Dancing with Ghosts
Notes on an Ever-Present Past, Part 1
The unmistakable opening to Fur Elise was the first sound I heard over the din of the famous Café Central. The hardwood floors, marble columns, and vaulted ceiling combined to produce the acoustic effect one hopes for in an old-world café (unintelligible wall of noise), and the live piano added a classy touch on top. The pony-tailed septuagenarian at the keys wore a Burberry suit-vest and multi-colored opera-pump loafers that gave the impression of his having walked out of several different eras simultaneously.
His repertoire did the same. Fur Elise (1810) transitioned into the main theme Phantom of the Opera (1986), then a familiar classical etude whose name I don’t know. Then we had Take Five (1959), the Maple Leaf Rag (1916), When You Wish Upon a Star (1940), and Rondo alla Turca (1783). It’s what has become the “live piano-player” soundtrack.
This soundtrack is seemingly universal and astonishingly unvaried. There are any number of famous rags (Charleston, Frogs Legs, Pineapple), but the Maple Leaf Rag seems to be the selection of choice. Nearly always. It’s the same with Fur Elise and Rondo alla Turca. Other staples of this genre include Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It (1928) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things (1959). Perhaps he had played those before we arrived or would do so after we left.
On such a playlist, the 200-year variation in these pieces’ origins washes away. The classical pieces have a hint of swing here or a bonus note of jazz there. The most dramatic edges of the showtunes are sanded away. The bounce of the ragtime is cushioned and delicate. The pianist knows not to play anything that will call too much attention to himself. He is a prop, there to call to mind an imagined past.
Live pianists are employed by fine dining establishments to evoke a certain era: the 1920s. But rather than stick to Cole Porter and Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong, today’s pianists seamlessly integrate older classical works and more contemporary jazz and showtunes all in a style designed to evoke the 1920s. There is something about the style of the 20s, 100 years later, that draws us in.
Inspired by an Imagined Past
The 1920s were, at least, something of a heyday for Café Central. Today, hordes of tourists (exclusively tourists, the waiter informs) come to sit where Freud or Trotsky or Wittgenstein sat, to soak in the atmosphere of a different era.
Nobody embodies this desire more perfectly than Owen Wilson’s character of Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris. Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, goes to contemporary Paris (with his ill-suited fiancée) to try and find inspiration for a novel among the cobbled streets, tiled rooves, and cafes once frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Picasso and Dalí.
The turning point of the movie comes when, wandering the streets of Paris at night, Gil’s fantasy becomes reality. He is picked up by T. S. Eliot and brought to the very cafes where he can talk with the great writers and other artists who congregated in Paris in the 1920s.
The character of Gil Pender speaks to us because every aspiring creative-type wants to imagine themselves in the ahistorical company of the greats. Novelists want their works to be read alongside Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Artists want their works in galleries with Tintoretto and Titian. Composers want their works programed on a concert with Beethoven and Brahms.
Rather than understand that these figures’ greatness is the product of innumerable and irreplicable historical contingencies, we prefer to imagine that if we could just have existed in their milieu, we too could have produced our magnum opus. There must have been something in the air or the water – or the apfelstrudel at Café Central – that inspired these intellects to their greatness!
Community over Absinthe
Of course, searching for inspiration in the inter-war Parisian and Viennese cafes has its limits. Time-bending Owen Wilson characters aside, there’s only so much the greats of the past can tell us about what we should do today. While retracing their steps, visiting their homes, and popping in at the cafes they once frequented can indulge our nostalgia, it does little to inspire.
Café Central is mobbed. There is a line of tourists a block long out the door. We have circumvented the line by making a reservation, and while the coffees and desserts are excellent, the environment isn’t what one would call conducive to thinking.
It’s loud. Not with the typical sounds of espresso brewing and glasses clinking, but with the flat vowel sounds of American English and the ubiquitous (in Vienna at least) staccato of Iberian Spanish. The rack of newspapers, a staple of all the old-style Viennese cafes we have frequented, is untouched near the entrance. Many people are on their cell phones, taking selfies or sending photos to friends back home. People are behaving more like they’re checking an item off their list than like they are taking a moment to reflect in the atemporal company of Freud and Wittgenstein.
I’m not sure what I expected, really. The ghost of Freud wasn’t going to waltz over to my table to the tune of a jazzified Rondo alla Turca and strike up a conversation about Civilization and its Discontents. And the awkwardness of trying to strike up such a serious conversation with the patrons at an adjacent table felt prohibitive. Do we speak a mutual language? Are they interested in The Big Questions? How do you transition from “nice coffee, isn’t it?” to “why are we here (existentially, not literally)?”
But of course, it wasn’t the coffee at Café Central any more than it was the absinthe at Les Deux Magots or the rioja at Els Quatre Gats that inspired the greats of yore. It was the people, the community. Almost always in the history of the great artists and intellects, we find that they sharpened their ideas in dialogue with others. It’s not a coincidence that philosophy’s foundation, the Socratic dialogues, are just that: dialogues.
Unfulfilled by Nostalgia
Even when are able to indulge our nostalgia, it winds up tasting simultaneously saccharine and flavorless. There’s a waft of disappointment about it, even, as if we purchased a box of freshly made cookies from an independent bakery only to discover they were repackaged grocery-store-chain sugar cookies.
After several evenings journeying back to 1920s Paris, Gil Pender has developed a relationship with Marion Cotillard’s Adriana. Adriana is fascinated by the Belle Epoque, pre-WWI Paris. For Adriana, a resident of 1920s Paris, the golden years were actually 20-30 years before. She and Gil venture back one night to the Paris of that time, and she decides to stay there.
This decision serves as a sort of wake-up-call to Gil. He recognizes in her decision (and then subsequently in himself) a romanticization of the past. While Gil’s explanation of why idealizing a past era references the lack of medicine (e.g., “These people have no antibiotics!”), there’s a subtext that suggests it’s not only the lack of living conditions that makes thriving in a past era impossible; at this point even his own journeys back to the 1920s begin to feel hollow.
Gil’s realization is also our own: we are inescapably products of our own eras. We may find inspiration in the past, but we may equally find hollowness or disillusionment. A Sachertorte and a verlängerter will do nicely for this afternoon in a beautiful café where Freud once found inspiration among his contemporaries. But the anachronistic playlist is a reminder that the past is only an imperfect memory. Eventually, we must all pay the bill and venture back into the present.