Famous French writer Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) had a “vague dread” of being photographed; the above daguerrotype by Nadar is the only photographic print we have of him. Like some primitive peoples, and cranky autocrats, Balzac thought the camera steals a part of the soul. Balzac told a friend “every body in its natural state is made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films.” Each time a photograph was made, he believed, a layer would be stripped off to become not life as before but a membrane of memory in a sort of translucent antiworld.
What a curious notion indeed. If only he were half as concerned about his daily food intake as he was with photos. During his all too frequent creative bouts, Balzac would lock himself away, only drinking coffee and eating fruit. When he finally took a break, he would consume huge quantities of food. One record noted that Balzac ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, twelve cutlets of salt-meadow mutton, a duck with turnips, two partridges and a Normandy sole,” at one sitting, not to mention the desserts, fruit and liqueurs.
In 1834, he was diagnosed with arachnoiditis, an inflammation of brain and enlargement of his heart, both caused by consumption of huge quantities of black coffee. When the above photo was taken in 1842, his body had became flabby, his skin sallow, and he developed nervous twitches in his face — and ironically, that is how we remember him in mind, and on stamps and currencies. (Rodin even made a sculpture out of this pose). By the time of his death, he was a broken man; years of illness and working by candlelight had made him blind. Deeply superstitious (as you can see from his notions about photography), Balzac was hurt psychologically by the menthal breakdown of his servant, remarking, “What an omen! I shall never leave this house alive.” As he lay delirious on his deathbed as his heart slowly stopped working, he invoked a doctor-character in his unfinished La Comedie Humaine, “Send for Bianchon. He’ll save me.”