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Book Review: ‘The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna’

By Gaurav J. Pathania 

Title: The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna
Editors: Rittner, Leona; Haine, W. Scott and Jackson, Jeffery H.
Publisher: Ashgate: UK. 2013
Page xiv+ 238
price € 65 

“Without the café, would there have been a Karl Marx or a Jean-Paul Sartre?”

Associated with every space is a social meaning which is usually understood within the binary of the private and the public. Following the work of Habermas, scholars across the globe have explored the public sphere of the café as a free space of bourgeois intercourse. They have explored the rich, interconnected history of ideas, space, art, and music in the institutional site of the café. With compelling chapters entitled “God in a Cup”; “Coffee and Coffeehouse”; “The World of Caffeine” and “Coffee Culture: Local Experience – Global Connections”, the volume, The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna provides valuable insights and presents the intellectual world of some of the most renowned European cafés. Edited by Leona Rittner; Scott Haine; and Jeffery Jackson, the volume consists of fifteen chapters divided into three sections by location: Vienna (chapters one to three), Paris (four to 10), and Italy (11to14).

The first chapter by Herbert Lederer chronicles the history of coffee and coffee houses in Vienna. Coffee houses flourished in the eighteenth century, especially after billiard tables were introduced (p. 30). Later what attracted people to the coffee house was the introduction of music: a piano player or violinist, a vocalist, a small instrumental ensemble or even an entire orchestra. Mozart and Beethoven played in the Augarten Café in Vienna; Josef Lanner and his ensemble played in the Paradeisgartel, founded in 1760 at the location of today’s famous Burgtheater. Johann Strauss had his own orchestra which entertained audiences in the Stadtpark Café. In short, cafés had become the centre of Vienna’s intellectual and cultural life. One of the earliest famous coffee houses was Café Kramer, established by Jacob Kramer in 1720, who founded the tradition of providing his customer with German newspapers and periodicals to supplement the few Viennese ones existing at the time. As various Viennese professors congregated there, it acquired the nickname of the “scholarly coffee house” (p. 31). Thus, Lederer defines the café as an “intellectual laboratory” and “space of freedom” whose function was like that of a “talking magazine” which helped form public opinion. He describes “literary and artistic cafés and intellectual cafés” (p.19) where writers and artists displayed a wide range of private emotions in public (p. 18). Thus, the café earned the reputation of “the great university of the world” (p. 19). By 1839, there were more than 80 coffee houses in Vienna and over 50 in the suburbs, becoming the centre of the city’s intellectual and cultural life.

Chapter Two by Egon Schwarz explains Vienna’s literary culture and its 600 cafés. He explains how coffee houses offer patrons “continuity in conversation with like-minded characters” which sharpens their wit and inspires their creativity. Pinsker (Chapter 3) on the other hand analyses Jewish modernism from 1900-1930 by explaining that the urban European café was recreated in new centres of Jewish culture. The map of interconnected urban cafés is a kind of “Silk Road” of modernist Jewish creativity. As Jews were not always welcomed in clubs and pubs where alcohol was the central beverage served, the café emerged as an attractive alternative, first as a site for informal business and commodity exchange and later as a site of political, cultural, and literary exchange. The literary café as a “third space” mediated between Jews and non-Jews, in the sense that it is “located” at the border-zone between the “public” and the “private”, the “inside” and “outside”, the “real” and “imagined”, the “immigrant”  and “native”, the “elitist”, artistic,  Avant-grade and “mass” consumption, as a result, the café becomes a site of enunciation of identity, lived experience, and contested meaning, bringing the city inside, but also shielding its regulars from the “crowd” and the “masses” outside. Interestingly, the section highlights how journals, periodicals, and other publishing activities that took place in cafés created Hebrew and Yiddish modernist groups and movements.

