Intellectual pursuit


It was Ana’s recommendation that took me to Café Gijón on Madrid’s central boulevard Paseo de Recoletos. The list she emailed me of cafes that had been popular among writers, included this one, which opened in 1888 and around the time of the Spanish civil war became popular among intellectuals, writers and artists who were collectively known as the Generation of ’36.

It’s probably closer to its history inside, but as it was such a gorgeous sunny day I opted to sit at a table on the terrace to eat the splendid fixed menu lunch. All around me the men and women – women mostly – were well-heeled and well-dressed and light chatter and laughter filled the air. The atmosphere was relaxed, comfortable, but I didn’t sense that I was in a hotbed of ideas and creativity.

Do such places exist? Did they ever – at least as I imagine them? Places where people came together not only to consume the coffee or a cafe’s vibe, but as a community, to talk, debate, argue entertain and be entertained – and, ultimately to have an impact on the world?

As the lunch courses were served I watched the people around me and thought about the conversations I had had the day before and the ‘universe’ that Ana sketched on a piece of paper in an attempt to explain the complex network that was built up. It was difficult to see any connection between those discussions we had and the rarified Café Gijón. But does my romantic notion of radicals and intellectuals fit any better into this world?

The question, I suppose, is whether there is, or can be, a role for intellectual, artistic culture in the shaping of Spain and other countries?

They certainly seem interested in discussing politics in Spain – La Sexte Noche, the current affairs show is on for five hours on a Saturday night. Of course, TV, the web and social media – and good old books – are key mediums by which the ideas of the thinkers can be communicated, but I find I’m hankering after a different level of engagement – the kind of conversations that change not only the way you think, but the way you act.

Back at home, I watched Victoria Coren Mitchell’s show How to be Bohemian and thought again about the way new ideas and new thinking can connect with, and impact, the rest of the social ‘universe’. The Bohemians were innovative, creative and committed to challenging conventional culture, but the world they created could be perceived as limited and self-indulgent.

During a trip to Jersey for a bijou “conference” at the beginning of the month, I was able to see the extent to which the work of a number of academics not only engaged with the world beyond academia, but was also done with the intention, or hope, of changing it. Perhaps as well as connection and engagement, it’s also about purpose. Is it too vague, unrealistic, undesirable even, to say that the connection between intellectuals, artists, thinkers, writers and the rest of society should be the search for the common good? This opens up a whole host of questions, but maybe the common good is a criteria, lens through which I could look at the world intellectuals, writers etc, as opposed to rose tinted ones?

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