Vienna 'Philosophy Night' summons Golden Age ghosts
The entrance of Cafe Sperl is seen during the Nacht der Philosophie (Philosophy Night) event, in Vienna on April 9, 2013. Vienna's iconic cafes relived their Golden Age of a century ago in a special night of philosophical discussion hosted by 13 thinkers and writers at 13 venues.
"There is a great need for philosophy, covering fundamental questions about human existence," Helmut Schneider, organiser of this first-ever event in the Austrian capital, told AFP under the crystal chandeliers of the sumptuous Cafe Schwarzenberg.
"In Vienna there is a wonderful tradition. Many philosophers lived in Vienna and they all went to the coffee houses. We wanted to bring it back."
The list of figures who used to hang out at Vienna's cafes in the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian empire before its demise after World War I reads like a who's-who of intellectual, cultural and historical luminaries.
They included Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, artist Gustav Klimt, architects Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, composers Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler and writer Arthur Schnitzler.
Many, such as Freud or Karl Kraus -- author of the virtually unperformable 200-scene play "Die letzten Tagen der Menschheit" ("The last days of mankind") -- were members of a vibrant Jewish community that was all but destroyed by the Nazis.
"If it was a time of dying, this 'fin de siecle' was also an age of rebirth, a sunburst of new art forms and new intellectual challenges which lit up the whole of the Western world," Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote in his history "The Austrians".
Others biding their time over a "Melange", "Brauner" or a "Verlaengerter", as some of the myriad kinds of Viennese coffee are known, were none other than Lenin, Trotsky, Tito and Hitler. Even Stalin spent time in the city in 1913.
-- What a difference a century makes --
Fast-forward 100 years, and the empire may be gone but many of the cafes survive, with the Belle-Epoque furnishings, hushed atmosphere and clinkety-clink of cake fork on plate unchanged.
Lisa Weber, 31, a teacher of German to foreigners attending the discussion at Cafe Schwarzenberg, said they were unique institutions.
"I wrote my entire university thesis in cafes. You can just sit undisturbed for a long time, for hours and hours over one coffee. It's a real culture here in Vienna," Weber told AFP.
"You can go alone to a cafe here. That's not possible in Paris."
Fabian, a student from Germany, said the old cafes were "like travelling back in time."
The "Nacht der Philosophie" ("Philosophy Night") builds on the success of "Kriminacht", an annual evening every September where crime writers -- foreign and home-grown -- give readings in dozens of cafes.
But "Philosophy Night" is less sure of success, not least because the subject matter was more highbrow than detective stories and murder mysteries.
For example at Cafe Schwarzenberg, alongside the 15 kinds of cake -- from "Mozartbombe" to "Sachertorte" -- essayist Franz Schuh peppered his presentation on the meaning of happiness with heady references to Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
Nearby at Cafe Central, where Trotsky and Lenin used to be regulars back in the day, patrons chewed over "Was ist der Mensch?" ("What is man?"), while at Cafe Phil the topic was "Death as a philosophical problem".
Opposite, among the reassuringly threadbare furniture of Cafe Sperl, a favourite among the operetta stars of the 1890s and reputedly also of Hitler before he left as a failed artist in 1913, the discussion on political correctness lasted barely longer than an hour.
"This is a country for theatre and baroque stage settings and not for philosophy, despite the tradition that the city has," Schuh told AFP. The good old days, he said, were probably gone for good.