Coffee and the Life of the Mind

As Markman Ellis notes in his excellent history of the coffee house, almost since their first appearance in the west they have been places for people to gather and talk about ideas.

The Italian poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli ( 1791-1863) has written one of my favorite ruminations on coffee and life. His sonnet, Er Caffettiere Fisolofo (The Philosopher Barista) is, like all his sonnets, written in the vibrant and earthy Roman dialect the locals call “romanaccio.” Here it is with my rather wooden translation:

G. G. Belli (fotgrafo ignoto forse Giacomo Caneva) – Silvio Negro, “Nuovo album romano”, Vicenza, Neri Pozza editore, 1964, foto n° 9., Public Domain,

Er Caffettiere Fisolofo (The Philosopher Barista)
Guiseppe Gioachino Belli
Rome 1833

L’ommini de sto monno sò l’istesso,
Che vaghi de caffè ner macinino,
C’uno prima, uno doppo, e un’antro appresso,
Tutti quanti però vanno a un distino.
Spesso muteno sito, e caccia spesso,
Er vago grosso er vago piccinino,
E ss’incarzeno tutti in zu l’ingresso,
Der ferro che li sfraggne in porverino.
E l’ommini accusì viveno ar monno,
Misticati pe mano de la sorte,
Che sse li gira tutti in tonno in tonno.
E movennose oggnuno, o ppiano, o fforte,
Senza capillo mai caleno a fonno,
Pe cascà ne la gola de la morte.

People in this world are like
coffee beans in a grinder.
One comes first, another follows, then another after that,
but they all go the same fate.
They often change places, often the big bean
trades spots with the little one,
but they all crowd into the opening
of the blade that grinds them into dust.
And this is how people live in the world,
thrown together by the hand of fate,
which spins them round and round.
Each of them moving, slow or fast,
until, without ever knowing, they descend,
to drop into the jaws of death.

Belli is referring to the old hand-turned coffee grinders, which are making a comeback. His vivid imagery of the beans whirling around and slowing descending to their annihilation, and comparison of this with life, is in itself pretty powerful. Expressed in the robust doubled consonants and long vowels of romanaccio, the poem is sublime. My Mother was a Roman and I grew up hearing her and other relatives speaking the dialect. It still contains quite a few loanwords from Latin.

The actor Maurizio Mosetti has recordings of Belli’s sonnets that you can download here.

Here is Mosetti in a traditional carnival mask reciting the sonnet, which is then set to music by the Roman musician Andriana Bono.

So, next time you’re enjoying a strong espresso, think of the beans that were ground to make it. Think of the whirling, random chaos that is life, and remember:

A uno a uno se n’annamo tutti.
One by one we’ll all be going away.

The Ready Ear of the Scribe

Among the incredible Egyptian holdings in the Louvre is The Seated Scribe discovered at Saqqara and dating from the 4th-5th Dynasties.

Egyptian Scribe

This isn’t the only example of a seated scribe found in Egypt. Others exist, from as late as the 7th century BCE, a good 18 centuries or so later than the one pictured above.

Scribes were an essential part of Egyptian bureaucracy and underwent a rigorous and standardized education. Among the school texts, one of my students’ favorites is The Satire on the Trades, which exists in several copies. In it, a father is taking his young son to begin his education as a scribe. We can infer that the son is anxious about this, and the father gives him advice about how much better the life of a scribe is–along with a veiled threat: “I will teach you to love books more than your mother.”

The father’s descriptions of other trades is meant to highlight how undesirable they are compared to being a scribe. The coppersmith has burned hands bent like claws. A potter is covered with dirt more than a pig in the muck. The barber has to wander through the streets trying to drum up customers.

In comparison to this is the scribe who, the father claims rather disingenuously, is his own boss. While it is true that the scribe has privileged access to the powerful, he is meant to be seen and not heard (unless bearing a message). More importantly, he is meant to see and hear. The statue from the Louvre and its fellows make that clear: The scribe sits upright, attentive, writing board in one hand and stylus in the other, at the service of his boss.

Egyptian Scribe

What my students love about this text is, of course, the fact that parents who send their children to school appear not to have changed in 3000 years: Getting an education apparently means nothing more than getting a “good” job–one with prestige and no manual labor. And, of course, there will always be someone above you.

A Brief Statement of Purpose

I am not planning to write many blog entries here, but I wanted to claim my own space on the web for my thoughts and work.

With the help of Reclaim Hosting and advice from fellow academics online, such as Eric Cline,  Alana Vincent, Sarah Bond, Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, and Carrie Schroeder, among others, here I am.

I’ll be posting articles, online pieces, teaching materials, and thoughts on relevant news items in academia. I promise to get better as I go along.

And so, without further ado…