Saturday, December 5, 2015

Coffee and the Intelligentsia

Sunday's New York Times Travel Section had an article about places to eat and drink along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was entertained by the name of Intelligentsia Coffee in the Silver Lake neighborhood, and wondered whether one could be admitted or ejected based on one's reading material. When I mentioned this to my son, he informed me that we had been to the Intelligentsia Coffee in Venice, California, this March. I was troubled by the thought that a true member of the intelligentsia would have noticed this.

I had just read, in Friedell's cultural history, of the role of coffee in the 18th Century:
One can even say that coffee as a universal tonic played even a greater role than it does today. [Friedell wrote in Vienna, when the coffee houses were a center for intellectual society]. It is very significant for a rationalistic time that it should offer a stimulant that achieves a (so to speak) sober intoxication
 He mentions Voltaire's heavy consumption of coffee, without quite endorsing the rumor that Voltaire drank 50 cups of coffee every day.

George Gissing says of the conversations he overheard in Catanzaro
no remark that I heard could be called original or striking; but the choice of topics and the mode of viewing them was distinctly intellectual. Phrases often occurred such as have no equivalent on the lips of everyday people in our own country. For instance, a young fellow in no way distinguished from his companions, fell to talking about a leading townsman, and praised him for his ingenio simpatico, his bella intelligenza, with exclamations of approval from those who listened. No, it is not merely the difference between homely Anglo-Saxon and a language of classic origin; there is a radical distinction of thought. These people have an innate respect for things of the mind, which is wholly lacking to a typical Englishman. One need not dwell upon the point that their animation was supported by a tiny cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade; this is a matter of climate and racial constitution; but I noticed the entire absence of a certain kind of jocoseness which is so naturally associated with spirituous liquors; no talk could have been less offensive.

On the other hand,  Flann O'Brien in The Best of Myles reflects on a definition:
'Intelligentzia: the part of a nation (esp. the Russian) that aspires to independent thinking.
  Now why this assumption that every nation has two parts, one being Russian? 


  1. Interesting. I would not have the chutzpah to go into any place with "intelligentsia" in the name; I'd feel like a dim-witted mouse among crafty old cats. But I would like to have had coffee with Voltaire. Wow! What an event!

    1. R.T., you could be like me, too oblivious to notice the name. I imagine that Voltaire shone before an audience.