Thursday, February 07, 2008


picture 1: Color photos from WWI-
picture 2: Cafe in Vienna, 1971

It was the Austrian sketch-writer and habitué of Vienna's Café Central, Alfred Polgar, who perhaps best captured the essence of the literary café when he described it as "a place where people want to be alone, but need company to do so". Since the first European coffee house opened in Venice in 1645, artists and writers have adopted cafés as their unofficial workplaces - libraries in which they can eat, drink, smoke and gossip at the same time as working on the latest draft and sharing ideas.

Today, the decline of a true café society is to be mourned. One can hardly imagine Alfred Jarry's (author of Ubu Roi) pick-up line working in Starbucks. Spotting a pretty girl from his vantage point at the bar in Paris's La Closerie des Lilas, he approached her table, fired a shot into the mirror behind her with his gun and said suavely, "Maintenant que la glace est rompue, causons." ("Now the ice is broken, let's talk.") link


The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as “the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior” to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating “an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.” It was “one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.” link