In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun. In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency.Cultural Amnesia, Clive James
I read the opening to Clive James overture over a decade ago now, toward the end of my undergraduate degree. In retrospect it is clear that the aspiration it conveyed, and indeed the whole book conveyed, lodged itself deep in my mind. I did not read the entire book, following the practice of most readers, but jumped around the essays, ultimately moving on before the book’s depths were exhausted. It was the overture to the book that gave me a deep impression of what Vienna and specifically its cafe culture once was. It is probably the reason I first arrived in Vienna with greater expectations than when I visited Paris, even knowing what James informed me of: the abrupt end of it all with the finis Autriae.
Walking around Vienna it is hard not to think of how Twitter is collapsing — in corporate farce rather than facist horror (although, not coincidentally, there are plenty of nazis now on Twitter). For those who were lurking in the right corners and following the right people, the cultural significance of Twitter was easily comparable to Vienna’s cafes. James writes that for “generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind workers of every type, the Vienna cafe was a way of life”, and it is too good not to suggest that today they those very people have all become terminally online. He writes of Peter Altenberg who “hardly achieved anything at all” by the standards of his more famous cafe contemporaries, “But his very existence was a reminder to more prosperous practitioners that what they did was done from love“, and you think of all the legions of writers who hustled for work, readers, or even just likes on Twitter. Or you might read Stefan Zweig describing the cafe as “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.” The unlimited number of newspapers and journals is so much on the nose, that the rising paywalls suggest another reason why the great age of Twitter discourse is at an end.
The fact that certain habitues received their mail in the cafes seemed amazing when I read it back in (maybe) 2011/12. But now I can check my email and my Whatsapps while in line at a Dunking Donuts.