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In search of lost balance

Edited excerpt from Drinking with Proust (Leanpub)

Image: Advert for Vin Mariani, a lithograph by Jules Chéret, 1894

We oscillate between stimulation and rest but seek a balanced life. Caffeine lifts us up, alcohol winds us down. Why not just mix the two?

The eighteenth century Scottish physician John Brown argued that to be alive is not a natural state, but a forced state. We tend towards dissolution at every moment, he wrote, and are kept from it only by “foreign powers, and even by these with difficulty, and only for a time; and then, from the necessity of … fate” we “yield to death.”29

In order to stave off dissolution and stay balanced, Brown argued, you have to harness the “foreign powers” available to you. Brown’s substances of choice were seasoned food, alcohol and opium.

Spirituous or vinous drink, in which the alcohol is always diluted, stimulates more quickly, and more readily, than seasoned food, and its stimulus is in proportion to the quantity of alcohol that it contains. But there are stimuli, which possess an operation as much quicker, and more powerful… highest of all… is opium.30

Brown practised what he preached. He would hold his lectures “with a glass of whisky and a glass of laudanum in front of him, sipping from each in turn, to demonstrate the perfect balance.”31

The theory may have worked in the halls of academic demonstration, but the whiskey and laudanum combo exacted a toll. Brown drifted into poverty and died of a stroke at the age of fifty-three.

The idea that you could achieve balance through substance abuse didn’t take off in the United Kingdom. Brownism was ridiculed. Instead of providing stimulation, one medical expert wrote, applications of the Brownian formula

…produce a diminution of the excitement in the fibres and vessels of the part to which they are applied… and if the whole system does become affected in consequence of their application, the excitement is always universally diminished. Can a stronger proof of the fallacy and imbecility of the Brunonian System be required?32

Animal experiments sealed the fate of Brown’s legacy in Britain. After applying a Brownian tincture to a frog’s body, a man of science noted a “surprising diminution of the blood’s velocity,” the frog “did not move half so swiftly as it uses to do in these creatures.”  Alcohol and opium don’t prevent the dissolution of an organism. Brown’s recipe wasn’t fit for purpose.

While Brownism did badly in Scotland and England, translations of his work thrived in Germany. Intellectuals on the continent were going through a romantic phase. Rationality had its limits, they realised. Not every question can be reduced to an experiment. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant gave voice to the new mood. Science is confined to the realm of appearances:

…if we remove our own subject or even only the subjective constitution of the senses in general, then all constitution, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed space and time themselves would disappear, and as appearances they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us.33

At the extreme end of the new romantic spirit, some believed that the worth of a theory could be measured in the depth of its emotional appeal. Here is what Novalis had to say about Brown:

The best thing about the Brownian system is the astonishing optimism with which Brown claims the universal validity of his system: it must and shall be so, experience and nature be damned. This optimism is the essential aspect of the system and its applicable strength. It is through this strength that the Brownian System turns into a System for the Brownians. There is nothing one could really say against that. The greater the magic, the more arbitrary its method, its vocabulary, its instruments. Everyone performs wonders in his own way.34

In other words: a theory may be wrong, but if you’re an enthusiastic believer its prophecies may become self-fulfilling…

From Brown to Proust 

Dr. Pierre Charles Henri Fauvel was one of the most celebrated doctors of his day. When he died in 1895, Marcel Proust was 24 years old. It is highly likely that their paths had crossed. Proust suffered from asthma and Fauvel specialised in curing throats and noses in the Faubourg St. Germain.

Fauvel was the go-to man for opera singers and emperors alike. He was said to have saved the voice of Emperor Napoleon and of the Empress of Russia. In its obituary for Fauvel, the New York Times noted that this médecin pour la gorge might have had a go at curing the German emperor’s throat as well had it not been for the patient’s stiff-necked nationalism.

During the illness of the late Emperor Frederick of Germany, Dr. Fauvel was many times asked for advice, but it is said that he, being a Frenchman, his advice was not followed.35

Fauvel’s success built on an improved Brownian recipe: instead of Brown’s laudanum and alcohol, Fauvel used coca dissolved in alcohol. Dr. Fauvel used his tincture to anaesthetise the throats of his patients, making surgery painless. Convinced of the broader applicability of this mixture, he then became an ardent promoter of Vin Mariani.36

Vin Mariani was a Belle-Epoque tonic made from Burgundy wine infused with cocoa leaves. Mainstream doctors disapproved, but Fauvel’s promotion of the drink served to increase his fame and fortune.

The popularity of Vin Mariani was a late vindication of Brown’s ideas. Queen Victoria reportedly liked the stuff and Pope Leo XIII bestowed a papal medal upon the beverage. Adverts for Vin Mariani featured the holy father himself. The drink soon developed into the mass market. In America, an entrepreneur by the name of John Stith Pemberton sold a Vin Mariani lookalike under the brand of “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.” When prohibition came into force he changed the recipe and invented “coca” sans wine. He named his new tonic “Coca-Cola.”

While cocaine soon lost its mass appeal, the need for stimulation remained. Caffeine has become the stimulant of choice.

