Voltaire’s life was not only restrained when it came to women;  it was just as sober when it came to food and drink.  In an odd letter to Count Autre, he gave his opinion on food.

“There are some very ancient and very good foods, from which all of the wise men of Antiquity have profited.  You like them and I would like to eat them with you;  but I admit that my stomach cannot adapt to the new cuisine.  I cannot suffer a ris de veau which is swimming in a salty sauce which rises fifteen lines above this little ris de veau.  I cannot eat an hachis composed of turkey, hare and rabbit, which I am expected to take for one unique meat.  I like neither pigeon a la crapaudine, nor bread without a crust.  I drink wine moderately, and I find the people who eat without drinking, and who don’t even know what they are eating, very strange.  As for cooks, I refuse to put up with ham extract, or with the excess of mushrooms, of pepper and of nutmeg, with which they disguise food which, in itself, is very healthy, and which I would not even want to be larded […].  I want bread to be cooked in an oven and never in a steamer.  You will have figs and fruits, but only in season.  A supper without trimmings, just as I propose it, will give a gentle sleep, untroubled by disagreeable dreams.”

We now know the foods that Voltaire didn’t like.  Let us see those which had his preference.

First of all lentils.  He loved them.  There was no greater gift to give him.  A good soup was also agreeable to him, and as for meat, a little mutton did not displease him;  then there are eggs;  and whey, when he was on a diet.

He counted more on diet than on medicines to restore or conserve his health.  “Diet is better than medicine”, he said.  And he was so convinced of this that he wrote, on 17 February 1752, to Mme de Fontaine, that thanks to the diet to which he is keeping, he will prolong his life by a few months;  and on 26 September 1768, he sent a message to the Duke of Richelieu that his illnesses condemned him to a retired life and to a severe diet from which he must not stray.

He only softened this severity at supper time.  In Paris, he usually dined, in the company of Mme du Chatelet, every evening, in town:  at Cirey, the single meal was supper, if not abundant, as least composed of refined and delicate foods.

At lunchtime, he always had chocolate or coffee.  When the actor Lekain was admitted to his table for the first time, the two men consumed a dozen cups of chocolate, mixed with coffee, and nothing else was served.

Coffee was Voltaire’s great passion.  It was his only food until supper time, to which he invited all the strangers of distinction who came to visit him.  For a long time, he would abuse coffee, which was necessary to him as a cerebral stimulant;  but, during the last fifteen years of his life, he would drink only two or three small cups of it a day, at most, and with cream.

There were no fixed hours for his meals.  In his old age, he no longer ate in the middle of the day, as he used to do before.  He supped between nine and ten o’clock, eating little and slowly, going to bed between eleven and midnight.  He didn’t sleep much longer than four or five hours.  On the other hand, he spent sixteen or seventeen hours in bed.  During the night, three lighted candles remained beside his pillow.

His bed was covered in books.  Beside, near, and on, an elegant table, there were always fresh water, coffee with milk, reams of white paper and a writing case.

He dictated as well as he wrote.  He was incredibly gifted for this method of work.  But he mostly only dictated his letters.  He usually wrote his works himself, and had them copied afterwards.  When he was working, it was often necessary to remind him that he hadn’t eaten.

There was one thing which he found difficult to bear:  he was excessively sensitive to cold and always sat close to the fire.  No less than six cords of wood were burnt every day at Cirey, according to Mme de Graffigny.  He had to have a fire in both summer and winter because he was always afraid of dying of cold.

Voltaire was also extremely clean, and remained so, even at an advanced age.  The loss of his teeth, the ravages of smallpox, scurvy and other illnesses had considerably altered his face.  However, he was always careful to hide all these physical imperfections with excessive cleanliness.

He had one particularity worth mentioning:  he had no beard.  At least, he had so little that he never had himself shaven.  On his chimney-piece, he kept two or three pairs of epilatory tweezers, with which he played, and occasionally removed a hair, while conversing with someone.  His face bore the mark of the military punishment which he had received at the Sevre Bridge, in 1715.

In his youth, he had had an agreeable face.  Later, his face lost its flesh, and his arms and legs became emaciated, through the influence of his numerous illnesses.

All his life, he suffered from various indispositions.  He often became angry with people, but excused himself afterward.  “Forgive me,” he would say.  “It’s mainly the pains in my intestines which put me in such a bad humour.”  He would then take some cassia or some rhubarb, which he used two or three times a week, as well as soap enemas.

He wrote to Mme du Deffand, and sent a message to Mr d’Argental, that he had dysentery.  For his correspondents were kept informed of his smallest complaints.  Detailing his infirmities to them, was to honour them with a particular friendship.

He wrote to Cideville:  “I lead a philosophical life, sometimes troubled by colics”.  Some time later, he let him know “that he is dangerously ill with some sort of inflamation of the bowel”.

This inflamation, sort of enteritis, is connected to his dyspepsia, which is his life’s torment.  For Voltaire was, above all, and this point is now well established, a dyspeptic.  According to Dr Cabanes, he suffered from “nervous motor dyspepsia, the dyspepsia of intellectuals and neuro-arthritics, of whom, he is one of the most complete types”.

Fifth part tomorrow.

Advertisements