Tag Archives: Enlightenment

E/F – The glass (or cup, as it were) of coffee

Thomas Pynchon once imagined a conversation between Mason and Dixon (of the “line” fame, not the knitters, or the pollsters) that is as true in the twenty-first century as it must have been in the eighteenth.  Mason asked Dixon,

How is it … that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”  To which Dixon answered that it’s because of “Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance … whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

Coffee is the original smart drug, but like all things good, it comes with a price. The key is to be mindful of how much you drink, for the beneficial effects advance only to a certain level, after which having more coffee produces something like a living nightmare of half-truths, unfinished thoughts, and incomplete sentences.

For these and other reasons, people have blamed coffee for the Enlightenment and related revolutions in rocket science and politics.  They all got started in coffee houses, perfect sites for the blending of conversation and caffeine, the ultimate result of which being a heightened desire for self-expression without, however, a commensurate acuity thereof.  Or as Pynchon put it when describing the scene as Mason and Dixon slipped into a coffee house in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s—

With its own fuliginous Weather, at once public and private, created of smoke billowing from Pipes, Hearthes, and Stoves, the Room would provide an extraordinary sight, were any able to see, in this Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot’s indoor Sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well.  One may be inches from a neighbor, yet both blurr’d past recognizing,— thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme, given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here, not only aloud but upon Paper as well …

Coffee sounds a lot like alcohol.  Coffee houses and barrooms once upon a time shared the combination of low lights and incessant smoking that leads two or more people to make very bad decisions based on what little they can see or understand of each other, half-remembered bliss and release lifting like a fog with the clarity of morning.  The poor judgment brought on by low-lit coffee conversations that once resulted in revolutionary dreams, however, now leads mainly to snark and graduate theses.  Compared to alcohol, it’s more difficult to appreciate the terrible results of coffee, because they are so often taken for success.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn: a revolution is being plotted right here, right now.

People often combine alcohol and coffee, as if the effects of one can cancel out the other.  This is a mistake.  When you drink coffee while already drunk, you don’t become sober.  Instead, you achieve a much more keen awareness of how incoherent you are.  It’s called coffee-boarding and is outlawed by several international accords signed by everyone but the United States.

The relationship of coffee and alcohol to the truth is easily demonstrated by the degree to which various world religions have grappled with either or both.  Islam banned alcohol, and Muslims became coffee addicts, as did fundamentalist Christians though their coffee is not nearly as good.  AA meetings would be intolerable without coffee.  The Mormons banned both coffee and alcohol, which is why they wound up in Utah, though somehow Coca-Cola escaped the ban despite its (post-cocaine) base in coffee’s essential force, caffeine.  The Buddhists call for people to avoid intoxication by alcohol or stimulants, but they don’t make it inflexible.  This sounds like a pretty good idea, except that it’s impossible, which is the point.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope

repurposing an old garage, the Park Slope way

The photos for this post were taken in the Tea Lounge, a venerable institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the neighborhood that everyone (else) in New York loves to hate, according to the local newspaper.

The original shop was located in the South Slope on 7th Avenue but had to close a while back due to increasing rents, leaving the larger Union Street shop (pictured here) as the flagship in the heart of the neighborhood.  (Another Tea Lounge has opened in Cobble Hill, a couple nabes over on the other side of the Gowanus Canal.)

Every morning, it begins to fill up with freelancers of every type imaginable – writers, designers, editors, bloggers, people looking for jobs – who stay there all day sipping coffee and making the American economy what it is (hey, they’re telecommuting).  One morning a week (which one has rotated over time) the place fills up with mommies and nannies and toddlers when Lloyd comes to sing for the kids.  Those of us who’re working (including the staff) double down, shut our ears, and keep on working.  The place features in Amy Sohn’s satirical send-up of (and not-entirely-ironic homage to) Park Slope mommyhood, Prospect Park West, as the “Teat Lounge,” so-called for the ubiquitous nursing of infants that goes on there to the soundtracks of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and the occasional contemporary indie-groove (think Jem).

