Monday, September 15, 2003

Orwell Finds a Metaphor for the Middle Class

I've been reading books about food and cooking recently. I finished Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation the other week. For a description of what's wrong with modern America (but not of how to fix it), Schlosser's book is unbeatable. You learn why you shouldn't get your hamburger at Kroger's as well. After that, I read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. If you don't mind profanity and scatological references, Bourdain writes a magnificent and hilarious book which is also dead-serious about the world of professional cooking and dining. (Among other things, I learned why I must stop fantasizing about starting a restaurant). On Bourdain's recommendation, I'm reading Orwell's Down and Out In Paris and London. My only prior acquaintance with Orwell was the obligatory reading of Animal Farm and 1984, as well as a chance reading of his essay on Ghandi. But I was so impressed with the prose and insight that I went back to Borders (a/k/a "my real home") and picked up a huge collection of his essays. Anyhow, I thought I'd share this selection from Down and Out, because I think it's a perfect explanation of the attitudes and life of the middle class. The context is Orwell's experiences as an impoverished expatriate in Paris, compelled by hunger to take a job as a plongeur (generally, a kitchen slave) in a fancy hotel's restaurant. He's describing the different kinds of people in the kitchen, cooks, plongeurs, and -- waiters:
The waiter's outlook is quite different. He too is proud in a way of his skill, but his skill is chiefly in being servile. His work gives him the mentality, not of a workman, but of a snob. He lives perpetually in sight of rich people, stands at their tables, listens to their conversation, sucks up to them with smiles and discreet little jokes. He has the pleasure of spending money by proxy. Moreover, there is always the chance that he may become rich himself, for, though most waiters die poor, they have long runs of luck occasionally. At some cafes on the Grand Boulevard there is so much money to be made that the waiters actually pay the patron for their employment. The result is that between constantly seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.

I remember Valenti telling me of some banquet at Nice at which he had once served, and of how it cost two hundred thousand francs and was talked of for months afterwards. ‘It was splendid, mon p'tit, mais magnifique! Jesus Christ! The champagne, the silver, the orchids — I have never seen anything like them, and I have seen some things. Ah, it was glorious!'

"But,' Isaid, ‘you were only there to wait?'

‘Oh, of course. But still, it was splendid.'

The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout'; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.' He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day — they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.
Of course, not everyone with a five-figure income matches this metaphor. But most of us do. We don't question or complain about the rich, the owners of capital and investment, because we imagine that deep down, they are us, and that someday we will be them. We ape their lifestyle, burdening ourselves with debt beyond our ability to repay, ogling a material banquet we can never really enjoy. We think we're better than the "working classes," the men and women who live just as far from Palm Beach and Palm Springs as we do, because they don't believe that hard work and playing by the rules are all you really need to get a mansion. We are seldom Socialists, would think trade-union membership embarassing, and we work twelve, fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, in law firms, insurance companies, brokerages, and dentist's offices across America. Our careers, professions and degrees don't create one dime of wealth, but they do serve the wealth of others. And we find that rather congenial.

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