Friday, October 14, 2011

The Physiology of the Cigar

Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850) was a French novelist and playwright. He is most famous for a sequence of short stories and short novels that are gathered together into a series called La Comédie humaine, The Human Comedy. Through interesting characters and situations realistically described, these attempt to describe the foibles, sins, and shortcomings of characters in France after the fall of Napoleon in 1815.

Cigars are frequently mentioned in his novels and stories, and in another post I will try to gather them up. In this post, however, I focus on a small piece that Balzac wrote on the physiology of the cigar. Unfortunately, I could not find it in English on the Internet, but only in its original French. So with a little help from Google Translate and my limited knowledge of the Romance languages, I came up with a tolerable translation of The Physiology of the Cigar.

July 1831.

by Honore de Balzac

"The Parisian women have only two hatreds! The toad and the smoking of tobacco."
"I would give up the most beautiful mistress rather than my cigar!"

--A Smoker.

"Smoking is traveling in one's chair."


The cigar, like a pretty woman, has its admirers, its favorites, its victims, and its critics. It seduces initially, then intoxicates, and sometimes leads by excess to make those engaged with it nuisances. We see the cigar, and we want to try it. We hesitate, but we taste it; we go back to it, and suddenly it becomes habitual. Quickly after turning over the first chapter of this activity we are introduced to its disadvantages. Every day the disadvantages are renewed, and we begin to notice it. The number of cigars consumed tends upward, and we think perhaps to get rid of habit. But by then it is too late: the use of the cigar, at first a passing fancy, quickly becomes a habit, a necessity, and, as an tyrannical master, it bullies when it ceased to charm, until at last it is sacrificed for a passion more violent than the one given up.

The cigar is a source of all sorts of personal and internal enjoyment. Similar to liquor, snuff, and opium, it it is approved by those who use it, but repels those who do not. It is this that makes smoking so difficult to give up, as smokers are continually exposed to the reproaches of those who have a different taste, and one of the great principles of our nature is to be intolerant to those who are intolerant of us.

The fact is that in countries where smoking is not a general practice, we find hundreds who shudder at the smell of the smoking of a cigar. Also, while we are on this point, one should probably smoke at home or in places dedicated for that specific purpose, and not in public promenades, where, to satisfy a selfish need, one will merely inconvenience many people, especially women, who pretty generally prefer the smell of musk to the smell of tobacco.

In all rational animals, reason ought to be guide, and man must always ensure that his motives are good. Inasmuch as man does not come into the world with a cigar in his mouth, and there is no article in any basic law to compel him to smoke a cigar, it is not, after all, absolutely necessary to adopt such a habit here, since, as everyone knows, you can smoke without a pipe. So, before deciding to take on the obligation of smoking, it takes at least some reason to justify such a strong commitment. So many people use the cigar as a remedy, to soften the toothache, or to relieve breathing problems. Let them smoke; it is all very well if they heal themselves from their maladies, if possible, and then all will be even better.

But, just like all animals are not equally reasonable, there are many who, for no reason at all, placed a cigar in their mouths, and who, not content to smell the smoke, swallow it so as to even make them sick. They throw away the little they do not steal as a result of the detriment to their health through the glares of people that do not find it amusing in the least.

For some smoking is but idleness, and, for others, to smell, maintain and especially to see the swirling smoke of a cigar is at once a subject of occupation, amusement, and admiration. What a marvel is that!

In others, such as, for example, in adolescents, smoking is a way to make these who are still young to look like men. For these latter, they would do well to give up the habit because it is a poor kind of habit where it is not customary, and they would be better served if they spent their manly energies on more useful things, and certainly on those things that are less harmful to their lungs.

It is during those rare circumstances, the only time when one ought to smoke, where there is sufficient reason to use a rare and a mild cigar in that it provides a real pleasure, but this is only if one does not become a professional smoker. It is during these moments of low morale, when the mind is numb, when the imagination refuses any activity, and the soul is cast into a melancholy mood. In just these instances where, to smoke a cigar for a moment, to breath in a few mouthfuls of smoke, results immediately, as if by magic, in the head turning on, the mind becoming clear, and a tumultuous emotions taking over and replacing one's insouciant mood, and an unknown power reviving all the faculties which before then were dormant. That is to say that the smoke, which produces the same effect as the vapors of wine, begins to operate. And it is at that time where one should stop, otherwise one may soon feel the inconvenience of being giddy.

To continue to experience the benefits of this sort of remedy, it must be rarely used, and always with moderation, since otherwise each new use will cause a loss of degree in intensity, as it eventually degenerates into a habit, and will not produce the same results.

There are certain countries, especially those which brutally high temperatures, where smoking is an activity that is performed just like eating and drinking, and it is not even unusual to see women with cigars in their mouths. In such places, all public places and public meetings are transformed into as many tobacco shops. In the theater in such countries, when the curtain falls, everyone lights his cigar, and all the lodges shine with a thousand sparks of fire started by lighters and lit cigars. During the intermission, the hall is filled with smoke. It is a discomfort not only to those who are born, live, and die in the middle of that unhealthy air which is much in need of purification. But it is even more unpleasant for foreigners who are not used to it.

I was never more surprised than when I saw the use of the cigar in Mexico during the trip that I made there. I was invited to a party at the mayor's office, at which of course the entire nobility of the city would be, so I went to observe the manners of high society. Arriving at the antechamber, I detected the smell of smoke which surprised me, astonished that even the servants are permitted to smoke and so would soon experience the inconvenience of being light-headed and giddy as if drunk before their masters.

Quickly, I made it to the ballroom. It too was filled with smoke, and it was only through a light cloud formed by the smoke that I could distinguish objects. I was witness to a very lively and very animated waltz during which the dancers were smoking, changing their cigar hand by turn with as much grace and agility so as to embrace the size of their partners. These, carried away by the ardor of the dance, the intoxicating smell of the tobacco, and the sound of instruments abandoned themselves to their male counterparts with complacency, and seemed to enjoy the luxuriously thick puffs that were thrown upon them by their gentlemen as if lances.

As proposing to waltz with a cigar to a pretty women of France or England . . .

Oh fie! Oh what horror! they would reply.

To which I can only say: "Other countries, other customs."

November 1831.

--A.M.G. (trans.)

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