by Justin E. H. Smith
I am growing ever more convinced that a great deal can be learned about a culture by looking at the way it exercises its control over the exchange of fluids. I’m not talking about semen and menstrual blood (though surely those too). I’m talking about alcohol, soda water, fruit juice, and, most of all, coffee.
Now among the sort of North Americans I know, there is an unspoken rule that you must regularly denounce the North American way of preparing and dispensing coffee, and you must with equal regularity praise the European, and particularly Latinate, way of doing so. But in truth this is all just so much jockeying for social distinction, and in the end no one can give a compelling reason for the superiority of espresso over what we used to call ‘drip’, but what the Brooklynites jockeying for their own form of social distinction are now insisting on calling ‘pour-over’.
I for one am much happier with a 24-oz. paper cup from some Interstate gas station than with the split-second of pleasure I get from the concentrated millimeter or two of coffee reduction I’m expected to relish, standing at a counter like some barn animal, when in Rome. I like to sip large quantities of coffee, more or less all day, and everything in the Catholic parts of Europe is set up to prevent me from doing this.
Germany, interestingly, seems to be as mixed up with respect to coffee styles as it is confessionally. Today, here in the capital of Lower Saxony, I was unable to get what I wanted from hotel staff –a proper Kännchen of brewed coffee–, so I pleaded with them to run their ‘automatic espresso machine’ for me, with these special prepared capsule things made by Nestlé that you insert into a little hole in order to extract an ounce or so of liquid, and to do this ten times and pour it all into a thermos that I brought from home. They looked at me like I was crazy. No one can drink ten espressos and survive! (This is all rather like the hubbub that inevitably accompanies the consumption of hot sauces, where everyone has to gather around and make a big scene when a friend chooses to add a little jalapeno sauce to his food. As if anyone ever really ran the risk of serious injury from commercially available condiments.) But I wasn’t drinking ten espressos. I was drinking a thermos full of mediocre coffee dispensed from a miserly machine, whose sole reason for existence is that it allows Germans to imagine they are doing things the authentic, Italian way.
The Thirty Years War, I mean to say, didn’t quite settle the matter of how things should be done around here. You have to go further north, to solidly Protestant Scandinavia, in order to find people who know how to drink coffee (have a look, by the way, at the statistics on per capita coffee consumption by country): huge quantities of black coffee, dispensed freely, with no concern at all about ‘going too far’.
In Paris, where I will be as of tomorrow, I will simply have to accept that adequate caffeination will, again, be a perpetual battle. I have been seen by Parisian waiters, hardly known for their flexibility, to order two, three coffees at a time. Vous attendez des amis, monsieur? I’m asked. Non, I feel like saying. J’attends mes cafés! And it’s not just coffee, either, that is held back in this way. Bottled beverages of all sorts come in what I consider taste-sample dimensions. The sort of Americans I know of course think all this is very admirable; they echo Mike Bloomberg in their denunciation of American serving sizes, and of the proven link between Big Gulps and obesity. I won’t deny the reality of this public-health problem, but I will insist on my right to not be treated, individually, as if I myself were a public-health problem. Of course, in Paris if not in New York it is not concern about public health that diminishes the serving sizes of beverages. It is rather, if I may speculate for a moment, the weight of tradition and community: drinking is something that must occur socially and quasi-ceremonially. Everyone should be dispensed the same amount, and the ultimate standard of the serving size is the gorgée of Christ’s blood that has been dispensed –socially, ceremoniously, and in equal measure for all– since late antiquity.
It is not surprising that the Roman-barbarian, Catholic-Protestant divide maps, in turn, onto the grape-grain divide. Those who know me will know I prefer wine, and can’t stand beer. But in the ideal world, I would be permitted to drink wine as if it were beer: from a mug, and without regard for where the others are at in the emptying of their own mugs. Imagine: a culture of wine, freed from the culture of Catholicism.
I am often told that I am wrong to suppose that I am perceiving the Slavic substratum of those parts of eastern Germany that have been –with a few exceptions, such as the Sorbian pockets near Leipzig– thoroughly Germanized since the 13th century. The Slavic Schicht might survive in a few place-names, I’m instructed, but that’s it.
