Café Society? Cafés = Society.

Some of you may have been thinking this week about the “Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca. People around the world were taking a minute to go all out on the “Allons enfants de la patrie” number, “sang impur” and all. All right, marchons! But if I had to pick a scene for the times, it would be the one where the policeman asks: “Your nationality?” and receives the reply: “Alcoholic.” Me too.

Not in the clinical sense, I hasten to say. (At least, no one has given me a diagnosis or taken me aside for a Serious Talk. In my desk drawer is a small bottle of white-out, no whiskey.) But I glory in the name of casual drinker, a regular member of the sodality of people who kick back, have a drink (or not), and let the conversation go where it will. The Alcoholic, in my sense of the word, doesn’t even have to drink booze. Coffee will do– it’s not just a cute anecdote that the “public sphere” began, for Habermas, in coffee houses. Or tea. Even water, what the hell. And let’s get specific: although I could and would invite you to my house, that kind of space imposes a relation of guest to host. I have to run around looking for nuts and crackers to feed you, you are going to show good manners and disregard your cell phone, and all that kind of stuff. In a café, however, we meet as strangers and equals. That is, as particles of society at large. The weak relation of people merely coexisting in a chosen space is an oddly strong social bond, as one realizes when the possibility of doing that is threatened.

A lovely little book given me a few months ago by my friend Tim Brook lays out the case for Parisian cafés, with or without terraces, with or without juke-boxes, baby-foot, toilettes et téléphone, service à toute heure. There are many mansions in café-dom, from the stuffy to the scruffy, and Marc Augé, like the good ethnographer he is, has knocked back a coffee or a demi in a representative sample of them. He follows Maigret, Aragon, Benjamin and a host of other streetlife characters in and out of the pages of an abundant bar literature.

In light of last week’s scenes of horror– people shot dead where they sat on the terrace of the Bistrot Voltaire and suchlike, having a smoke, catching up with their friends, reading L’Équipe (you always find L’Équipe on the counter of a good bar)– this paragraph seemed to speak to me with a Benjaminian extra layer of prophecy:

” ‘Je ne fais que passer’: telle est la devise implicite du passant qui s’arrête un instant au bistrot, où il côtoie d’autres passants connus ou inconnus. Il ne fait que passer, même s’il s’attarde un peu ou si, comme aimanté par le lieu, il y passe une ou deux fois dans la même journée. Le bistrot, c’est la mesure du temps. Bien sûr parce qu’il a ses heures d’ouverture et de fermeture […] bien sûr aussi parce qu’il offre un asile à ceux qui, faute d’avoir pu maîtriser parfaitement leur emploi du temps, se trouvent soudain désoeuvrés, en avance, obligés d’attendre […] Mais aussi, et essentiellement, parce que, pour les vrais fidèles, sa fréquentation implique, plus largement, un rapport particulier avec la vie et avec la ville.”

” ‘Just passing through’– that’s the implicit motto of the passerby who stops for a few minutes in a café and stands alongside other passersby, familiar or unfamiliar. He’s just passing through, even if he stays a while or drops in once or twice more in the day as if the place exerted a magnetic power over him. A bar is a measurement of time. Naturally, because it has opening and closing hours […] and naturally because it offers a refuge to anyone who, having failed to organize their schedule perfectly, find themselves at a loose end, early for their meeting, obliged to wait. […] But also and especially because for a real devotee, hanging out at the bar attests more broadly to a special kind of relation with life and with the city.

Let’s hear it for Marc Augé, Éloge du bistrot parisien (In Praise of Parisian Cafés). Paris: Payot, 2015.