Black, white and brown

In both pieces, “War” and Coffee Poems the color of the coffee is significant. The Coffee Poems talk about coffee’s blackness, with the color of ink. It is contrasted with milk by color, but not in meaning – the authors imply that milk and coffee share the same “purity” – in fact, the color is the seal of its purity. In War, there is an extensive discussion about the use of milk to turn coffee brown – the exact color of a monk’s robe. The exact color is known only to a select few who must know in their mind the brownness of the robe, and match the color by balancing the amount of milk against the strength of the brew. We might expect the authors of coffee poems to find the kapuziner impure. In War, Allen tells the reader that Turks believed milk added to coffee caused leprosy.

What is interesting here is not the presence of milk, but rather the appeal to coffee’s color. The coffee poems appeal to the blackness of the coffee as evidence of its purity – and by implication, its holiness. The writers of coffee poems imply the purity of the coffee imparts God’s favor or blessing – the drinker also experiences enlightment, by the pursuit of wisdom. The addition of the milk to make the coffee brown in the kapuziner would therefore be an adulteration of the beverage. And yet, being able to make the kapuziner is evidence of one’s depth of knowledge of Vienna’s coffee culture – you have to know the exact color of the monk’s robe. So in the case of the kapuziner, the knowledge was required to change the coffee’s color. The enlightenment (or state of enlightment) of the coffee drinker/brewer is significant.


Nor is this (though more than enough!) All the ground of our Complaint: For besides, we have reason to apprehend and grow Jealous, That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses will usurp on our Prerogative of tattling, and soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed preheminence: For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping, talking all at once in Confusion, and running f rom point to point as insensibly, and swiftly, as ever the Ingenous Pole-wheel could run divisions on the Base-viol; yet in all their prattle every one abounds in his own sense, as stiffly as a Quaker at the late Barbican Dispute, and submits to the Reasons of no othre mortal: so that there being neither Moderator nor Rules observ’d, you mas as soon fill a Quart pot with Syllogismes, as profit by their Discourses. ~Women’s Petition on Coffee, 1674

In Petition, this passage above seems particularly significant. Mostly because the author(s) foreground it as such. They have just finished complaining about the lack of sexual performance from their husbands, “meager useless corpse(s)” that are a “sapless as a Kixe”. But this passage begins with “nor is this all the ground of our complaint”. By percentage – the piece spends a lot of time on sexual performance and manhood – attacking both viciously. But this section is talking about the women’s’ “prerogative” – which is speaking or talking, as indicated by words like “talkativeness”, “gossipping”, “babble”, “prattle” and of this “prerogative” they have grown “jealous”. The women claim preeminence in the area of talking. The talking engaged in by the men is characterized as the “murmur of insignificant notes” – literally, the barely heard hum of what really isn’t important. This insignificant murmuring is a “babble” or “prattle” – both words for insignificant speech – like that of a child (“babble”) and speech without intellectual substance (“prattle”). Each man also “abounds in his own sense” and does not submit to the “reason” of another – such that there is nothing to be gained from this discourse. In contrast, the women cast themselves as accomplished at talking (“claimed preheminence”), and “equal number” of them while “gossipping” certainly do not “talk all at once in confusion”. The characterization of the masculine discourse here is abundant but confused and lacking substance such that no one learns anything from it.

We’ve seen in Standage that intellectual conversation was the standard of coffeehouses, which distinguished them from ale houses or tap rooms that served beer. It seems incongruous that the masculine discourse happening in these coffeehouses should be characterized as “insensible” and lacking in substance. Unless, the women were not there to observe the nature of the Discourse. They were not party to it, because they weren’t there. That much is clear – they are sitting at home waiting for their husbands…all alone. And perhaps herein lies the issue – the women are excluded from the coffeehouse activity and conversation, left at home to be wives. Perhaps this is why the piece makes exaggerated claims about traditional gender roles in marriage and claims upon traditional manhood that are a bit shocking for 2017, let alone 1674. Perhaps the point is that the women are home, alone. They are not participating in what is happening in coffeehouses, so they attack “manhood” the very thing that allows their husband (since they are men) the privilege of being in a coffeehouse at all.

Balzac and “Eight Cups a Day”

Certainly Balzac (The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee) would have been delighted to read “Eight Cups a Day” (Johnson, NYTimes, 2008). Balzac was a writer made legendary for the sheer quantity of writing he produced in his lifetime; productivity fueled perhaps by his obsession with coffee.

In reading the two pieces, written over 100 years apart, I was first intrigued by the number of references to human anatomy. For example, in “Eight cups a day” we read of cardiovascular difficulties, lowering of the risk for atherosclerosis and the cerebral infarction – all medical terms associated with the heart and the brain. Balzac too mentions the diaphragm, and the plexus of the stomach, and also the brain(x2)/cerebral. He addresses the stomach (x2) filled with suckers and papillae and its digestive juices. Between all these anatomical references, the brain/cerebral is repeated most often.

Interestingly, the physical and anatomical would seem opposed to the spiritual. Something spiritual is intangible, while a brain or a stomach is certainly not. In “Eight Cups a Day”, we find a reference to my demon and Satanic worship – both written in reference to coffee’s effect on the author and other drinkers. In Balzac, “few writers are actually becoming more spiritual” (P1), while coffee effects on the stomach are as a “pythoness appeals to her god”. A pythoness is a female priestess or practioner of divination.  Finally, at the end – the coffee drinker is referred to as a “man of spirit” – implying that the presence of spirit is evidence of coffee drinking.  In these reference, it would seem that the evidence of the spirit/spiritual/possession is a result of the coffee drinking – something so physical, the act of drinking, producing measurable biological effects that are simultaneously spiritual/non-physical.

Perhaps the reference to the spiritual or the intangible is implying the intangibility of the ideas themselves. The ideas are a product of the coffee drinking, after the pythoness appeals to her god Balzac does find sparks shooting up to his brain. But this is not consistent with “Eight Cups a Day” where the author abstains from coffee and is able to function “just about normally again” – apparently recovering from his “sluggish brain.” Was the author able to generate ideas without the coffee? It would seem so…

And yet the author of “Eight Cups a Day” refers to the coffee as my demon”, while Balzac’s pythoness appeals to her god. Who is her god? If the pythoness is conjuring spirits from her god, then “she” is conjuring spirit from Balzac himself. Balzac and Johnson (“Eight Cups a Day”) are both the gods and coffee is doing their bidding. And perhaps in the mystery inherently associated with these kinds of intangible words – demon, spirit, god – these authors are pointing to the invisible science that turns stomach acid, blood, nerves and brain matter into words, sentences and ideas.

But first…Coffee.

This Fall 2017 semester will be the first time that Coffee class goes online. FYS 282 has been around for a while, and it’s always been about writing. Writing all the time about what you are thinking or studying is critical for learning.

So why blog?

We spend more and more of our lives online these days…and in many ways, online communication is terse, cryptic even vapid. But does it have to be? Can we write for the web as our thinking selves? Not just our social selves? I think so.

Let’s think in the open