Authors: Eric Weiner
Vienna didn’t invent the coffeehouse. The world’s first sprang up in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1554, the first Western European one nearly a century later when an enterprising young man named Jacob opened a shop in Oxford, England, that served the “bitter black beverage.” From the outset, coffee was considered dangerous. It was known as the “revolutionary drink,” the stimulus of the masses. When people drank coffee, they got agitated, and who knew where that agitation might lead. Soon after Jacob’s coffeehouse opened, King Charles II issued a decree limiting their numbers. And no wonder. The whiff of democracy was in the air. Europe’s first coffeehouses were called levelers, as were the people who frequented them. Inside their walls, no one is better than anyone else.
That was certainly true in the Viennese coffeehouse. It was “a sort of democratic club, and anyone could join it for the price of a cheap cup of coffee,” writes Stefan Zweig in his wonderful memoir,
The World of Yesterday
. What exactly did that admission price get you? For starters, a warm room. At the time, the population of Vienna was exploding; so severe was the housing shortage that some people squatted in the zoo. For those lucky enough to get apartments, they were small, drafty, and often unheated.
The admission price also got you information. Lots of it. Any coffeehouse worthy of the name supplied the day’s newspapers, carefully mounted on long wooden poles, as they still are today. This is where
you went to find out what was happening around the corner, or halfway around the world. As we saw in Florence, access to new information is crucial. Alone it is not enough to spark a golden age, but one rarely ignites without it.
Not only information but opinions circulated in the coffeehouse. These were the currency of the day, hotly traded, and always in demand, explains Stefan Zweig. “We sat for hours every day, and nothing escaped us, for thanks to our collective interests we pursued the
of artistic events not with just one pair of eyes but with twenty or so; if one of us missed something, another would point it out to him, since with a childish wish to show off, we were always vying with each other, showing an almost sporting ambition to know the newest, very latest thing. We were engaged in constant competition for new sensations.”
Most of all, the admission price got you conversation and companionship. Fellow travelers. The denizens of the coffeehouse were of a particular type, that strange combination of introvert and extrovert that defines most geniuses or, as Alfred Polgar puts it in his brilliant 1927 essay, “Theory of the Café Central,” “people whose hatred of their fellow human beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need companionship for it.” I love that line. Whenever I read it, I imagine an archipelago of lonely souls. Islands, yes, but arranged in proximity to one another, and that proximity makes all the difference.
The Viennese coffeehouse is a classic example of a third place. Third places, as opposed to home and office (first and second places), are informal, neutral meeting grounds. Think of the bar in
, or any British pub. Other establishments—barbershops, bookstores, beer gardens, diners, general stores—can also be third places. What they have in common is that they are all sanctuaries, “temporary worlds within the ordinary world,” says Johan Huizinga, a scholar of play.
The chatter that filled the coffeehouse amounted to a kind of improvisation, like that practiced by musicians and comedy troupes. That form of conversation was far more conducive to generating good ideas than that staple of creativity consultants everywhere: brainstorming. Brainstorming sounds like a great idea, but it doesn’t work. Dozens of studies
have demonstrated this conclusively. People produce more good ideas—twice as many—alone than they do together.
One problem with brainstorming is that it has an agenda, even if it is unspoken: we’re going to sit around this table until we come up with a REALLY BIG IDEA. That creates a lot of pressure; brainstorming relies almost exclusively on extrinsic motivation. Not good. At the coffeehouse, there was no agenda. The conversation unfolded completely nonlinearly, like a Calcuttan
“Purposelessness sanctifies the stay,” as Polgar put it.
Which is not to say that good ideas didn’t emerge from the coffeehouse. They did. But the key word is
. The ideas gelled afterward, once the cigarette smoke had cleared, the caffeine exited, and the rush of new information settled. We collect our dots in the company of others. We connect them by ourselves.
