has caused me an ulcer once, and I think it may be repeating its trick at present. And so I moderate my intake. I recently went 34 days without, and it seems I am only partially on my way back to having an uncompromised stomach lining. The five small cups of coffee imbibed this week pinch at my insides, telling me there is healing left to do yet.
Well, what of it? I have no genius worth sacrificing for, and I live most of my life, not among the gods of the intellect, who are so well pleased by my fragrant daily offerings of Sumatra or Mocha Sanani, but down here on Earth, forming loyal bonds to family and other risk-free bourgeois pleasures.
So, no, I won’t die like Balzac. It is not even a temptation. But Jesus, it is miserable not to pretend to be him.