Saturday, November 25, 2006

Jumping ahead of myself:
In our recent trip to Europe we visited Vienna and Venice as well as Prague. Prague impressed me the most, but there were interesting things in the other cities as well. One of these was the Cafe Central in Vienna.
Vienna has long been known as the "home of the coffeehouse". According to legend the love affair of Vienna and coffee dates back to the siege of Vienna by the Turks in the 1680s. When the Polish army came to the rescue the Turks reportedly fled leaving a great number of sacks of coffee behind. The Viennese used these and became quite wired on the bean.
Whether this is an exact description of the rise of the Viennese coffeehouse is debatable, but there's little doubt that the institution dates back many centuries in Vienna, and the Viennese coffeehouses are the very model for the coffeehouses across the world.
The Cafe Central in the Palais Ferstl is perhaps the most famous of the lot. This cafe has been a Viennese institution since 1860, though its location has changed several times. There is some dispute about when the present location opened for business. Some say 1975. Others say the 1980s. In any case the present location is "high bourgeois" to say the least. From the plush armchairs, to the life size portraits of various Hapsburgs on the wall, to the little glass of water along with the coffee, to the delicate Viennese pastries served as an imitation of food, to the piano player whose repertoire is part classical and part movie scores and to the high gilt ceilings the place pretty well reeks of decadence.
In different locations in the past the Cafe Central was the meeting place of the usual motley crew of artists and bourgeois intellectuals and revolutionaries. It was frequented by the likes of Goethe, Freud, Beethoven, Mahler and even the trinity of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Even Adolf Hitler used to drop by to try and sell his paintings before his two rejections to enter the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts (though his usual haunt was a coffehouse closer to the school that rejected him). The ironies of history ! I have several photos of said school. If Hitler had been just "slightly" better as an artist or if the standards of the Academy had been just "slightly" lower what would our world have been like today. The entrance to the Academy is very much nondescript, and a casual passerby would never know that the history of a good chunk of the 20th century was determined behind those doors by a coterie of stuffy academic dons.
Anyhow, the prices in the Central Cafe were high but nowhere near as outrageous as I expected. I sunk myself in Cafe Mozart and Irish Coffee. The cafe has a little rep in travel books because of its association with Leon Trotsky who lived in Vienna from 1907 to 1914. At that time the coffeehouses provided not just coffee but also a mail drop, a meeting place and even a supply of pens and paper for the usual bohemian crowd. Given that rep I noticed a few entrants to the Cafe who were obvious Trotsyists. It's hard to mistake them. They have the air of innocence trying to be decadent and rebellious hovering about them that exudes across any room. From the carefully trimmed beards of the males to the very ! proper feminist attire of the females (not too loud and aggressive mind you, but very much a fashion statement) the crew is unmistakable. Cute, I must admit and probably much better people overall than some of my own insane anarchist comrades. Hard to dislike but basically very boring. (note to self- get a decent haircut and beard trim soon).
I wonder what these tourists would think if they found out that the bullshit-central of good old Lev was actually somewhere else- the guides usually don't mention the shifting of location. I even wonder whether the contrast between the high bourgeois atmosphere and the purported history strikes them at all. It certainly struck me. What came to my mind was not favourable to the average lefty plotter. It looked like a place where the "outs" of the declasse intellectuals would come to admire the works of the ruling class of their day and plot to become a new and "improved" ruling class. That sort of thing is usually beyond most Trotskyists- it's a "thought crime" to even slightly entertain the idea that this is the motivation of some "revolutionaries".
Ah well, be that as it may, Trotsky and Lenin were reported to have played chess in the confines of the Cafe Central. Obviously Trotsky won as Lenin had more than a few nasty words to say about good old Lev, like the following from 1912,
"I advise you to reply to Trotsky through the post: "To Trotsky (Vienna). We shall not reply to disruptive and slanderous letters". Trotsky's dirty campaign against 'Pravda' is one mass of lies and slanders....this intriguer and liquidator goes on lying, right and left....It would be still better to reply in this way to Trotsky through the post: "To Trotsky (Vienna). You are wasting your time sending us disruptive and slanderous letters. They will not be replied to."
Oh yes they were. This is a little example of high words substituting for the phrase "fuck-off" long before the internet could even be conceived in the imagination.

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