Monday March 1, 2010
This weekend, I’ve been doing philosophy of sorts. I’m writing a chapter for a forthcoming book on Coffee & Philosophy, which has been a lot of fun. The piece I’m writing is a defence of idle lounging in coffee shops when one really ought to be doing something more apparently useful elsewhere, and takes as it’s main starting point the following text from my old philosophical friend (in the sense that I’ve read his books, rather than in the sense that he and I ever shared a cuppa together), Emmanuel Levinas:
The café is a place of casual social intercourse, without mutual responsibility. One goes in not needing to. One sits down without being tired. One drinks without being thirsty. All because one does not want to stay in one’s room. You know that all evils occur as a result of our incapacity to stay alone in our room. The café is not a place. It is a non-place for a non-society, for a society without solidarity, without tomorrow, without commitment, without common interests, a game society. The café, house of games, is the point through which game penetrates life and dissolves it. Society without yesterday or tomorrow, without responsibility, without seriousness–distraction, dissolution. At the movies, a common theme is presented on the screen; in the theatre, a common theme is presented on the stage. In the café, there are no themes. Here you are, each at your own little table with your cup or your glass. You relax completely to the point of not being obligated to anyone or anything; and it is because it is possible to go and relax in a café that one tolerates the horrors and injustices of a world without a soul.
This is a peculiar passage, and one that says an awful lot about Levinas’s approach to ethics. Playfulness is, for Levinas, the very antithesis of ethical sobriety, a kind of disavowal of our responsibility towards others. I don’t want to anticipate the contents of the chapter, but my response is roughly something like this: to argue that places of respite – coffee shops, parks, Epicurean gardens – are necessary, if we are to be able to creatively reimagine the world, if we are to respond to the ethical demands upon us with any measure of grace and of skill. Or, in other words, it may be that the responsible thing, at times, may be to lurk in a coffee shop, to lounge in the park, or the hang out drinking wine and eating cheese in the Epicurean garden: at least until, as Śāntideva says, our ethical action itself becomes as joyful as the capering of an elephant on a hot day, plunging now into this cool pool of lotus flowers.
I suspect Levinas would disapprove of all this caffeine-fuelled ethical friskiness. But then, Levinas was apparently never a great coffee drinker: it seems that he enjoyed tea instead, and then only in moderation. Once, according to Simon Critchley’s book On Humour, when Levinas was drinking tea with a friend, the great Jewish philosopher refused a second cup. “Ah, non!,” he said, “je ne peux pas. Je suis mono-thé-iste…”
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