A Note on the Cafe

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I recently came across a superb speech by sociologist Richard Sennett, about the virtues of the open city, and I remembered an earlier book of his that I read a few years ago, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (1996), which included a short note on the history of the Parisian cafe.

Modeled on the coffeehouse of eighteenth-century England, the Parisian cafe was once a place where strangers could converse freely, where gossip flourished, where radicals concocted schemes. The greatest concentration of such cafe-salons was in the Palais Royal. However, an experiment began there that transformed the cafe as a social institution – the experiment involved placing tables outside the wooden galerie du bois that ran the length of the Palais Royal. From that point on, the tables gradually encouraged less revolutionary conspiracies or sociable chitchat, and more casual observation. The cafe-goer was inspired to watch the passing urban scene as he/she withdraws into thought and detachment, to a space of solitude amidst the metropolitan throng. The most urban and urbane of places, the cafe is where one goes to contemplate the city that flows by endlessly.

‘Half an hour spent on the boulevards or on one of the benches in the Tuileries gardens has the effect of an infinitely diverting theatrical performance.’ Augustus Hare

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