Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Viennese Cafes

I was in Austria for about ten days and spent about half that time in Vienna.

Here are some nice descriptions of the ethos of Viennese cafes which suggest why they were so attractive and stimulating for artists and intellectuals (a feature which has prompted at least one academic conference about Viennese cafes).

1. Alfred Polgar wrote an essay about Café Central ('Theory of Café Central'). His article is included in H. B. Segel's collection Vienna Coffeehouse Wits. Polgar writes, “Its inhabitants are … people whose hatred of their fellow human beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need companionship for it” (Segel, p. 267). Polgar adds, “There are writers … who are unable to carry out their literary chores anywhere but at the Café Central. Only there, only at the tables of idleness, is the worktable laid for them, only there, enveloped by the air of indolence, will their inertia become fecundity” (Ibid.).

2. Here's an observation by Stefan Zweig: "The Viennese coffeehouse is a particular institution which is not comparable to any other in the world. As a matter of fact, it is a sort of democratic club to which admission costs the small price of a cup of coffee. Upon payment of this mite every guest can sit for hours on end, discuss, write, play cards, receive his mail, and, above all, can go through an unlimited number of newspapers and magazines" (Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday [University of Nebraska Press, 1964; 1st published in English in 1943]).

3. Here's a more recent blurb from Friedrich Torberg in his Tante Jolesch, or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes (Ariadne Press, 2008; published in German in 1975): "The classical attitude of a true habitué was possibly demonstrated even more convincingly by District Court Judge Reiter. Judge Reiter appeared each day -- for decades -- at Café Colosseum at four o'clock in the afternoon, sat down each day at the same table, was served a Melange with whipped cream and two horn-shaped shortbreads, received the evening papers first and then successively all other national and international newspapers, read them, paid, and did not have to utter a single word during this entire procedure." (p. 98 of Torberg's Tante Jolesch).

4. From Peter Altenberg's 'Coffeehouse': "You've got troubles of one kind or another -- get thee to the coffeehouse! ... You make four hundred Crowns and spend five hundred -- coffeehouse! ... You're a paper pusher and would've liked to become a doctor -- coffeehouse! ... You loathe and revile people and yet can't live without them -- coffeehouse! No place else will let you pay on credit -- coffeehouse!" (Telegrams of the Soul, trans. Peter Wortsman [Archipelago Books, 2005], p. 13)

5. In her article 'The City as a Context for Scientific Activity' (Endeavour 28 [March, 2004]), Maria Rentetzi writes: "The role of coffee houses as locations of scientifc exchange, as sites of learning ... has recently become the interest of historians of science. For Vienna, coffee houses have been associated with the city's cultural pre-eminence at the turn of the 19th century, and have been portrayed as clubs of philosophical, political and artistic circles." [Rentetzi here cites U. Heise's Kaffee und Kaffeehaus (Insel Verlag, 2002), which has been translated into English.]

6. In a book published just last year (Sacred Spring [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 2007]), Robert Weldon Whalen writes: "Vienna's coffeehouses were highly specialized. Journalists could be found at one cafe, artists at others. While artists frequented the Scheidl, and the Fenstergucker, actors tended to congregate at the Dobner or perhaps the Café Stadtpark. Café Gabesam was a good general place for middle-class people. ... Public places with a strong sense of privacy, open businesses with intimate charm, they were the Viennese equivalent to public squares. Landsdale, in her turn-of-the-century guide to [Vienna], noted that 'the café is the centre of social life; there business is discussed and bargains concluded ... it corresponds to the Forum of the ancients.'" [Whalen here cites Maria Horner Landsdale, Vienna and the Viennese, (Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates, 1902), p. 146.]

One of the above-mentioned artists' cafes, the Fenstergucker, is now a Starbucks.

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