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Coffee: The Rise of Modernity: Book Review

Artwork By Joanne Fong

 

‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. …’

Frederich Engels, 1883

So begins Dmitri Gallo’s spirited and sometimes controversial history. Adopting the dusty Marxist thesis that ideas and social forces in history are ultimately at the mercy of economic and technological developments, Gallo suggests that the centre of world history is actually your morning brew. With characteristic energy (no doubt from indulging in his subject matter), Gallo puts forward the radical thesis that “for the past three centuries, coffee has had the power to make and unmake the modern world as we know it.”

Gallo’s story begins in 16th century Europe. I was somewhat disappointed that Gallo barely touches upon the coffee bean’s mythical origins, and its popularity in the Middle East he neglects some good stories but I suppose the book was already long enough at some 600 pages.

According to Gallo, it was the Venetian merchants that brought coffee from Turkey to the Continent. Originally a luxury commodity, it soon became more widely available across Europe, from 16th century England and the Netherlands’ roaring maritime trade, and the caffeinated military spoils from Turkey enjoyed by 17th century Austria.

Wherever he looks in the past few centuries, Gallo sees coffee everywhere. Before the onset of the 18th century, Europe was already overcome by the coffee-infused ‘public sphere’, from the Parisian café, the Austrian Kaffeehaus and the ubiquitous London coffeehouses. These public haunts allowed the middle classes to remain informed of daily affairs through spirited discussion, and as a result coffeehouses became a refuge for dangerous ideas to percolate. Political radicals would assemble and conspire together, and it was no surprise that Charles II had earlier attempted to shut down all the London coffeehouses in 1675. Gallo suggests that drinking alcohol and public discussions don’t mix well; coffeehouses provided people with greater energy to discuss new ideas at length, and with a newfound clarity. “I can only speak from experience,” says Gallo, “but when I drink cheap wine with my friends, I’m not up for discussions about restructuring the economy by the seventh glass… well, not a decent discussion, anyway.” Coffee allowed a portion of the London public to distance themselves from the ‘gin craze’ raging at the time, says Gallo, and talk soberly about modern affairs.

Gallo quite rightly points out that the spread of coffee didn’t just influence the anonymous social scene across Europe. It also had an enormous impact on the intellectual figureheads of the 18th century Enlightenment, from the urbane coffeehouse discussions of Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, to the pathological coffee addiction of Voltaire. Much is made of the fact that Bach composed a libretto on coffee addiction, titled Be Still, Stop Chattering (yes, really). Gallo makes a strict connection between Voltaire’s penchant for caffeine and his enormous output of writing: “…The man’s writings could fill 200 volumes. You don’t achieve that by drinking water.” Immanuel Kant, another coffee enthusiast in his time, receives the same treatment: “…It is manifestly impossible to stay awake unaided and read The Critique of Pure Reason. Imagine writing the thing.”

Two-thirds into the book, and all these historical tidbits are finally cobbled together for Gallo’s grand thesis: “the development of the modern world would be inconceivable without the aid of caffeine. No coffee, no modernity.” Without coffee, intellectual chatter at coffeehouses and salons would have been cut short or entirely non-existent; without the widespread consumption of coffee, European bourgeois capitalism would have enjoyed less prosperity and power to undermine the older landed nobility; without coffee, the 18th century canonical writers would have written a quarter of their works; without coffee, seditious ideas that triggered the French and American revolutions would have perished at birth. “No revolution,” says Gallo, “means no Romantic reaction. Without coffee, we would have no Napoleon, and no conservative movement to inveigh against the destruction of the Bastille in France. Without coffee, our political landscape today would be unrecognisable. No socialism, no conservatism. No coffee.”

By this point in the book, Gallo’s contention that he develops becomes extremely overwhelming. To my disbelief, he suggests in a footnote that he wants to start a new research program based on ‘Caffeinated Historical Materialism’. Exhausted, I flip over a few pages. Now coffee has become one of the most popular commodities by the 19th century, as the mid-19th century moralist campaigners prescribe tea and coffee over alcoholic beverages for the masses. Later still, coffeehouses begin to allow women’s admittance later in that century he credits it as the dominant social force that puts women’s emancipation into motion.

I had to put the book down for a while, but it had already incurably distorted my view of the world. Every morning, all over the world, there are millions servings of coffee that are consumed; would everything be different if that wasn’t the case? I am seized by a fresh paranoia as I try not to look at the regiments of coffee jars in the supermarket aisles. I pointedly avoid the cafés that plague and determine the intricate workings of Melbourne life.

I pick up the book one last time. Gallo promised in the introduction that he would explore coffee’s role in contemporary world history what, then, does he say?

“It is clear that coffee has become the scaffolding that supports late capitalism. Without daily stimulation, entire workforces predicated on long, irregular and nightly hours would collapse. The workers, in their fatigue, would no longer sustain the hulking and swollen carcass of our technological age. We would have a revolution, but a slumberous one, where there is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, but a worldwide slumber. Industrial modernity would perish a quiet death.”

I do not recommend this book.

Published by Sidgewick University Press, Coffee: The Rise of Modernity is available at major booksellers at $39.99 in paperback (ISBN 0740700251).

 

John Henry

The author John Henry

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