When we look at someone like Mozart who shows his unusual gift at an early age, we think that it must be genetic. But studies show that genetics is a relatively small piece of the genius puzzle. Geniuses are neither born nor made. They are grown, according to Eric Weiner, author of the bestselling book The Geography of Genius (2016).
Hard work matters. But does it explain why we see genius clusters in some places throughout history? Why would we see places like Vienna in 1900, Florence in 1500, or Silicon Valley today having such a high density of talent? Do they work harder than others? Is there something in the water? If yes, can we bottle it?
We often ask, “What is genius?” “Who is a genius?” We don't often ask, “Where is genius?” Weiner thinks it's in the coffee shop which played a key role in the Vienna of 1900. Freud, the seer of the psyche, had his favourite coffee shop. So did Gustav Klimt, the symbolist painter. If you walked into a coffee shop in 1903 Vienna, you might find them sitting in a corner engaged in a conversation with friends and peers.
Rents were high, housing was difficult to come by. Even if you had a place, it probably did not have heating. So you went to the coffee shop. It was warm, it offered great Viennese coffee, and you went for the conversation and the company. You also went for the news of the day.
The coffee shop was the Internet of its day. It had, and it still does, newspapers on display for you to read. That's where people found out what was going on around the world and that's where they exchanged ideas. You broadened your horizon. There was no limit to what you could discuss. You let your mind float and drift a bit. The world collided in these coffee houses.
It's where people went to discuss things they could not discuss at work or even at home. Weiner suggests that we should have more coffee houses, more cafes, more “third places.” More places where we can interact with others.
Coffee houses also offer an ecology of creativity because every creative act needs a stepping back. The “Eureka” moment often arrives when you are not consciously thinking of a problem, when you are taking a walk or sitting in a coffee shop.
There is science behind it too. Studies show that the ideal audio atmosphere for creativity is not complete silence or loud noise. It's something around 70 decibels—the sort of sound level we find in a coffee shop.
The Geography of Genius sheds light on an even earlier Vienna—the Vienna of Mozart and Beethoven—the Vienna of 1780. Music was literally in the air. From the aristocrat to the average man, everybody was a musician who played the violin or the piano and went to concerts. People were not passive receivers, they were demanding of their composers. It's almost like the city of Vienna was a co-genius that worked alongside Mozart and Beethoven and the rest to complement their creativity.
Why are there no composers like Beethoven or Mozart today? Has the talent pool dried up? Weiner's theory is that if you are young and ambitious today, you are more likely to end up in Silicon Valley than in Vienna. We get the geniuses we want. We now care more about technology than music or art.
Viennese coffee shops are not the only seats of high culture. Historians say that English and Parisian coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries advanced ideas such as liberty, tolerance, constitutional government and separation of church and state. The coffee shops offered an alternate platform, supplementary to the universities. Political activists who challenged the establishment were denizens of these coffee houses.
We don't have to go that far. The famed coffee house of Kolkata had been for a long time a regular hangout of intellectuals and students before losing its lustre, something Manna Dey lamented in a timeless song. And here in Dhaka, the Modhur Canteen used to be synonymous with political movements.
Weiner's observations have a universality that make them irresistible. What is the state of coffee houses—tea shops in our context—in Dhaka? How many places does the city offer where people can ask questions, argue and debate? Let's rephrase the question: how many tea shops in the city have rooms for people to sit and relax? How many universities house properly maintained cafes where a student can have tea presented in a clean cup? How is it that the venerable Modhur Canteen, history frozen in wood and cement, is so ill-maintained now?
We deserve better. The shoddily constructed roadside tea stalls need “creative destruction”—a term used by Joseph Schumpeter, the political economist, to mean “the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” Creative destruction is taking place everywhere whether you like it or not.
The Americans did it with the coffee house which was invented almost five centuries ago not in Vienna or Venice but in Istanbul. While Turkish coffee shops kept on serving the traditional coffee and hookah to their clientele, Americans designed menus full of delicacies, furnished their coffee shops with large, comfortable chairs and sofas, and offered free Internet.
Today, people go to Starbucks for reasons other than coffee alone. They go for the wi-fi, they go for the atmosphere. It is possible to develop a successful business model in this city based on this concept. The demand is there.
At a time when space for dissent seems to be diminishing at a speed faster than light, the city could use a few tea shops where evenings swell with human outcry, people getting to know each other, exchanging ideas, debating, just being.
“Where there is tea, there is hope,” said English dramatist Arthur Pinero.
Amitava Kar is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.