378. The family (IX)
I recently had my first coffee for over a month; and my impression, though it was from an artisanal coffee shop, was that it was watery with not very much to it—especially given the price. Tea is an aristocratic, spiritual, and sophisticated drink: my entire mood on tea—I favour Earl Grey—moves to the contemplative and spiritual, whereas my mood on coffee is more sporadic; effectively, I am more tightly wound on coffee. I once knew a lecturer who carefully cultivated his tea collection, all purchased from a shop in Paris. It is possible to be a tea connoisseur in a way that a person cannot be a coffee connoisseur. Although people pretend to be coffee connoisseurs I think that in reality it is difficult to tell one bitter flavour from another; tea, on the other hand, provides genuine possibilities for distinction between flavours—tea has subtlety and distinction, coffee is a flagrant drink.
Coffee is most strongly associated with the Americans and the Arabs, both relatively unsophisticated and quite intense cultures; even in the Middle East, Islam has never been entirely happy with coffee—it was popularised after Mohammad’s time, and the Islamic jurists treated it with suspicion. In its blackness and bitterness there is something demonic about coffee. Indeed, the American decision to favour coffee over tea was political, not to do with taste at all; they drank it to protest the Crown’s taxes.
So coffee really belongs alongside contemporary lifestyle activism; people who only drink “fair-trade” coffee or ethically-sourced soy milk products. To drink coffee in the colonies was a status gesture; presumably, the Crown taxed tea heavily because Americans really wanted tea—so their dogged consumption of coffee over the centuries could be seen as a determination to spite the Crown even if it personally discomforts them; a very Puritan sentiment. The revolutionaries drank coffee and felt virtuous, just as contemporary leftists drink soy milk and feel virtuous—even though the drink is repulsive in itself.
Since we live in an American age, a mass materialist and anti-spiritual age, coffee is the preferred beverage across the spectrum. It is a shallow, bitter drink for a Protestant culture that values constant work and alertness to demonstrate purity; if it is bitter, so much the better—it proves that we virtuously suffer at all times. Tea is too leisurely and pleasant; it suggests civil discourse, not a New Yorker who expostulates in your face while he screams obscenities about how much money your tardiness has cost him. Only the Mediterranean Italians have softened coffee, and they did this through the espresso—a tiny shot, like an arsenic prophylactic against poison—and the cappuccino (an espresso buried in milk to make it vaguely palatable).
The Japanese prefer tea, being among the most contemplative and residually spiritual societies on earth. They even have a tea ceremony, they fully integrate tea consumption into religious practices; and there is something about tea that lends it to this behaviour, the English used to have “afternoon tea”—a quasi-spiritual approach to the drink (though not as formal and religious as the Japanese). It is inconceivable to have a “coffee ceremony”; even the Italians consume an espresso standing up, in an instant, so as to rush to work.
Starbucks is the ur-coffee shop—fundamentally a “to-go” enterprise—and it is also in the transsexual vanguard. This is no surprise: its very logo—a mermaid, a chimera—represents an indeterminate state of being; and so the company patronises “Mermaids”, a charity that aids children on their path to being transsexual chimeras. This is not to say that coffee will make you chop your bits off, rather it is that coffee and modernity are closely allied: to reject tea and drink coffee was always political activism—it was to assert mob politics (the Boston Tea Party was a terrorist act, a crime against property) against aristocratic and spiritual tea. Hence coffee shops naturally support the world’s most extravagant and Satanic causes.