The second section of the book covers the café culture of Paris. In chapter 4 Tebatha Ewing argues that the café was a contradictory space of productive misunderstanding between the royal government and its diverse subjects over politics (p. 67). In their own accounts, café patrons used the space for intellectual and social performances, linking critical discussion to aesthetics and theatre. Cafés became spaces where eclectic speech forms intermingled, at times leading to confusion and disputes over the intent of words. Chapter 5 by Franco Fido opens with a natural history of coffee in Milan and explains how the great and small men of letters used to meet at cafés, especially in London and Paris.

Chapter 6 by Edward J. Ahearn analyses the complexities of urban life in a dozen prose poems in Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris that treats the encounter with urban poverty, one of which, “Les Yeux des Pauvers” (The Eyes of the Poor) takes place in a café. Lemaire in chapter 7 explains how young Dadaist writers met regularly at cafés before dinner. In chapter 8, Rittner provides the background of the café during World War II. The club became notorious as a site where German officers and French homosexuals met in collaboration, as Michael Sibalis notes in his exhaustive but as yet unfinished and unpublished work on gay Paris. This is not surprising since some of the writers who had frequented the establishment in the interwar years, such as Drieu La Rochelle, were leading lights in the French intellectual collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. Chapter 9 by Jackson claims that cafés were crucial institutions in disseminating jazz music and bringing authors – despite their differences – into contact with it. They were sites of a much broader kind of cultural intersection­ – not just places where members of the lost generation could meet each other. Ted Emery states that along with social institutions such as clubs, journals, and periodicals, the coffeehouse became a space that the European bourgeois had begun to carve out for itself in the eighteenth century a sphere in which private individuals gathered for the free, equal exchange of rationale and “enlightened” discourses (chapter 12; p. 170). Haine puts forward his view by alluding to Sartre in chapter 10: “For Sartre, the café was a luminal space in which bourgeois notions of public and private space and ownership melted away” (p. 154).

The volume’s third section focuses on Italy which has the most notable cafés located in the vibrant cities of Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Palermo. Yet the period between the two World Wars was fatal to these cafés and they slowly disappeared or were reduced to playing more modest role of simple cafés, without the cultural aura or intellectual energy that had formerly enriched them. In Chapter 11, Berindeanu calls cafés “new social spaces of encounter” (p. 163). Livorni in Chapter 13 explores the “legacy of poetry” as to how cafés got their interesting names and the journal highlighting the history of cultural moments of the café. Historians describe four types of coffeehouses in twentieth-century Italy: café-chantant, literary café, luxury café, and popular coffeehouse. In Chapter 14, Giannini alludes to Piero Chiara’s fiction based on coffeehouse narratives. He claims that coffeehouses are a conspicuous cultural space and a literary topos.

People frequent cafés not merely to drink but also to think. With an interesting and informative history of coffee and the key western European cafés, the volume demonstrates how space and ideas are connected and how public space can be appropriated and socialised in different ways. The various chapters present the functions, locations, interactions, expressions, and the history of the cultural creation of Europe’s most beloved and historical coffeehouses. The broad time frame from the 18th to early 20th century situates the changing role of coffeehouses.

This is a valuable volume on the social history and evolution of the main hubs of the European coffee scene of the past three centuries. Though the editors have not explained the rationale behind devoting seven chapters to Paris whereas Vienna and all of Italy receive much less attention, it provides a comprehensive introduction for both the layman and specialist. The article-like chapters flow together smoothly and make for an entertaining and accessible read. From social identity movements and resistance to classical music and the advent and spread of popular media, the café’s importance far exceeded serving “the elixir of life”. As the saying goes, much happens over a cup of coffee, and nowhere was it truer than in the lively coffeehouses of Europe.

Gaurav Pathania has recently completed his doctoral thesis on student politics in India from JNU, and is currently working on his book on student politics. He has always been interested in writing about cafes and cafe cultures. His first write up was on JNU (Chai) dhaba culture.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Women’s Writing from North East India’, edited by Dr. Namrata Pathak, NEHU, Shillong, India.

2 Responses to “Book Review: ‘The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna’”

  1. Surjert Singh

    Superb . Can you also provide link for author^s first writeup on JNU Dhaba culture.


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