A review by Elizabeth of the Anti Tourist describes the Tea Lounge like this:

Studious laptop users sat beside romancing couples and chatty friends and I have to say, between licking the whipped frosting off of my OREO cupcake and sipping a glass of Riesling, I was immediately at ease–especially when my friend bought me a second glass. So yes. Conclusively, I like Tea Lounge. Is it a perfect place to work? Eh. Maybe not. Is it a good place for a date or a drink with a friend? Definitely.

Notes and Credits

All photographs by the author.

Thomas Pynchon on coffee in Mason and Dixon (New York:  Henry Holt, 1997) page 467 for the first quotation and 305 for the second. It’s an historical novel that follows the eighteenth century British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon throughout their lives, from their early collaborations in England and South Africa through their pioneering work to survey the border between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies from 1763 to 1768.  As novels go, it’s a wonderfully comic buddy film with a touching ending that reaches deep into the emotions surrounding friendship and fatherhood.

Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008) provides rollicking imagery of the confluence of coffee, truth, alcohol, rocket science, tobacco, and the Enlightenment.  The thesis is simple:  replacing beer with coffee as a way to avoid bad water propelled the Enlightenment foward with clear thinking at long last.  Of the London Coffee House, the meeting place of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and other men of science and revolution, Johnson wrote (p. 17)—

The London Coffee House lay in St. Paul’s churchyard, a crowded urban space steps from the cathedral, bustling with divinity students, booksellers, and instrument makers.  The proximity to the divine hadn’t stopped the coffeehouse from becoming a gathering place for some of London’s most celebrated heretics, who may well have been drawn to the location for the sheer thrill exploring the limits of religious orthodoxy within shouting distance of England’s most formidable shrine.  On alternating Thursdays, a gang of freethinkers – eventually dubbed “The Club of Honest Whigs” by one of its founding members, Benjamin Franklin – met at the coffeehouse, embarking each fortnight on a long, rambling session that has no exact equivalent in modern scientific culture.

It no doubt would be interesting for Mr. Johnson to survey the clientele at the Tea Lounge and find out what revolutions are brewing for the near future here.

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The truth and change, 1: From Perfection to Dystopia

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

For as long as I can remember, people have been trumpeting the big changes that were supposed to occur in my lifetime.  In this span of years, roughly the 1960s-forward, change was the key ingredient of the future, which amounted to three alternatives:  progress, dystopia, or annihilation.  Looking back on the future of the last 45 years, however, it turns out that these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives.

Einstein observed that the experience of an event is subject to relational factors like who’s observing it, where, and under what conditions.  So it is with the future.  It may not be the world itself that changes, but rather how we experience it, a future that happens inside our bodies to make the world look, sound, feel, taste, and smell different.  The House of Tomorrow may well be the house of yesterday, but it won’t feel that way.

This is the first of three posts on The truth and change.  The series will look at how tangled, ironic, and weird (to invoke a favorite category of Hunter S. Thompson’s) the future will be, if it’s not that already.  The exercise in lateral thinking takes us from perfection to dystopia, annihilation, technoredemption, slacker paradise, Qoheleth, Big Pharma, and cyberchange.

From perfection to dystopia

The future, change, and progress are products of The Enlightenment.  For millennia, people were assumed to be what they were.  Thinkers in the West and the East had explored all sorts of ideas about how to create good societies, find peace, and achieve enlightenment (The Buddha’s kind) – but there was no belief in a “future” that would be different from the past.  Differences in politics, spirituality, or technology were seen as superficial, and the great wheel of history rolled along.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …
One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays …
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun.  [Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9]

Then in the eighteenth century the philosophes in France and other spots around Europe started to think about the life we could have on Earth through science, reason, and (in one form or another) “democracy.”  The twin notions of change and the future became tangible, captured in a repurposing of the word “progress.”  In The Invention of Air, Stephen Johnson shows how these ideas were tied together across science, politics, and religion.  Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Priestly (the nominal subject of Johnson’s book) were scientists and radicals who imprinted the American Revolution with the Enlightenment’s vision of the future.

