A butter croissant sits on the patio table next to a half-pint cup of caffè macchiato, both never unspoilt by neither teeth nor tongue, yet it seems that many a thinker has pondered this familiar scene before. The morning’s brisk rays illuminate grooved textures on the French pastry: layered butter and folded dough, sugar, milk, and an all-around exemplary delight. Adjacent to it, liquified ejecta from the bowels of our dicotyledonous subjugators are an equally tempting t(h)reat, not only for their chemical potency and social connotations, but also for their distinctive bitterness. The cult of misery is nothing new to those who have grown to enjoy herbal tea and such foods as bitter melon. Okakura Kakuzō’s essay on teaism in Japanese culture explores how tea and a related set of other foods and drink are important in maintaining perspective of one’s own existence in the world and finding philosophical balance between callous ignorance and what he calls the springtide of emancipated emotions1. Moderation between pleasure and restraint is not unique to the Japanese. The principle of qi in taoism and yin-yang in traditional Chinese medicine support very much the same concept. It is clear that human beings find a certain satisfaction in bitterness, a fact that is so easily forgotten in the modern era, where pleasure and satisfaction are so seemingly inseparable.
Plain strongly-brewed coffee is repulsive by itself. Coffee plant seeds, as well as tangentially related cocoa beans, are naturally very bitter and off-putting, but for the accompanying measures of sugar added. Meanwhile, pastries tolerate consumption in arbitrarily wasteful quantities, and while sweetness tempts more than does pungency2, the latter is a more vicious cycle. Despite their differences, it is still no more correct to indulge in suffering than it is to in cheap and instant gratification. There is not even such thing as balance between the two, no path between Scylla and Charybdis. The two actually need to be taken together. It is a fool who cannot see wisdom in the pursuit of unhappiness, but a bigger fool who can see nothing else. On the path to wisdom and maturation, the pungency of self-pity and introspective immersion presents a tantalizing explanation to all of life’s complications, but in time, you realize cynicism is never smarter, only safer.
At the end of the day, all that is left of your two tempting snacks is a paper bag and an empty foam cup. The light paper catches the wind like a sailboat’s sail and flutters as it tries to fly headfirst to the atmosphere above, but coffee’s remnants, though basically the same material, anchor it firmly to the ground. Overall, the system is more dynamic and permanent than either item alone would be, and perhaps that is the way it should be.