22 May 2017

On Coffee Houses

Our coffee houses today are ubiquitous. Here in the Mid-West, like pizza parlors in New York, the coffee houses appear on every street. To them students arrive at an establishment’s early opening at 5:30-6:00am and open carrying their computers and their texts: they will do their school work at a table with a beverage¾usually coffee and sometimes tea. They might stay for several hours; on late afternoons and weekends teachers sit grading papers and sipping beverages. Other patrons arrive with their computers and their typed manuscripts: these are the writers of the community, for some already a profession and for others a hope. Business people sit at the coffee house as if it were their office: they might sit for hours, their spread sheets often covering their laps or the table before them; often they work on the computer or the telephone, doing their necessary work surrounded by people and not sitting alone in an isolated and isolating cubicle. Some customers arrive in pairs or small group and gather about an available table for conversation and coffee. Others come in with a newspaper that they will read and then leave on the table for the next visitor. Finally, others have happened on the establishment by chance and want to be off their feet or to be in social company. They will talk. Many of these people are regular customers of the coffee house: for many not a second home but a public office space. And when the place is full then tables are shared with strangers and both work in comfort. What better place to situate the sit-com Friends than at the neighborhood coffee house, Central Perk, where the human traffic is continuous and the possibility of social interaction endless. There the friends meet, in a setting not unlike a living room, surrounded by others, some alone and some with friends. The setting both confirms and establishes the coffee house as a social institution.
     Coffee-houses seem to have developed--if not intentionally then certainly functionally--as democratic institutions. They establishments seem to have begun as institutions in Turkey and Syria. Englishman George Manwaring, traveling in Aleppo during the 17th century noted that “As in England we used to go to the tavern, to pass away the time in friendly meeting . . .” so do the Turks attend the “coffwey house” (in Markman Ellis, 2004, 9). Characteristic of the coffee drinking rituals was a democratic order: “All were served in turn, no man served another and, furthermore, each was seated according to the order in which he arrived, rather than that of precedence usually encountered in the hierarchical Ottoman state” (Ellis, 9). When coffee arrived in mid 17th century England, the first coffee-house was established in 1652 under the direction of a young Greek, Pasqua Rosee under the sponsorship of Christopher Bowman. The establishment was a great success.  Others soon followed: in these coffee houses seating was democratic and to some, dangerous. John Starkey published a satirical review of the coffee house in 1661. He noted that anyone is free to attend the coffee house and that “Here is no respect of persons. Boldly therefore let any person, who comes to drink Coffee sit down in the very Chair for here a Seat is to be given to no man. That great privilege of equality is only peculiar to the Golden Age, and to a Coffee-house” (Ellis, 59). Ellis asserts that the democratic seating arrangement of the coffee house did much to change the “wider culture” of those around them because it enabled people who did not know each other to converse.
     The opening of new coffee houses with great speed. Brian Cowan notes that between 1692-1698 there were 90 coffee houses in London alone. These establishments seemed to be primarily social institutions. Writing in the late 17th century, Samuel Butler, in “Character of a Coffee-Man” says “The ‘coffee market’ is where people of all qualities and conditions meet, to trade in foreign drinks and newes, ale and smoak, and controversy . . . the coffee house] . . . admits of no distinction of persons, but gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece, as they were resolv’d into their first principles” (Ellis, 49). Butler continues that “all manner of opinions are profest and maintained in the coffee house.” The coffee house seemed to have become the exemplar of democracy.  Ellis writes that in England, where the first coffee-house opened in 1652, “the coffee-house encounter is founded on the openness of the discussion to all comers. No one should be excluded from the discussion, nor should anyone have precedence by a quality they brought with them from outside such as status, wealth, power, or strength of arms. All speakers are considered equal and within the collective fiction of the coffee-house hierarchy is erased” (Ellis, 61). Indeed, recognizing the coffee house conversations as potentially seditious, Charles II attempted to suppress them by issuing a proclamation attempting to regulate conversation; “The defence of the coffe-houses, it was understood, was a defence of freedom of speech” (Ellis, 105).  As the coffee house developed in England during the last fifty years of the seventeenth century, it “transformed the social organization of the city [of London], bringing with it a new principle of convivial sociability based on conversation and discussion . . . opportunity for free and unregulated nature of debate” (Ellis, 150).
     Even as the coffee houses served as a locus of political and economic conversation, so too did these establishments become a seat of learning and intellectual talk.  It was in the coffee houses that scientists gathered and found there access “to all kinds of knowledge: commercial, literary, mechanical, theological . . . The coffee house opened the whole world of learning to its clientele” (Ellis, 158). Addison and Steele in The Tatler addressed society from the coffee houses. In what I believe must have been the first appearance of a blog, Addison addressed the social world from White’s Chocolate House, St. James Coffee-House, from Will’s Coffee House, or from the Grecian Coffee-House, each a site the gathering place for a social group (Addison & Steele, 1957). InThe Spectator, Ellis suggests, Addison and Steele abandoned the notion of its pieces deriving from any single coffee-house, but rather understood the coffee-house as metaphor. They wrote (Addison and Steele, 117), “It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses (Addison and Steele, 1957, 117). The coffee house for The Spectator was the exemplar of enlightenment and reason, and it was in them that one could discover and discuss politics, manners and philosophy in the company of all social classes.