But toponymy does matter. No other words are so resistant to change as the words for places– human settlements, but abov all features of the natural landscape. How, for example, can Berlin fail to feel Slavic when it has neighborhoods, like Pankow, with that -ow suffix? The fact that this -ow constitutes the single exception in the German language to the rule that w should be pronounced as what anglophones think of as v –that is, here the -ow is pronounced just as when Americans say ‘ow!’– only reinforces the perception that there is something peculiar going on here, that these places were named according to rules that the current inhabitants did not invent.
Subtle things such as these, I suspect, play more of a role in history than we often imagine: why, for example, did the Soviets take just that part of Germany that had been de-Slavicized 800 years earlier? It could have something to do with a vague sense of recognition, attributable in part to toponymic features. The boundary of the former DDR constituted the western-most frontier of the historically Slavic world, and a certain species of irredentism would see the Soviet occupation as a just reclamation.
It is a difficult question: what counts as reclamation, and what as usurpation?
When I taught in Ohio I had a colleague who liked to come by my office to talk about Leibniz. These conversations were of the sort that leave you, after the first five minutes, thrilled to find someone with similar interests, while after ten minutes it begins to dawn on you that the other guy’s reasons for being interested in the same thing you’re interested in look nothing like your own reasons.
It turns out this colleague had been a gubernatorial candidate in Ohio for the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Now these people, I’ve since learned, attribute a great deal of world-historical significance to a cluster of events that took place around 1714, when the Elector Georg Ludwig of Hannover left Lower Saxony for London, where he restyled himself ‘King George I of Great Britain’. This much is widely known: the royal family of England has remained Hannoverian since his arrival; England is ruled, at least symbolically, by German usurpers. This explains, for some, why so much of the British aristocracy was hesitant to go to war with the Nazis; and it explains, at least for the LaRoucheans, why Leibniz is such an admirable figure.
For what is less known about the events of 1714 is that Georg Ludwig’s humble librarian, G. W. Leibniz, had pleaded to go along with his employer to London, but was told that he could not, and must instead stay in Hannover in order to finish his work on the history of the Guelf and Estes royal lineages. The work was unfinished, and Leibniz died two years later, embittered at being left behind. In the meantime, he had also flirted, unsuccessfully, with the royal courts of Vienna and St. Petersburg, in the hope of being made a full-time councillor at one of these and abandoning that stupid history of the Guelfs for good.
Now LaRouche, somehow, appears to believe that the British royal family is the dark secret force that is pulling the strings of world government. Not the Trilateral comission, not the Rothschilds, but Queen Elizabeth II and her relations. Oh, and Al Gore. Moreover, LaRouche sees the decisive event in their sinister rise to global domination as occurring at the very moment of Georg Ludwig’s relocation to London. They thus see Leibniz as representing the real Germany, and King George I as a betrayer and an impostor. They also see Isaac Newton as King George’s court philosopher, and thus see the bitter, decades-long controversy between Newton and Leibniz as some sort of battle between good and evil.
That’s all I know about the LaRoucheans. One sees a lot of them on the streets of German cities, with their Obama-with-a-Hitler-moustache posters. LaRouche is married to a German woman, very much his junior, and together they seem to be reshaping the movement as something that reaches far beyond US electoral politics. On three occasions, in Berlin, Hannover, and Montreal, I’ve stopped and asked the people manning those sad card tables with the hand-written placards hanging from them, whether there is anything, but anything, that Lyndon LaRouche has said with which they disagree. On one occasion, the answer was ‘no’; the other two times, the answer was ‘yes’, though the respondents, when pressed, could not give any concrete examples.
I am no fan of the British royal family, whereas I admire Leibniz very much. In fact, when I started writing about Leibniz, I approached it more or less as a homework assignment: some guy to work on, who will help me strengthen my scholarly skills precisely because I have no particularly strong sympathies for him. But now, some years on, I find that I am, literally, Leibnizian: generally speaking, I would consider myself a rationalist, determinist, theist, phenomenalist, panvitalist. So my sympathies now line up in the same way those of the LaRoucheans do. But heavens, may I never have an office next to one of them again.
It is said that Leibniz hesitated to move to the royal court at Vienna, because this would have required a conversion to Catholicism. I can understand that. Technically, I am Catholic, for contingent biographical reasons I will relate another time. But in spirit, I know which side of the divide I belong on. I register this divide principally in terms of cultural factors others might consider trivial, or anyhow even more trivial than the old consubstantiation-vs.-transubstantiation debate. Like coffee, for example. But wars have been fought over lesser things.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website