As Jefferson wrote to Priestly after the presidential inauguration in 1800, “We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun.  For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.”  In another context, Jefferson famously quipped, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”  Compromised as Jefferson’s revolution was, eventually even the enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans, written out at the beginning, would build their own revolution to insist on (some of) Jefferson’s ideals, among others.  The times, they would be a-changing, and the early Abolition movement itself was a part of the Enlightenment’s vision of change.

New industries and the “New World” conjured an image of humankind’s infinite malleability – we were blank slates on which a better world would be drawn.  People were, in a word, perfectible.  Yet perfection was a contestable quality, and disagreements over perfectibility would draw the lines of ideological battles that lasted from 1776 to 1989.  One of the central lines in the struggle over change was who would make change happen best — freely acting individuals, private corporate entities, or the state.

These conflicts underlay Adam Smith’s own writings.  He placed great faith in individuals and very little in either the state or corporations.  In Smith’s ideal world, we were a self-correcting society of individuals guided “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of [their] intention.”  In other words, people following purely individual motives could create social good, almost accidentally.

Smith applied his faith in individuals to economic life, but he saw a conflict between the capacity of individual action to create a moral world and the effects of capitalism’s main motor for change, the division of labor.  Far from perfecting mankind, the nature of industrial production (and with it, the creation of wealth) would render the bulk of people ever more ignorant even as democracy expanded their ability to affect their world:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.  He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to creature to become.  The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment … Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging …

This would be the product of capitalism, said Smith, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”  Smith never resolved this conflict in his understanding of change, and his fans have ignored it and instead dwelled on the “invisible hand” alone, taking this half-premise to logical extremes.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand made a grand dystopian plea for her version of capitalist utopia that in general (if less radical) terms is part of everyday political discourse in the United States, where faith in powerful, dynamic individuals is strong.  The fear of the state is great, and the relation to mass politics is complicated.  The masses are fickle and in general not to be trusted (even by the masses).  To wit:  In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, “going John Galt” has become the calling card of dissident financiers holding out against the reactions of the federal government and the populist fervor aimed at them, though this fervor was short-lived and now is turned against the government and health care reform.

Over time, dystopia transcended the narrow limitations of the conflicts between capitalism and socialism, seeing in both a massification of industrial society that used technology to dampen the very urges toward freedom and expression unleashed by the forces that Jefferson and Priestly heralded with such optimism.  Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We combined his experiences in the Russian Revolution and in the British factories of World War I to describe a true dystopia that was the forerunner of Orwell’s 1984.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World concentrated our gaze on the manufacture of pleasure as a way of breeding conformity and social order from the “torpor of mind” that Smith lamented in 1776.

Yet numbing sameness wasn’t the only threat to Jefferson and Priestly’s House of Tomorrow.  The rocket scientists who stood on their shoulders (among so many others) eventually helped us create weapons of unparalleled destruction that could end all life as we know it.  Beyond dystopia, the future created by reason might actually annihilate us all.  These were our choices by the time I was growing up:  Smith, Marx, Rand, Huxley, Orwell, Dr. Strangelove, or Charlton Heston on a beach some time in the distant future.

The Apes were able to perfect themselves greatly with people out of the way.  The surviving humans, able to carry on through accidents of history and rocket science, became vermin and slaves until the moment in which Taylor and Nova became a new Adam and Eve under the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now a fallen, man-made Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you look hard enough, you can see in the background the shadows of Priestly, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller.  Thoreau and Whitman are nowhere to be found.  They were buried by the knowledge of good and evil.

Notes and Credits

The quotation from the opening of Ecclesiastes is taken from the New American Bible, Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9.

Jefferson’s statement setting aside Qoheleth is cited by Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 199.  Overall, this book is a real treat that shows a rare and impressive achievement of lateral thinking.  To extend your thinking, visit Johnson’s blog, where he is further ruminating on ecosystems, technology, and change.

My quotations from Adam Smith are taken from The Essential Adam Smith, ed. Robert L. Heilbronner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 265 and 302.  Read this book, which includes abridged versions of both the Theory of the Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  They are indispensable critiques of the world that Smith’s fans seem to adore.

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