Balzac and “Eight Cups a Day”

Certainly Balzac (The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee) would have been delighted to read “Eight Cups a Day” (Johnson, NYTimes, 2008). Balzac was a writer made legendary for the sheer quantity of writing he produced in his lifetime; productivity fueled perhaps by his obsession with coffee.

In reading the two pieces, written over 100 years apart, I was first intrigued by the number of references to human anatomy. For example, in “Eight cups a day” we read of cardiovascular difficulties, lowering of the risk for atherosclerosis and the cerebral infarction – all medical terms associated with the heart and the brain. Balzac too mentions the diaphragm, and the plexus of the stomach, and also the brain(x2)/cerebral. He addresses the stomach (x2) filled with suckers and papillae and its digestive juices. Between all these anatomical references, the brain/cerebral is repeated most often.

Interestingly, the physical and anatomical would seem opposed to the spiritual. Something spiritual is intangible, while a brain or a stomach is certainly not. In “Eight Cups a Day”, we find a reference to my demon and Satanic worship – both written in reference to coffee’s effect on the author and other drinkers. In Balzac, “few writers are actually becoming more spiritual” (P1), while coffee effects on the stomach are as a “pythoness appeals to her god”. A pythoness is a female priestess or practioner of divination.  Finally, at the end – the coffee drinker is referred to as a “man of spirit” – implying that the presence of spirit is evidence of coffee drinking.  In these reference, it would seem that the evidence of the spirit/spiritual/possession is a result of the coffee drinking – something so physical, the act of drinking, producing measurable biological effects that are simultaneously spiritual/non-physical.

Perhaps the reference to the spiritual or the intangible is implying the intangibility of the ideas themselves. The ideas are a product of the coffee drinking, after the pythoness appeals to her god Balzac does find sparks shooting up to his brain. But this is not consistent with “Eight Cups a Day” where the author abstains from coffee and is able to function “just about normally again” – apparently recovering from his “sluggish brain.” Was the author able to generate ideas without the coffee? It would seem so…

And yet the author of “Eight Cups a Day” refers to the coffee as my demon”, while Balzac’s pythoness appeals to her god. Who is her god? If the pythoness is conjuring spirits from her god, then “she” is conjuring spirit from Balzac himself. Balzac and Johnson (“Eight Cups a Day”) are both the gods and coffee is doing their bidding. And perhaps in the mystery inherently associated with these kinds of intangible words – demon, spirit, god – these authors are pointing to the invisible science that turns stomach acid, blood, nerves and brain matter into words, sentences and ideas.