Sometimes the most obvious explanations are the best, so perhaps what made the Viennese coffeehouse so special was the coffee. The evidence, alas, is disheartening for coffee addicts such as me. Yes, caffeine does increase alertness, but that’s not the same as creativity; increased alertness means our attention is less diffuse, and therefore we’re less likely to make the sort of unexpected connections that are the hallmark of creative thinking. Also, caffeine disrupts both the quantity and the quality of sleep, and studies have found that people who experience deep REM sleep perform better on creative tasks than those who don’t.
So, if not the coffee, then what else might explain the fecundity of the coffeehouse? I perk up my ears. The whoosh of the espresso machine, the hum of improvised conversation, the ruffling of newspapers turning. When we think of the ideal place for contemplation, we tend to imagine quiet ones, a belief drilled into us by forced readings of Thoreau’s
and legions of shushing librarians, but quiet, it turns out, isn’t always best.
A team of researchers, led by Ravi Mehta of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that those exposed to moderate noise levels (seventy decibels) performed better on a creative-thinking exam than those exposed to either high levels of noise or complete silence. Moderate noise, Mehta believes, allows us to enter “a state of distracted, or diffused, focus.” Again, the ideal state for creative breakthroughs.
At Viennese coffeehouses, the regulars have their
, their usual place. I don’t know Dardis McNamee’s
so I’m at a loss. Where is she? The problem, I realize, is that I’m looking for an American, and Dardis has long ago shed her American mannerisms. She has become Viennese. No wonder I can’t find her.
A New Yorker like Eugene Martinez, Dardis McNamee came to Vienna eighteen years ago and instantly fell in love with the place. She learned German at an age when the brain supposedly can’t absorb a new language. She is both insider and outsider. In other words, the Brady of Vienna.
Finally, after a few false starts, I spot her. In her sixties, she carries herself with the quiet insouciance of someone who no longer has anything to prove. She orders for us, in perfect Viennese German. The dialect is softer, more musical, than standard German, a source of great pride for the Austrians. I tell Dardis how I always thought of the Austrians as just like the Swiss, only less fun.
No, she says, it’s the other way around. “In fact, the Austrians think the Swiss are completely deadly dull.” One reason Vienna is infinitely more interesting than any Swiss city, she says, is because it is international, a crossroads of cultures, and has always been.
In the nineteenth century, immigrants from far and wide flooded into Vienna. They came from Galicia and Budapest and Moravia and Bohemia and Turkey and Spain and Russia. By 1913, less than half of Vienna’s population was native born. Vienna took this sort of ethnic diversity in stride “for the genius of Vienna, a specifically musical genius, has always been that it harmonized all national and linguistic opposites in itself,” writes Zweig. Freud’s Vienna was every bit as musical as Mozart’s—
musical, perhaps, in the way it reconciled competing ideas, as well as melodies.
Ethnic diversity can jump-start creativity. Dean Simonton demonstrated how this happens on a national level, with a country such as Japan. What about in smaller groups, such as corporate boardrooms or coffeehouses?
Psychologists at the University of Iowa designed an experiment that aimed to find out. They divided 135 students into two types of groups: ones consisting entirely of Anglo-Americans and others more ethnically diverse. All of these groups were then given an exercise called the Tourist Problem. They had fifteen minutes in which to generate as many ideas as possible for convincing more foreign tourists to visit the United States.
By a clear margin, the ideas generated by the ethnically diverse groups were judged more creative and “significantly more feasible” than those produced by the ethnically homogenous ones. “Group genius can only happen if the brains in the team don’t contain all the same stuff,” says psychologist Keith Sawyer.
Researchers, though, also stumbled across a downside to ethnic diversity. While these diverse groups did perform better than homogenous ones, they also produced more “negative affective reactions”—or, in English, bad vibes. Members of the ethnically diverse groups didn’t feel as comfortable as members of ethnically homogenous ones, yet they produced better ideas.
So it was at the coffeehouses of Vienna. They provided a supportive atmosphere but also a highly critical one, in the best sense of the word. Says Zweig, “We criticized one another with a severity, artistic expertise and attention to detail greater than any of the official literary pundits of our great daily papers applied to the classical masterpieces.” The coffeehouse was not a “nice place.” Places of genius never are.
