What Is Life with Coffee?

Adam Gopnik on Our Existentialist Relationship to the Morning Jolt

CJ Green / 4.23.20

Ah coffee. The sweet smell of a fresh start. Maybe you’ve just woken up and are brewing your morning joe. Maybe you’re sitting down for some light reading, because, as you know, “Happiness is a warm cup of coffee and a good [blogpost].” Well have I the thing for you. In a recent New Yorker book review-slash-treatise, Adam Gopnik describes our existentialist relationship to the morning jolt. He begins:

“What would life be without coffee?” King Louis XV of France is said to have asked. “But, then, what is life even with coffee?” he added. Truer, or more apt, words for the present moment were never spoken, now usable as a kind of daily catechism. At a time when coffee remains one of the few things that the anxious sleeper can look forward to in the morning (What is life without it?), giving as it does at least an illusion of recharge and a fresh start, the charge has invariably slipped away by the time the latest grim briefing comes (What is life even with it?). Imagining life without coffee right now is, for many of us, almost impossible, even though the culture of the café that arose in America over the past couple of decades has, for some indefinite period, been shut down.

You may know what it’s like to peer over the rim of your mug to find the last sip has already been taken; you’ve had the entire cup without really tasting it. Alas, you’ll have another tomorrow. Or maybe you’ve enjoyed every ounce, and even so, are you happy? Of course! you tell yourself. Because what would life be without coffee? Quietly another voice wonders: what is life with coffee? Gopnik finds an answer in right-sizing the vice: it may not be the panacea we make it out to be, but it is a pleasure, and maybe that’s enough.

Everyone has their story about coffee—when they started drinking it, how much caffeine they can handle. Maybe you have a special drink that you can’t live without, you just can’t. But maybe you should try to, says several books that Gopnik reviews; these detail the questionable history of the industry, likening it to “Colombian cocaine production and narco-terrorism.” Coffee “offers simulated energy to money-driven people.”

And while Gopnik accepts that many good points are made, he also calls such criticisms “a moralizing literature,” then argues that the uptick in fair-trade retailers, for example, is “far from mere window dressing.” Plus, at some point, the heart wants what it wants.

To live at all is to be implicated in the world’s cruelty, a central Buddhist and Christian lesson, and the hermit’s choice to escape from the world of wanting and getting seems, on the evidence, to despoil society of its humanism rather than to enrich it. The way to reconcile the buyer’s appetite and the maker’s welfare is to raise prices, to make the pleasure costlier. But it’s one thing to ask people to pay more—whether for pastured beef or shade-grown coffee—and quite another to tell people that the pleasure they experience is not actually a pleasure but an insidious product of a conspiracy of taste. The second is unlikely to sustain social reform.

Coffee was perhaps the first naïve emissary of internationalism. In the seventeenth century, Iceland got the beans and became addicted, on the whole quite happily. You can’t open a book about coffee, no matter what tone it takes, without reading a global story. Whatever else the current crisis may be teaching us, the one certain thing is that self-sufficiency is a non-solution to our suffering. None of us are sufficient, since none of us are complete selves, and what is true of each of us is true of every nation. Whether you pursue coffee as the ideal recreational drug from Istanbul hookah lounge to Ethiopian hideaway or see its dark track of exploitation from Salvadoran plantation to Detroit assembly line, you are inexorably led into stories that go everyplace on earth. On our tightly connected planet, it is impossible to sustain the policy of spite stores and their isolating spiral of envy. What happens here happens there. A bat may infect a pangolin in Wuhan, and the world shuts down. No café is an island and no latte can be Larry’s alone. In these times, it’s a lesson worth remembering.

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