Cafe Kultur: The Coffeehouses of Vienna

Article excerpt

As coffeehouses are springing up all over Britain and the US, even in small Midwestern towns, a look at the most famous originators of that culture gains new interest: the Viennese coffeehouse represents indeed a high culture of its own, particularly adapted to the worldview and lifestyle of that city. Passing through Vienna on his way into exile, the playwright Bertolt Brecht went to the Care de l'Europe and observed: 'As every newspaper reader knows, this city is built around a few coffeehouses where the population sits together and reads papers.' Brecht singled out neither the imperial Habsburg palace, the grand 'Ring', the treelined avenue that surrounds the old part of the city, nor the museums, but the cafes. One can read much of Vienna's history of the last two centuries by looking at its famous coffeehouses. It is, however, no accident that the coffeehouse is gaining such popularity everywhere: not only is its cosmopolitan pluralism suited to today's global village, but now more than ever do we need a special place, which offers both quiet contemplation and communal debate, a 'platonic academy' as Hermann Bahr terms the cafe, which allows relief from the fatigue of everyday life and an opportunity to view the world from a distance, a space which is at once public and private. The Viennese coffeehouse symbolises this special space in its very architecture: the invariably glassed-in vestibule signifies a symbolic entry into another world, and the quiet comfort inside leaves behind a hectic, noisy everyday environment.

As lovers of the coffeehouse know, the cafe is as much a philosophy as a place which satisfies our paradoxical desires: it allows encounter and encourages dialogue, but at the same time vouchsafes solitariness and anonymity. It makes us feel at home and yet out in the world where nothing belongs to us. This space of 'anonymous intimacy' lets us look at the world as well as hide from it. The Viennese satirist and coffeehouse enthusiast, Alfred Polgar, has brought out this paradox in his clever formulation that the coffeehouse is 'for people who want to be alone but need companionship to do so'.

The coffeehouse is democratic. For the price of a cup of coffee, men and women of all social classes can sit together to read, write, and talk; strangers can feel at home and the local people can escape their homes into cosmopolitan surroundings. And the coffeehouse is pluralist: with its arrangements of small tables it is conducive to intimate discussion and a collection of disparate points of view, not large followings. Like the most popular kind of coffee, the Melange, the Viennese cafe offers a melange of people, classes and ideas. It is no accident that the coffeehouse flourished and still flourishes in Vienna for it symbolises many of that city's contradictory sides. In his 'Theory of the Cafe Central' Polgar called the Central not a coffeehouse but 'a worldview whose innermost content is not to view the world.' This attitude is characteristic of 'the city of dreams' as Robert Musil referred to Vienna in his novel The Man Without Qualities. The cafes express the carefree hedonistic Viennese temperament as well as their need to hide from grim realities. A telling joke has it that for a German a situation is serious but not desperate, whereas for a Viennese it is desperate but not serious.

Yet one might argue that the cafe keeps in close touch with the world and serves as a sounding board for new ideas. In its heyday the Central had more than 250 newspapers, and today all the traditional cafes carry papers in many languages, for a coffeehouse is judged as much by its newspaper collection as by its coffee. According to its owner, the Cafe Braunerhof spends $1600 a month on its newspapers. Moreover the coffeehouse was and still is a meeting place of the greatest minds of Vienna. In the past Freud, Wittgenstein, Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Wagner, Hoffmannsthal, Schoenberg and many other philosophers, writers, musicians came daily to the cafes to discuss their ideas. …