     Markman Ellis (2004, 218) writes that fin-de-siècle Vienna witnessed a period of great creativity in arts and ideas. “Painters such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oscar Kokoschka, architects such as Adolf Loos, and writes such as Alfred Polgar, Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler, tradesman and merchants, made the Kaffeehaus not simply a place socialize over coffee and read newspapers, but also a central location for their intellectual life.” To be in the kaffehous was to have the capacity to become their ‘true selves by casting off their work-identities” (Ellis, 218). In Paris coffee houses opened in the last quarter of the 17th century though their nature had somewhat changed, they remained a place for meeting and conversation nad inexpensive drinks. George Bracque said of his relationship with Pablo Picasso, “The things that Picasso and I said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them any more. It was like being roped together on a mountain” (Berger, 1985, 159). I am certain that the incubation of cubism took place in the coffe houses and cafes of Paris in the early twentieth century.
I read in Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (2013) in the chapter “At School in the Last Century” that for he and his friends school was a negative experience because the lessons offered were staid, rote, dry.  He declaims, “[O]n the school benches where, in reality, only the seats of our trousers sat, we heard nothing new, or nothing that we felt was worth knowing, while outside there was a city full of thousands of things to stimulate our minds—a city of theaters, museums, bookshops, a university, music, a place where every day brought new surprises.” Zweig asserts that the educationists focused on the learning in the absence of practical purpose. Today, ironically, our schools focus not at all on the process of learning but on practical purpose Zweig says “Our pent-up thirst for knowledge, our intellectual, artistic and sensuous curiosity, finding no nourishment at school, ardently concentrated on all that was outside it.” I am interested right now in the Zweig’s use of the word ‘curiosity,’ because children naturally exhibit this trait in their incessant study.
     I think that the loss of a child’s curiosity is a cliché topic amongst educationists. We are painfully aware how children come to school filled with questions and soon are taught to seek only answers (see Block, 2014). So was it for Zweig and his friends at school. The schools consumed with the dry and dusty curriculum soon proved useless to the students, “and their “pent-up thirst for knowledge our intellectual artistic and sensuous curiosity, finding no nourishment at school, ardently concentrated on all that was going on outside it” (59).  In contrast to the classroom Zweig and his colleagues discover school in the coffee houses. “Our best cultural source for all novelty was the coffee house” (Zweig, 61). For Zweig, there in the coffee houses, one sat for hours—talking, reading, playing and above all reading an unlimited number of newspapers and journals. “Perhaps nothing contributed so much to the intellectual mobility and international orientation of Austrians as the fact that they could inform themselves so extensively at the coffee house of all that was going on in the world, and at the same time could discuss it with a circle of friends.” The coffee house replaced the classroom not as the locus of education but as the place of conversation. For Zweig and his friends the coffee houses was where they became scholars. “Perhaps nothing contributed so much to the intellectual mobility and international orientation extensively at the coffee house of all that was going on in the world, and at the same time could discuss it with a circle of friends, We sat there for hours every day, and nothing escaped us . . .”
     I am drawn to Zweig’s reference to the place as source for ‘novelty.’ The OED defines ‘novelty’ as something new or unusual; an innovation.” Zweig claims (as I may have suggested, I think with some exaggeration) that “the Viennese coffee house is an institution of a peculiar kind not comparable to any other in the world. It is really a sort of democratic club, and anyone can join it for the price of a cheap cup of coffee” (2013, 61). In these coffee-houses one could sit for hours in conversation and in reading the local papers: “Every guest, in return for that small expenditure, can sit for hours on end, talking writing, playing cards, receiving post, and above all reading an unlimited number of newspapers and journals” (Zweig, 61). That is, as in England and France and the American colonies, in which the American Revolution gestated, the coffee-house became an environment or intellectual activity available to all. For Zweig and his colleagues (privileged though they were) though school was characterized with dullness and uselessness, the coffee house was where they could learn about and address the world and themselves. Zweig writes, “We sat there for hours every day, and nothing escaped us, for thanks to our collective interests we pursued the orbis pictus of fantastic events not just with one pair of eyes but with twenty or so; if one of us missed something, another would it out to him, since, with a childish wish to show off, we were vying with each other, showing an almost sporting ambition to know the newest, very latest thing” (62). Orbis pictus refers here to a children’s text book written by Comenius and published in 1658. Considered one of the first picture books for children, Orbis Pictus is an encyclopedia for children.  I remember once wanting to write a history of the world and simply copying the entry for something word for word out of the World Book Encyclopedia. I think that this might have been the first instance of my curiosity.
In the Vienese kaffehaus Zweig and his friends studied the world. The coffee house became school.

