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Sartre and the Waiter

Carl Murray sees things from an Other point of view.

Scene – Café – Les Deux Magots, Paris, circa 1948.

A waiter is busy getting the café ready for opening. He has swept the floor, filled up the coffee-machine, and put out the ashtrays. As he goes to open the door he thinks to himself, ‘We’ve had that Monsieur Sartre in here the last few days. I wonder if he’ll be in here again today? Funny chap actually. He’s a bit of a celebrity, so they say. Some sort of philosopher, I think. Whatever he is, he’s good for business. A lot of people come in to see him, including some very attractive women…

I don’t know about these philosophers and intellectual types. I thought they were supposed to spend their time reading in libraries or lecturing to students or something; but that Monsieur Sartre, he sits here most of the day smoking… he smokes like a chimney… usually that smelly old pipe, or sometimes cigarettes.Gitanes mainly. He’s always drinking coffee – probably more than’s good for him… he gets very excited sometimes. And he’s forever scribbling away in his notebook and talking… talking non-stop… sometimes the others can’t get a word in edgeways. Sometimes he even talks to me: and it’s funny – he always seems to be watching me out of the corner of his eye.

Actually I’m beginning to wonder if he really is a philosopher, or just pretending to be one. How can you tell? Perhaps he’s a bit of a poseur putting on an act. Mind you, if you want to look like a philosopher, a pipe does help… and he certainly tries hard enough. A bit too hard if you ask me. I wonder if he really knows what he’s talking about? He’s always using long words like ‘phenomenology’ and ‘ontological’. I’m not too sure what they mean exactly… I wonder if he does. I wonder if anybody really knows.

Why am I wasting time thinking about all this? The other day, when things were a bit quiet, he had the cheek to tell me that I wasn’t a real waiter at all – no, that I was just playing at being a waiter: that I was just acting the part, and a little too eagerly. According to him I’m persuading myself that I am what I am not. That didn’t make much sense to me. He says that no-one is actually (he said “essentially”) anything at all. And we must not kid ourselves that we are waiters or whatever. We’re just “thrown into the world,” he says. That’s funny, because I thought I was brought up with lots of love and care.

The most important thing about us, he says, is that we are free. Mind you, he didn’t say free from what or from whom. But then he really annoyed me, when he said that I was in bad faith because I have the freedom to choose to be something else, and according to him I am not living an authentic life because I am a waiter. Apparently I keep pretending that I was destined to be in my essential being (whatever that means) a waiter. The trouble with human beings, he said, is that they spend too much of their time being inauthentic.

I should have asked him (but you never think of these things at the time do you?): “What about surgeons, airline pilots, musicians – you know, people with special gifts and deep training? They’re authentic enough, aren’t they? They’ve got to be. You can’t pretend to be one of them and get away with it; and they’re not pretending to be something they’re not. You can’t get more authentic than that. Does this ‘bad faith’ thing apply to them? It sounds a nasty idea to me.”

But I did tell him, well, if I’m not essentially a waiter, then he can’t essentially be a philosopher – he’s only playing the role (as I’d suspected all along) – that he may be very clever, but he can’t really know what’s going on in my mind – you know, whether I’m pretending or not, and being authentic and all that. I don’t think he liked that one bit. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything. He gave me a really strange look (his stare is a bit peculiar anyway). He looked at me as if I was an object – an ashtray, a stone, or something – anything rather than a human being. I tried to explain that I liked my job, and that I’d always wanted to be a waiter, that I liked other people and that I took some pride in keeping my customers happy. He replied that I was the unwitting, brainwashed dupe of the capitalist system: and as for other people, he muttered something about them being some form of hell, I think. Then he asked for another cup of strong black coffee.

I sometimes wonder if philosophers are like other people. Do they live on some higher plane of existence than the rest of us? Is that ontology? And does what applies to us – being authentic and all that – apply to them too?

Here he comes now with that rather attractive lady. What do these women see in him? It can’t be his looks.

It’s Madame de Beauvoir I think. They’re not married – that would be far too bourgeois and conventional, I suppose… but to look at them, you’d think they were. Are they asserting their essential freedom, or just avoiding commitment? Either way, are they being authentic? I wonder… It could be an interesting day.’

“Bonjour Monsieur... Bonjour Madame...”

© Carl Murray 2007

Carl Murray is authentically a classicist and a singer. He is inauthentically an adult education lecturer in Philosophy and also Opera. Sartre’s thoughts on the waiter can be found in Being and Nothingness.

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