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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

    

Treatise on Modern Stimulants

by
Honoré de Balzac


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Treatise on Modern Stimulants



Title: Treatise on Modern Stimulants
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Genre: Treatise
Written: 1839 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 70 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Treatise on Modern Stimulants - US
Treatise on Modern Stimulants - UK
Treatise on Modern Stimulants - Canada
Traité des excitants modernes - Canada
Traité des excitants modernes - France
Abhandlung über moderne Reizmittel - Deutschland
Trattato sugli eccitanti moderni - Italia
Tratado de los excitantes modernos - España
  • French title: Traité des excitants modernes
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Kassy Hayden
  • With illustrations by Pierre Alechinsky

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting Balzacian sliver; nice little edition

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Balzac's Treatise on Modern Stimulants was, as translator Kassy Hayden explains in her helpful Afterword, one of the author's "analytical essays that outlines his theories about human behavior". They were never collected in "coherent form"; this one was originally published alongside Brillat-Savarin's classic The Physiology of Taste.
       In this short work -- Balzac's text covers barely forty pages -- Balzac addresses five substances whose 'ingestion' he finds: "has become so excessive in recent times that modern society has changed immeasurably". They are: alcohol, sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco, and he warns of the damaging effects of each ("intoxication, however it manifests itself, is the enemy of social progress") -- though sugar and tea get off more lightly (while: "Alcohol and tobacco threaten modern society").
       Balzac maintains:

     The destiny of a nation is dependent on its food and diet. 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 ? Tobacco has already brought down the Turks and the Dutch, and now threatens Germany.
       Okay, so he definitely goes a bit overboard with his very sweeping generalizations (and the specificity of the causes he finds). Still, the Treatise is a helpful sort of companion piece to Balzac as well as his œuvre. Personally and literarily, Balzac reveled in excess, and it's always enjoyable to read his excess-ive musings.
       So we find here his anecdote about three condemned men who can choose between being hanged or living exclusively on either tea, coffee, or chocolate; all choose the mono-diet -- with predictable horrific results ("The man who lived on chocolate died in an appalling state of putrefaction, devoured by worms", etc.). In the three chapters devoted to the worst of the stimulants -- alcohol, coffee, and tobacco -- Balzac similarly offers examples of great excess -- including his own. Interestingly, he maintains that he is essentially unaffected by alcohol, offering the example of a wager he agreed to, and arguing that it wasn't the seventeen bottles of wine that left him somewhat intoxicated but rather the two cigars he smoked along with them .....
       Balzac is famous for his coffee-drinking and his overview here is of obvious interest, but the best information about his (supposed) excessive consumption comes in the Afterword, Hayden noting that his bills and receipts suggest: "he purchased on average less than three kilograms per month, the equivalent of perhaps ten to fifteen cups per day". (Among the other nice titbits in the Afterword: the observation that he mentions coffee "124 times over almost two decades" in his correspondence with Ewelina Hanska.)
       Apparently, Balzac never really took to tea -- and he is amusingly derisive about it (and the English ...):
If the English experience is real, tea gives the English their morals, makes their skin pallid, makes them prone to hypocrisy and backbiting; this much is certain, it does not improve women's moral of physical hygiene. Where women drink tea, love is defiled at its very core. Such women are wan, feeble, gossipy, tedious, holier-than-thou.
       The Treatise is Balzacian in its great range and strong pronouncements. It can't pass for very scientific -- indeed, many of Balzac's claims are outlandish or gross generalizations -- but there's a convinced enthusiasm to his dire warnings that makes for a compelling little text.
       The accompanying apparatus -- notes, Afterword, chronology, and bibliography -- do make this a useful and informative volume (and it's a beautiful Pierre Alechinsky-illustrated pocket-sized edition, too), with Hayden's supporting material a helpful complement to the text.
       Obviously of interest to any Balzac-fan, Treatise on Modern Stimulants is a revealing sliver of his work, reflecting on his fiction and his life -- and an entertaining small oddity about (these) stimulants more generally.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 October 2018

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Links:

Treatise on Modern Stimulants: Honoré de Balzac: Other books by Honoré de Balzac under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is best known for his multi-volume 'Human Comedy'.

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© 2018 the complete review

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