30 April 2017

For Dan, whom I loved very much; To Dan whom I will very much miss

I have been thinking about the significance of study, an enterprise in which I have spent my life and which I daily advocate to students. And I have been wondering (perhaps have always been pondering) what it is I do? Charles Hamilton Houston said that “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society …” that is, a person studies law to solve the problems that local communities and constituencies suffer and who works to improve the conditions of those most oppressed by society’s structures, or that lawyer merely feeds off an therefore, depletes society’s resources. Finally the parasite will destroy the host. And what about the scholar? Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson, 1929) says “The joy of knowledge, the late discovery that the veil which hid all things from him is really transparent, transparent everywhere to pure eyes, and the heart of trust which every perfection justifies¾renew life for him. He finds that events spring from the same root as persons; the universe understands itself, and all parts play with a sure harmony” (1225). In his essay “Prayer Without Demand,” Emmanuel Levinas’ explication of Nefesh haHayyim, the posthumously published volume written by Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner (1759-1821), Levinas addresses this subject in his discussion of the Volozhiner Rabbi’s book. According to Sean Hand, who wrote the introductory paragraph to the essay (apparently one in a collection of essays) Nefesh haHayyim “elevates the study of Torah to the highest degree in terms of understanding rather than mystical ecstasy, and thus lays emphasis on textual criticism.” Colloquially, study is not to offer release from the world but rather, attachment to it; study is text-bound and text binding. Rabbi concerns himself not with the wisdom that derives from even prophetic vision but that which comes from devoted textual study. This Rabbi began a Yeshiva to educate students in the practice of text criticism: in this case, the Torah and the Talmud.
      The question occurs to me: what resides in textual study that is so critical to the Volozhiner Rabbi and to Levinas. Levinas suggests that Nefesh ha’Hayyim offers an exploration of the metaphysical dimensions of the study of Torah: of the significance of the study of Torah to the very nature of Selfhood. Levinas states that not only does the study of Torah represent a ‘vocation’ of Judaism, something that must occupy the time of the studious Jew, but it also can be understood as “the foundation of the very Being of reality.” Study is not only what I must do, but study also constitutes the very foundation of by Being: my existence.
     An explanation: if God spoke and the world came into being (God said, “Let there be light, and there was light!”)  then Being derives from the expression of word. What the Hebrews did was to conceptualize a God who did not require creation, that is, the God of the Hebrews was not created but rather, this singular God created. This God preceded history but it is to God to whom can be attributed the existence of history. There was evening and morning, the first day. Intellectual activity requires the acknowledgement of history. The darkness was called night and the light was called day! Called. Named. With Words.
     Levinas says that the God of the Hebrews is a transcendent, non-objectifiable presence. Maimonides teaches, any attempt to embody God is an error; indeed, Maimonides suggests that God can be only by by negative attributes: what God is not!  By any image we can conceive of God reduces God to the possibilities of the human imagination, but God surpasses the capacities of the human imagination. Torah says that God said, “Let us make man in our image,” but God in fact has neither image nor voice. Thus, God’s image exists in the word that Torah says was spoken (but indeed was first written: God’s blueprint for the World existed already in Torah) and the world became. Being that comes from God derives from the Closeness to God that means to be close to the words: exegesis lies at the heart of Judaism. In the Sh’ma we read “and these words that I command you this day shall be in your heart . . .” We are words.  As the later scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson declares, “By how much we know, so much we are.”
