Theory of the Cafe Central
Café Central is indeed a coffeehouse unlike any other coffeehouse. It is
instead a worldview and one, to be sure, whose innermost essence is not to
observe the world at all. Then what do you see? About that, later. So much is
experientially certain, that there is nobody in the Café Central who isn't a
piece of the Central: that is to say, on whose ego-spectrum the Central color,
a mixture of ash-gray and ultra-seasick-green, doesn't appear. Whether the
place adapted to the individual, or the individual to the place, is a moot
point. I would imagine a reciprocal action. 'Thou art not in the place, the
place is in thee," says the Angelic Pilgrim.
all the anecdotes related about this coffeehouse were ground up, put in a
distillation chamber and gassified, a heavy, iridescent gas, faintly smelling
of ammonia, would develop: the so-called air of the Cafe' Central. This defines
the spiritual climate of this space, a quite special climate in which unfitness
for life, and only this one, thrives in full maintenance of its unfitness. Here
weakness develops those powers unique to itself, the fruits of unfruitiulness
ripen, and every non-ownership bears interest. Only a real Central-ist will
grasp it entirely, one who, when his coffeehouse is shut, has the feeling that
he's been thrown out into raw life, abandoned to the unpredictable
circumstances, anomalies, and cruelties of the unknown.
Café Central lies on the Viennese latitude at the meridian of loneliness. Its
inhabitants are, for the most part, people whose hatred of their fellow human
beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need
companionship for it. Their inner world requires a layer of the outer world as
delimiting material; their quivering solo voices cannot do without the support
of the chorus. They are unclear natures, rather lost without the certainties
which the feeling gives that they are a little part of a whole (to whose tone
and color they contribute).
Central-ist is a person to whom family, profession, and political party do not
give this feeling. Helpfully, the coffeehouse steps in as an ersatz
totality, inviting immersion and dissolution. It is thus understandable that
above all women, who can really never be alone and need at least one other
person along with them, have a weakness for the Cafe Central. It is a place for
people who know how to abandon and be abandoned for the sake of their fate, but
who do not have the nerve to live up to this fate. It is a true asylum for
people who have to kill time so as not to be killed by it. It is the beloved
hearth of those to whom the beloved hearth is an abomination, the refuge of
married couples and lovers from the fear of undisturbed togetherness, a
first-aid station for the confused who, all their lives in search of themselves
and all their lives in flight from themselves, conceal their fleeing ego behind
a newspaper, dreary conversations, and card playing, and press the pursuer-ego
into the role of kibitzer who has to keep his mouth shut.
Cafe Central thus represents something of an organization of the disorganized.
this hallowed space, each halfway indeterminate individual is credited with a
personality. So long as he remains within the boundaries of the coffeehouse, he
can cover all his moral expenses with this credit. And any one of them who
shows disdain for others' money is granted the anti-bourgeois crown.
Central-ist lives parasitically on the anecdote that circulates about him. That
is the main thing, the essential thing. Everything else, the facts of his
existence, is in small print, addenda and embellishments that can also be
guests of the Cafe Central know, love, and disdain one another. Even those who
are bound by no association regard this nonassociation as association. Mutual
aversion itself has the power of association in the Cafe Central; it honors and
practices a Freemason-like solidarity. Every-body knows about everybody else.
The Cafe is a provincial nest in the womb of the metropolis, steaming of
gossip, envy, and backbiting. I think the fish in the aquarium must live like
the habitues of this coffeehouse, always in the narrowest circles around one
another, always busy without purpose, using the slanting refraction of light of
their environment for diverse amusement, always full of expectation, but also
full of anxiety lest sometime something new, playing "Sea" with a
stern look, fall into the glass tank, onto their artificial miniature
sea-bottom. And if, God forbid, the aquarium should turn into a banking house,
they would be utterly lost.
the Central-fish, which share the same few cubic meters of breathing space for
so many hours of their lives, no longer have any timidity or reticence. The
proper Central-ist leads the private life of others and doesn't play the fence
with his own. Supported by the customary inclination of the place to
self-mockery and to calm surrender of one's weaknesses, this creates a sphere
of suspended sociability in which any kind of prudery withers and dies off.
There are Central guests who go about psychically naked, without having to fear
that their childlike-innocent nakedness be misinterpreted as shamelessness.
Several years ago, the owner of the Café Central tried to accommodate this
paradisiacal strain in the character of his regular guests by putting in a palm
tree. But the young lady from the Orient did not endure the climate of the
locale, despite its rather eastern character. She was hacked into small pieces,
and her divided substance found use in the kitchen- either as fuel or as coffee
beans- the researchers are not of one mind on the matter.
only person who partakes of the most essential charm of this splendid
coffeehouse is he who wants nothing there but to be there. Purposelessness
sanctifies the stay. Perhaps the guest doesn't really like the place or the
people who noisily populate it, but his nervous system imperiously demands the
daily dose of Centralin. This can hardly be explained by habit alone. Nor by
the fact that the Central-people are always attracted, like the murderer to the
scene of the crime, to where they already killed so much time, wiped out entire
years. Then what is the explanation? The atmosphere! I can only say: the
atmosphere! There are writers, for example, who are unable to carry out their
literary chores anywhere but at the Cafe Central. Only there, only at the
tables of idleness, is the worktable laid for them, only there, enveloped by
the air of indolence, will their inertia become fecundity. There are creative
types to whom only in the Central does nothing come to mind, indeed elsewhere
far less. There are poets and other industrialists to whom profitable thoughts
come only in the Café Central; constipated people to whom only there does the
door of relief open; those who long ago lost their appetite for the erotic who
only there experience hunger; the silent who only in the Central find their own
or somebody else's tongue; and the greedy whose money gland secretes only
enigmatic coffeehouse soothes in the peaceless people who visit it something
that I like to call cosmic uneasiness. In this place of loose relationships,
the relationship to Cod and the stars also loosens. The creature escapes from
its compulsory relations to the universe into an irresponsible, sensuous,
chance relationship to nothingness. The intimidations of eternity do not
penetrate the walls of the Café Central, and between them you enjoy the sweet
unconcern of the moment.
the love life of the Café Central, on the balance of social distinctions in
it, on the literary and political currents by which its frayed shores are
washed, on those buried alive in the Central-cavern longingly awaiting their
excavation yet hoping that it will not occur, on the masked play of wit and
foolishness that in those rooms turns every night into Mardi Gras, on these and
other things there is still much to say. But whoever is interested in the Café
Central knows all this anyway, and whoever isn't interested in the Café Central
we have no interest in.
is a coffeehouse, take it as it is! Never will you ever come upon such a place
again. What Knut Hamsun says about the city of Christiania in the first
sentence of his immortal Hunger applies to it as well: "No one
leaves her whom she did not mark."
des 'Cafe Central,’” 1926. Original text in Alfred Polgar, Kleine Schriften,
A reference to the seventeenth century
German mystic writer Johann Schefler (1624-77), best known under his pseudonym,
Angelus Silesius (the Angel of Silesia). His major work was Das
Cherubinische Wandersmann (The Angelic Pilgrim), essentially a collection
of moral apothegms.