“It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude,” Baudelaire wrote. “Enjoying a crowd is an art.” And while the poet may have written this line as we are tempted to picture him, alone and shivering in some candlelit garret, Baudelaire enjoyed an active social life in Parisian cafes in the company of other artists like Edouard Manet and Nadar. Though we tend to think of art as a solitary and serious process, divorced from the social realm, an artist needs the noisy distraction of the outside world as much as the cloistered quarters of his own mind. Artists also need other artists, like-minded people who understand the joy and agony of the creative process. And artists need to be challenged—they need dialogue and criticism—lest they become solipsistic navel-gazers whose ideas don’t translate in the world outside themselves. Perhaps that’s why the vibrant cafes of fin-de-siecle Europe, where so many now-famous names passed their days, gave rise to some of the most progressive movements in art.
Before I go on, it should be said that I am one of those people who assumes that the past was better—especially the Europe of the past. Like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I grow nostalgic for things I’ve never known and sometimes wallow in the idea that I was born too late and on the wrong continent—which makes me a romantic or kind of a dick, depending on how you want to look at it. But it’s difficult to compare the bohemian splendor of Baudelaire’s Café Tortoni to, say, the Starbucks near Kinzie and Orleans and not find the latter somewhat lacking. It may seem like a false analogy on its face, but the European cafe, with its collection of newspapers and little cakes, where it was not uncommon to pass hours at a time, was the forerunner to our modern coffeehouse. And while today you may be able to find a decent cafe creme or the occasional linzer torte, the European cafe’s role as the heart of creative and intellectual life is something coffeehouses can’t seem to capture.