28 May 2017

Addison, Steele and Dan

Over the past several years, I have transitioned from living in a house that sat on four acres to an apartment comprised of 1500 square feet. In the house the library I developed approached what might be referred to as organization on bookshelves arrayed about a large finished basement, on bookshelves in the bedrooms of my two daughters, and on the western wall of my cabin office that rested behind the house. I owned many books. But as I moved to the apartment dwelling, I understood that these books would not all find room along the walls of the apartment, and I began the exercise of triage: some books had to go.
     Some I easily recycled, and though Half-Price Books may sell books at half-price, they certainly do not buy them at that rate! But I didn’t mind because I was purging for the creation of space; I sold the books that I had never opened not even once, keeping in mind the wonderful first chapter of Italo Calvino’s if on a winter’s night a traveler in which the narrator describes the adventure of entering a bookstore and passing by tables holding books that would be purchased (for any assortment of reasons) but were never really meant to be read, purchased because they looked good on my library shelf, purchased because they color-and size-coordinated with other books that sat already on the shelf, or had been even purchased for future reading in the days of retirement.  This latter category has not been my direction and so the books I sold to half-price books consisted of books that I once thought I should own given a particular self-image I wished to maintain but which I really didn’t have much intention of reading. And on the shelves were duplicate editions of books one of which had to go, and on those same shelves sat books that I had tried to read but found incomprehensible and that I placed back on the shelf like a container of butter gone bad.
     In the beginning the winnowing process was easy and the stacks decreased, but there were books too many, for in the apartment there was no more wall space for book shelves (and hence books), and I looked about uncertain, wondering how I might proceed. I wondered what should I do with Richardson’s Clarissa which I had purchased for a graduate class but had never read even though Terry Eagleton, my favorite cultural critic, had done extensive work with the novel. What should be done with the Milagro Bean Field trilogy of John Nichols that I had adored and written about in my dissertation but which also I was assured would never read again? I was at a point where every book had to be examined with delicacy and concern for fear of losing something which I could not exactly define but of which I was certain I could not live without. I mean, there were books up there that grounded me in my history: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool--Aid Acid Test, or Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the work of a man whose politics I despised but at the time I read the book a work that epitomized a world view that helped define the conflicts of the 20th century. My heavy and heavily annotated college literature anthologies represented the resources of the incipient scholar I wished to become, even as the boxed set of the Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet traced that development.
     And what was I to do with Addison and Steele: Selections from The Tatler and the Spectator. I thought that there was little chance I would need this text again, though as I flipped the pages I noted that Ihad read and marked it up almost fifty years ago in my undergraduate work at Roanoke College. I knew that The Tatler and The Spectator were essential documents for understanding the 18th century in Great Britain, and besides, I had purchased this Rinehart edition new for $2.35: today a pack of gum costs almost that much money. What should I do with Addison and Steele.
     In these moments of literary crisis, I would call Dan to help me effect this final cut. Dan was a professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, having earned his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I don’t remember how it was that we established our relationship, but over the years our friendship deepened. Dan and I could talk about books, about “literature,” about teaching and learning, and about our lives: about children, money, sex, marriage and politics. There developed an intimacy that I shared with few others. Dan insisted that I keep Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book I first read under the stairs in the company of two female cousins. For Dan, Lawrence’s novel represented the transition to modernism and therefore had to remain on the shelf, but he advised that most of Trollope could go. And so as I looked up at the top shelf (A for Addison), I thought I needed Dan’s input on this momentous decision. “Dan, how do you feel about Addison and Steele?” I queried. “A tough one,” he said, “but I’d keep it.” I needed no better recommendation than this, and indeed, I did, I left the book on the top shelf. Remarkably, most recently I find that in some writing I am doing selections from The Tatler and The Spectator have become well, somewhat central. Who would know? Who could know? Only Dan, I think.
     Dan died April 29, 2017, at the age of 73 years. I am sad that we will not engage in those conversations that I so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed with Dan over bottles of good red wine. I don’t now with whom I will now talk with such intimacy about literature and life the way once I sat with Dan. Who but Dan could advise me what books to sell and which I must keep?

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.