Proust was introduced to coffee by his uncle Jules Amiot, the descendant of an illustrious merchant family based in Illiers (the town is fictionalised as Combray in The Search). After making his living as a wine merchant in Algeria, Jules returned to France and opened a curio shop in Paris. Jules cultivated exotic tastes including a taste for coffee.

As a boy growing up, Marcel would visit his uncle’s house outside Paris for the holidays. At the end of meals, Jules would bring in an exotic apparatus.

Everything was ready, the places were fully laid on the tablecloth, where all that was missing was what was only brought in at the end of the meal, the glass device in which my uncle, the horticulturalist and cook, himself made the coffee at the table, tubular and complicated like some piece of physics apparatus that smelt good and in which it was most agreeable to watch the sudden ebullition rise into the glass dome and then leave its fragrant brown ash on the steamed-up sides… 37

Proust developed a complicated relationship with caffeine. It was both a cure and a curse. He found that caffeine helped him to cope with breathing difficulties. But, like Brown, he was unable to find a healthy balance in his intake of “foreign powers.” Indeed, his intake reached Balzacian levels.38

To counter his excessive asthma, Proust consumed seventeen cups of coffee, apparently having calculated the required dosage of caffeine… When it was time to
leave, Marcel was shaking so severely from all the coffee he had drunk he could barely walk.39

For Proust, caffeine was part of the “art of living” with his illness. He modified doses of stimulants and depressants prescribed by his doctors consuming “huge quantities of caffeine in pill form, or brewed, which he often laced with bromide, as a corrective to coffee’s stimulating properties.” When a friend pointed out that this amounted to applying the accelerator and the brakes at the same time, Proust replied that he knew what was good for him.40   Echoing Brown’s belief that “to be alive is not a natural state,” Proust wrote: “we are never cured, at best we learn to live with our maladies.”

Life may be a “forced” state, but we must find a way to relax and live with our weaknesses. Consciously or unconsciously, we find a steady state. Habits develop out of the tricks and shortcuts we choose to find an equilibrium. Our personality becomes entangled with the “cures” to our real and imagined maladies. Some may be easier to understand than others: when evaluating the “cures” that others have come up with, it is good to remember Novalis’ dictum, “the greater the magic, the more arbitrary the methods.”


29 Brown, J., 1788, The elements of medicine, Johnson.

30 ibid.

31 Fitzgerald, P., 1997, The Blue Flower, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

32 The London Medical and Physical Journal, Vol. 9, 1803.

33 Rohlf, M., 2014, Immanuel Kant, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition).

34 Quoted from Neubauer, J., 1967, Dr. John Brown (1735-88) and Early German Romanticisim: Journal of the History of Ideas, v. 28, p. 367-382.

35 Death of a Famous Physician, December 18, 1895, The New York Times.

36 For one particular case of a throat polyp, Fauvel recommends electrical treatment to the recurrent laryngeal nerve and vin Coca de Mariani (Fauvel, C., 1876, Traite pratique des maladies du larynx precede d’un traite complet de laryngoscopie, V.A. Delahaye.).

37 Proust, M., 2008, Days of Reading, Penguin Books Limited.

38 Proust must have come across Balzac’s coffee instructions aimed at “all of you who consume your own brilliant selves with the heat and light of your minds.” According to Balzac, coffee’s principle toxin is tannin, which can lead to a stomach twisted in knots. But you can avoid the ill-effects by pulverizing coffee in the Turkish manner. The best way to make coffee is by an infusion of cold water. The next point to be aware of, is that the effect of coffee decreases over time. For a week or two, one or two cups will do the trick. The next week, you will have to reduce the amount of water, or pulverize more finely “to obtain the same cerebral power”. The next step is to double the dose and finally, in a step recommended only “to men of excessive vigour, with black hair and skin covered with liver spots”, you can try to consume the coffee grinds without water on an empty stomach. This will “brutalize the stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies”, but on the plus side, “sparks shoot all the way up to the brain”. Whatever the pain associated with extreme coffee consumption, tea is no alternative: “If the experience of the English is typical, heavy tea-drinkers will produce English moral philosophy, a tendency toward a pale complexion, hypocrisy and backbiting.” (Balzac, H. d., trans. Onopa, Roberts, The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee: Michigan Quarterly Review, v. 35.)

39 Carter, W. C., 2000, Marcel Proust : a life: New Haven ; London, Yale University Press.

40 Proust’s habits may have been eccentric, “I eat one meal every 24 hours (… two creamed eggs, a wing of roast chicken, three croissants, a dish of fried potatoes, grapes, coffee, a bottle of beer)…” and his caffeine consumption may have been excessive, but his habits pale in comparison to Sartre’s some years later, described as follows: “Two hours over a heavy meal, washed down with a quart of red wine. Punctually, at three-thirty, he would stop in mid-sentence, push away the table, get up, and run back to his desk at Rue Bonaparte …. When he felt really sick, and the doctor prescribed rest, he would opt for a compromise: less tobacco and fewer drugs for a week …. His diet, over a period of twenty-four hours included two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol—wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on—two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals.” (Kimball, R., 1987, Sartre resartus: The New Criterion.)

This entry was posted in: Proust

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