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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Stay Awake!

So says Jesus in the lesson for Sunday.

While we are tempted to drag in a sermon by St Augustine (we have a great one on staying up late, which he preached at the Easter Vigil), it occurs to us that readers may grow tired our endless harping on Augustine.

So how about Honore de Balzac? The French novelist is said to have risen from bed around midnight, and begun writing -- and to have continued writing for ten, fifteen, or many more hours. Needless to say, he had a little help.

We're talking about coffee here. Balzac drank prodigious amounts of the stuff; we remember hearing ten or fifteen cups in a day, the sort of quantities that could kill a racehorse. And in a wonderful essay called The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee, he wrote about his poison of choice. He understood (as many coffee drinkers don't) that you need to back off now and then:
Coffee's power changes over time. [Italian composer Gioacchino] Rossini has personally experienced some of these effects as, of course, have I. "Coffee," Rossini told me, "is an affair of fifteen or twenty days; just the right amount of time, fortunately, to write an opera."
But Balzac had learned to extend coffee's effect over time, and he reveals his system:

For a while - for a week or two at most - you can obtain the right amount of stimulation with one, then two cups of coffee brewed from beans that have been crushed with gradually increasing force and infused with hot water.

For another week, by decreasing the amount of water used, by pulverizing the coffee even more finely, and by infusing the grounds with cold water, you can continue to obtain the same cerebral power.

When you have produced the finest grind with the least water possible, you double the dose by drinking two cups at a time; particularly vigorous constitutions can tolerate three cups. In this manner one can continue working for several more days.

However, writing novels -- not NanoWriMo quickies, mind you, but the sprawling epics of the nineteenth century -- takes a bit longer than this. And so Balzac says:
I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae.

The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain.

From that moment on, 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.
Mind you, a friend who tried this method took to his bed, believing himself poisoned. Balzac suggests that the poor fellow "had a stomach of papier-mache."

Perhaps, now that we think about it, this wasn't quite what the Lord had in mind. And yet, with the sermon deadline bearing down on us and that rassum-frassum breviary still not prepared for the printer, we find ourselves eyeballing the little bag of beans in the freezer, and wondering ....


Pastor Joelle said...

You can never have too much Augustine. But a French guy who drinks coffee can't be too bad

mark said...

Good grief - don't do it!!!