Tuesday, August 7, 2018

excerpt #1: Montesquieu

Alfred Bendiner, Coffee (1936)

Some months ago I read The Persian Letters (1721), Montesquieu's seminal faux-naïf epistolary novel about expatriates from Isfahan settling in Paris and trying to figure out French society. It is at once a vehicle for the author's humanist beliefs, a series of satirical episodes, and an uncomfortable cautionary tale about patriarchy. What we'll be looking at today are some passages from the letters written by the character Rica, who of all the emigres goes the furthest in assimilating to French society and is the most eager to explore the city, converse with the locals, and issue sardonic reports on what he discovers. (To give credit where it's due, the edition from which these were stol'n was translated by Margaret Mauldon.)

In the following excerpt, substitute in your mind the coffee shop wits debating Homer with YouTubers, bloggers, and comments-section dwellers arguing about video games. The academics and students who "live on obscure reasoning" in the final paragraph can still be academics and students; just imagine they are dressed differently.
Coffee is widely drunk in Paris: there are a great many public establishments where it is served. In some of these establishments news is disseminated; in other, people play chess: there is one place where coffee is prepared in such a manner as to sharpen the wits of those who drink it; at any rate, of those who emerge from there, not a single one fails to be convinced that he is four times cleverer than he was upon entering.