7/17/2014 – A Cafe of Ideas
The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, fourth century B.C., once carried a lamp around in daylight looking for an honest man. I am not a philosopher, but I’ve thought about carrying a lamp around like Diogenes looking not for an honest man but for a good conversation. So imagine my envy when I visited Les Deux Magots and Le Cafe de Flore, two cafes in the Rive Gauche section of Paris, which Rick Steves calls “the cafes of ideas.”
As Steves says in his guidebook to Paris, “From Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism (1900) to Picasso’s Cubism (1910s) to Hemingway’s spare prose (‘20s) to Sartre’s Existentialism (with his girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, 1930s and 40s) to rock singer Jim Morrison (60s), worldwide movements have been born in the simple atmosphere of these two cafes.”
At the Brasserie Lipp, across the street, Hemingway wrote much of A Farewell to Arms. Also in the neighborhood is the Cafe le Procope, founded in 1686, a favorite haunt of writers, intellectuals and revolutionaries. This cafe was one of the first in Europe to offer coffee and it’s said that Voltaire was known to consume 30 cups a day there.
Cafes in Paris, pubs in London. At the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, established in 1667 at 144 Fleet Street, such literary figures as Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oliver Goldsmith, and G. K Chesterton are said to have been regulars. The children’s book, The Cheshire Cheese Cat, by Carmen Agra Deedy, Randall Wright, and Barry Moser, is set in the pub. Dickens probably used the pub as a setting for a scene in Tale of Two Cities.
Cafes in Paris, pubs in London, and the famous Algonquin Hotel in New York, known for the Round Table and the writers, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood, who regularly lunched around it, hurling witticisms and sarcasm at and about each other. They set the literary style of the 1920s, changing American comedy and establishing the tastes for a new period of the arts and theater.
Whether it’s cafe, pub, or hotel lunchroom, I seek a place with a congenial atmosphere for conversation and discussion where lingering over a drink is accepted and talking is not wrecked by obnoxious, distracting music. To make this scene complete, of course, I would also need literary companions alive with ideas willing to hang around with me over a cup of tea or glass of wine.