     So, if Being derives from the word, then our relationship to the word determines our being. And the study of the means of following or departing from the commandments of the Torah, that text that Talmud teaches served as the blueprint by which God created the world, an act of creation that derived from (and out of) words¾ commands our responsibility to the other and therefore, establishes for each his/her own stance in the world. Thus, in study¾our exegetical engagement with words¾we ensure creation. And in study, we become for ourselves through our awareness of our obligation for others. As Levinas says, ethics precedes Being. In a sense this reverses Hillel’s statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be; if I am only for myself, what am I; if not now, when?” And because God’s word was placed in man’s mouth and heart—then study of the word (Torah) ensures the continued existence of Being. Study is creation. And the ethical directive essential to Torah¾the command appears at least 36 times in the text¾demands that the stranger in our midst be cared for, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Those who possess the least resources and capacities to care for themselves.
     How does study create being? It puts us in connection with the word, and the word created! Doesn’t it all depend on what I study? What if I study Mein Kampf? Or do I say¾as perhaps Levinas suggests¾that Torah is the ur-text? Can there be an Ur-text? If God spoke and the world came into being, then God’s word is the Ur-text and the Torah pre-exists God’s word.
     But what if I don’t think that the world was created by God’s word? Can the word still be an Ur-text. And can the study of ‘the word’ create being?? Outside of Torah study, how would that be possible?  

06 April 2017


In his article “What I Have In Common With Trump” in this week’s New Yorker (April 3, 2017) Ethan Kuperberg in his somewhat lengthy list writes, “I have been scared every day since November 8, 2016.” Election Day. When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States by a minority of the electorate, many of whom I would concur with Hillary Clinton are ‘deplorables.’ Today in the New York Times Nicholas Kristof excuses his urging to the ‘liberal’ population to be kind to Trump. He is wrong for so many reasons: I would never acquiesce to pat a rabid animal on the head to prevent being bitten. And then on page 15 (this is not important enough news for the front page!) an article appears concerning Trump’s accusation-- without any evidence whatsoever that Susan Rice had committed a crime. I may be mistaken, but I believe that the statement is if not illegal but certainly inappropriate. And that this vomit derives from the President makes the accusation even more heinous—it spews from the mouth of a man who apparently has no respect for the law. Or common decency but who has sworn to uphold that law.
     And so I am a bit appalled at Kristof’s offer of some olive branch to a man whose bellicosity and philandering and lie-telling occurs on a daily basis, and whose pathological narcissism leads him to only see the world from his deranged perspective and endangers myself, my children, and the children of the world. I am frightened every moment of every day; I recoil is terror when I read the papers and consider the future, and I am sickened by the repulsive rhetoric emanating from a soiled, besmirched and besmirching White House. If there is evil in the world, it today resides there no less than in Syria or Sudan or Somalia.
     This is an angry post, but it is inspired by great fear.