The idea of Europe in its coffee houses

By George Steiner, June 2, 2015



Those wishing to meet Freud or Musil, knew precisely in which café to look... When the lights go out in Europe, in August 1914, Jaurès is assassinated in a café. An extract from "The idea of Europe" by George Steiner, the world renowned essayist, writer, critic and cultural philosopher.

Europe is made up of coffee houses, of cafés. These extend from Pessoa’s favourite coffee house in Lisbon to the Odessa cafés haunted by Isaac Babel’s gangsters.

They stretch from the Copenhagen cafés which Kierkegaard passed on his concentrated walks to the counters of Palermo. No early or defining cafés in Moscow which is already a suburb of Asia. Very few in England after a brief fashion in the eighteenth century.

None in north America outside the gallican outpost of New Orleans. Draw the coffee-house map and you have one of the essential markers of the ‘idea of Europe’.

The café is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook.

It is open to all, yet it is also a club, a freemasonry of political or artistic-literary recognition and programmatic presence. A cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a tea with rhum secures a locale in which to work, to dream, to play chess or simply keep warm the whole day. It is the club of the spirit and the poste-restante of the homeless.

In the Milan of Stendhal, in the Venice of Casanova, in the Paris of Baudelaire, the café housed what there was of political opposition, of clandestine liberalism. Three principal cafés in imperial and inter-war Vienna provided the agora, the locus of eloquence and rivalry, for competing schools of aesthetics and political economy, of psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Those wishing to meet Freud or Karl Kraus, Musil or Carnap, knew precisely in which café to look, at which Stammtisch to take their place. Danton and Robespierre meet one last time at the Procope. When the lights go out in Europe, in August 1914, Jaurès is assassinated in a café. In a Geneva café, Lenin writes his treatise on empirio-criticism and plays chess with Trotsky.

Note the ontological differences. An English pub, an Irish bar have their own aura and mythologies. What would Irish literature be without the Bars of Dublin?

Where, if there had not been the Museum Tavern, would Dr. Watson have run into Sherlock Holmes? But these are not cafés. They have no chess-tables, no newspapers freely available to clients on their hangers.

It is only very recently that coffee itself has become a public habit in Britain, and it retains its Italian halo. The American bar plays a vital rôle in American literature and Eros, in the iconic charisma of Scott Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. The history of jazz is inseparable from it.

But the American bar is a sanctuary of dim lightning, often of darkness. It throbs with music, often deafening. Its sociology, its psychological fabric are permeated by sexuality, by the presence, hoped for, dreamt of or actual of women. No one writes phenomenological tomes at the table of an American bar (cf. Sartre). Drinks have to be renewed if the client is to remain welcome.

There are ‘bouncers’ to expel the unwanted. Each of these features defines an ethos radically different from that of the Café Central or the Deux Magots or Florian.

‘There will be mythology so long as there are beggars,’ said Walter Benjamin, a passionate connaisseur of and pilgrim among cafés. So long as there are coffee houses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content.


George Steiner is an essayist, writer, critic and cultural philosopher. After fleeing the increasing anti-Semitic violence in Europe, he spent a large part of his youth in the United States. There, he studied linguistics and humanities, finishing his studies at Harvard and Oxford. He was professor in the United States, England, Austria and Switzerland and an essayist and critic with publications such as “The Guardian” and “The New Yorker”. In his essays, he deals with literature, ethics, social developments and radical evil. Among his large oeuvre are: In Bluebeard’s Castle, Language and Silence (London, Faber & Faber 1967); After Babel (Oxford University Press 1975); Real Presences (University Of Chicago Press 1986); The Poetry of Thought (New York, New Directions, 2011). With The Nexus Institute from Tilburg he published The Idea of Europe (2004); Universitas? (2013) and Im Raum der Stille: Lektüren (2010).

Extract from The idea of Europe, by George Steiner, first edition, Tilburg, The Nexus Institute, 2004, now published by and available from The Overlook Press, New York.

Article courtesy of Eutopia

Comments are closed.