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Coffee, tea, and abstractions

Published in Jornal da Tarde, July 9 1998
Translated by Assunção Medeiros

One of the most terrible customs that North-American culture transmitted to the world is the literal belief in certain scientific metaphors that, entering current language, end up deforming the perception of reality and perverting all human relations.

Arrested by the apparent credibility of the terms, people acquire new patterns of judgement that – reputed as capable of giving them the correct measure of the world – in truth install them in a kingdom of fantasy and pure nonsense.

I started to think about this when, in Bloomington, Indiana, realizing that I was taking my second successive cup of coffee with the intention of sweetening my palate for a cigar, a local citizen observed that my organism was fond of a certain quantity of caffeine, being now unable to live without it.

- A moment, I answered – Americans drink caffeine. I drink coffee.

- And what is the difference?

- The difference is that, if caffeine as such served as antipasto to a cigar, I could drink tea, which sometimes has it in greater quantities. However, I abominate tea.

- This is subjective, protested my interlocutor. Biochemically, coffee and tea are the same thing.

- With all due respect, my friend: subjective is the distinction between the biochemical aspect and the rest of my person. After all, it is not my biochemistry that drinks coffee: it is I.

Biochemically coffee can be tea, but it does not have the same flavor, the same aroma, nor the same evocations of childhood, the same taste of those long evenings in the country, by the fire, listening to ghost stories. No Englishman will trade for coffee his tea, under the allegation that it is also caffeine. And the Berbers would think it ridiculous to drink tea instead of that bitterly dense coffee, with grounds on the bottom.

- These are merely personal and cultural differences.

- Yes, but it is for the seeking of these differences, and not only for biochemical effect, that a person drinks coffee or tea. If the important part was the biochemical effect, these differences that you call cultural would have no reason for being, and the drinks could be changed without people being aware of it.

- Why, then, don’t the caffeine addicts accept decaffeinated coffee?

- First, because it does not taste like coffee, second because it is written in the label: “Decaffeinated”, what means that it is drunk for the fear of dying, not for the joy of living.
I was not able to convince my American friend.
But, even if the conversation were not about drinking, it would be the same. An American, when is holding a naked woman, believes himself to be an animal in search of an orgasm. This effect could be obtained more easily through manual or electronic means, if you did not count with these “subjective differences” that separate in our eyes, for example, Brooke Shields from Betty Friedman.

The belief that the scientific point of view is more valid, more truthful than the personal motivations with which we explain our actions spontaneously has been incorporated to the current mentality to such extent that today it substitutes direct perception, depreciated as prejudices from old, backward country bumpkins. The Americanization of world culture lets us predict that this habit will contaminate all the peoples, all the cultures. It will become in the end decisive criterion in public debates and private disputes between husband and wife, father and son, where each one, instead of expressing his feelings, more and more will rationalize them with fake arguments of scientific origin.

The problem with this is that all of it comes from a fetishistic view – and this, truly, profoundly backward – of what science is. The point of view of a determined science about reality is always a partial and hypothetical cut of it, which only has value for the limited proposals of this science, never for the generality of knowledge. Even more so because sciences are many, and no one knows how to articulate the points of view of all of them to create, above common reality, a supra-reality that is more truthful. Biochemically, drinking coffee or tea is a lack in caffeine, but from the economic point of view it is a pattern of consumption determined by a marketing practice that is totally detached from the actual composition of these substances. Anthropologically, it can be a cultural habit that would resist even negative propaganda (like, by the way, happens to smoking). No one can synthesize, in a single theory, the biochemistry, economy, and anthropology of coffee or tea; however, this synthesis is precisely what each one of us innocently does, without being able to express it in words, each time we drink, with pleasure, our coffee or our tea. Here we find ourselves in real life, the Lebenswelt in Husserl, to which science – each science or a group of them – can only refer to in an allusive and indirect way. They are impotent to give account of a single concrete fact, with all the density of the inseparable determinations that constitute it. We see then that the old American love for the hard facts has become today only rhetoric pretending. That it now hides a secret devotion to sophisticated and artificial theories and schemes, nostalgia of a teenage mental omnipotence and preview of the Brave New World in which we will live in the 21st century.