Vienna was multiethnic but the lingua franca was German. That’s important. As I discovered in China, language not only reflects thought; it shapes it. The Chinese language, with its thousands of characters, all set in stone, discourages wordplay. Not so German, Dardis tells me, as our coffees arrive.
“People accuse the Germans of not being creative, but their language is fabulously flexible. English speakers don’t get it. I mean, the Germans are inventing words constantly. The language was designed for inventing words.”
Language helps explain something that has nagged at me for a long time: Why are there so many German-speaking philosophers? From
Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, Kant to Goethe, the list is long. I had always chalked it up to dreary winters and a brooding disposition. That’s part of it, Dardis concedes, but a bigger part is the German language itself. It lends itself to philosophical thought. In German, for instance, it’s possible to attach all sorts of qualifiers and ancillary ideas to a sentence without bogging it down, as would happen in English. Also, she continues, “In English, we think in terms of action. Actors and active verbs, and things acted upon. We say, ‘I went
. I came, I saw, I conquered. In German, you often have a situation that affects the speaker, or the agent, indirectly. But the situation exists in and of itself, so for example, in English, we say, ‘I am cold.’ In German, you say, ‘It is cold to me.’ ”
“That sounds like a fairly subtle difference.”
“I know, but it’s actually a pretty big difference because the fact that you are experiencing the cold is not the most important thing. The cold—the fact that it is cold—is more important, and then, secondarily, that you are the person experiencing it. So you get to emphasize the quality of the experience.”
“Okay, but how does that translate into creative thought, into philosophy?”
“Well, it means that it’s not all about action. It’s about the idea behind the action. And it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about this as anything other than the way life is until I had to learn this other language, where the meaning falls in a different place in the sentence.” Place matters, even in sentences.
Dardis and I talk for hours. She doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave, have any urgent business to conduct. I gently ask about this.
“The business of Austria or Vienna has
, ever, been business.”
“What is the business of Vienna?”
“Life. Life is the business of Vienna.”
Vienna, she says, practices a “gentle kind of hedonism.” Nobody works past 2:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon. “You can know people in Vienna for years—and this is still true—and you don’t really know what they do for a living.”
“You don’t ask?”
“No, it’s not that you don’t ask. It’s just not what people are talking about. They’re talking about where they went on their last holiday; they’re talking about what they saw in the theater; or the movie they went to; or something they read; or some lecture they heard; or this conversation or, I don’t know, some new restaurant they found. It’s only with your really, really close friends that you really know what they’re doing for a living.” The same social dynamic was at work in early twentieth-century Vienna.
Dardis tells me a story, one that has over the years risen to the level of coffeehouse legend. One day in 1905, a diplomat announces to his dinner guests that there is going to be a revolution in Russia. One guest expresses his skepticism. “Sure, and who is going to foment this revolution? Herr Bronstein down at the Café Central?” Everyone laughed. Lev Bronstein, though, the disheveled, chess-playing regular at the Café Central, would soon change his name. His new name? Leon Trotsky. And he would foment a revolution in Russia. No one, I suppose, asked him what he did for a living.
Dardis must have told this tale a hundred times, but it still tickles her. It says much about Vienna, about how the tumult and the genius of the city were hidden—under “a coating of waltzes and whipped cream,” as one historian put it. As in Edinburgh, I’m reminded that every city has two faces: the visible and the not-yet visible.
Dardis and I say good-bye, and I reluctantly leave the Café Sperl. Viennese coffeehouses have that effect on people. Once inside, you want to stay forever. Back in the day, that’s what people did. They conducted business at the coffeehouse; a few even had their mail delivered there. Writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a regular at Café Central, once said, “Two attitudes seem modern in our time: analyzing life and escaping from it.” In the coffeehouse, you could do both simultaneously, and for only a few shillings. It was pure genius.