Acting the Part

“The Embarkation of Cythera”
Antoine Watteau, 1717

Acting the Part

 When I was newly arrived in Paris as a young Fulbright Scholar, I was invited to have lunch at the home of the Israeli ambassador to France.  He was my mother’s first cousin.  Hence the invitation.  We had already met at the embassy.  Before we could exchange a cousinly kiss on both cheeks in the French style, I walked down a long red carpet to where he waited, standing in front of his desk.

I was eager for lunch, having not yet received the student card that would admit us Fulbrights to the student restaurants.  As a result, during that time, my midday meals were restricted to eggs, the cheapest item you could order at the cafes of the Latin Quarter.  It was a bit monotonous, but better than feeling pangs of hunger during our first weeks of orientation.

At the residence, I greeted him again and then turned to meet Mme. Ambassador and their daughter, my second cousin.  The exchange of courtesies completed, we convened at what turned out to be the Ceremony of Lunch.

I believe it was Stendahl who wrote that — if you’re unable to survive the pitiless gaze of the servants in Paris – then you can’t pass inspection in Paris.  Since the question is simply whether to be or not to be – socially, you won’t be.  You’ll be a zero.

Unfortunately, since I was the guest at the luncheon, I would be the first one served, for every course.  Before long the servant (whom I’ll call the footman, having never learned his proper title in French), appeared noiselessly at my left, bearing the first course on a silver platter.  It was a white pyramid.   I had never seen anything like it.  Feeling more flustered than I ever had in my life, before or since, I attempted to attack it from the bottom.  Had I succeeded, the whole edifice might have toppled catastrophically.  My efforts went on for a while before Mme. Ambassador suggested quietly that I start at the apex.  Following her advice, I finally managed to secure a portion – of something, I knew not what.

It was eggs, cleverly disguised.  By the time the footman had circumnavigated the long table, I had figured that out.  I was eating the very thing I’d hoped to escape.

After an interval, the footman appeared at my left once again.  By this time, I’d learned what was comme il faut.  I knew how to behave.  I secured it, whatever it was, at the apex and got it safely to my plate.

Cracky!  It was eggs again.  A second helping!  I’d been too flustered to look.

In the Annals of Contempt, secretly kept by the servants of Paris, there must be an entire page reserved for Abigail alone.

Jean-Paul Sartre has a discussion of the French waiter in Being and Nothingness, his major philosophic work.  Sociological note: the French waiter is not an actor between gigs or a college student working his way through.  He is so quintessentially a French waiter that it’s impossible to imagine him being anything else.

This being the phenomenon that presents itself, you can see that Sartre was breaking new ground in France when he contended that the waiter who brought the philosopher his coffee at Les Deux Magots — the café where he hung out at the corner of Saint Germain des Pres – that waiter was not really the role that he played.  Rather, he was acting the part of a waiter.  Sartre portrayed him as a person pretending to be the role that he played in society.  For the philosopher, he illustrated what Sartre called “bad faith,” mauvaise foi.

Sartre’s point is that none of us is the role he or she plays.  To pretend otherwise is bad faith.

Maybe so, but I sure would’ve liked to be better at the role I was invited to play, in one of the beaux quartiers of Paris,

so long ago,

on that bright afternoon,

at the ambassadorial residence,

under the watchful gaze of the footman. 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Acting the Part

  1. Martha Robinson says:

    What else did you eat?

    Sent from my iPad


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