This is how things work in the Internet Age. A witty writer in Boston sets up a fake quote from the late Jean-Paul Sartre back in 2003 in an article about introverts and
extroverts that was published in the Atlantic Monthly online and almost ten years later the fake quote — “Hell is other people at breakfast” — is still going strong on
blogs, emails and bonafide websites. Very few people have bothered to check if the quote is correct, since the correct quote from Sartre’s famous play “No Exit” as
“Hell is other people.” In French, Sartre wrote it out as “L’enfer, c’est les autres.”
But Rauch’s 2003 tongue-in-cheek witticism flew right past most of his readers then, and it is still flying past most people on the Internet now.
Worse, the New York Times Weekly edition, a 12 page insert that goes into 36 foreign newspapers around the world, recently put that fake quote
in a front page article, without fact-checking it or doing any newsroom research.
Kevin Delaney, writing for the Times insert, which appeared in my local Chinese-language newspaper here in Taiwan, noted on a front page story titled “The Yin and Yang of Personality”: “As Sartre said: “Hell is other people at breakfast.” And Delaney also told readers that the quote appeared in a “recent” article by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic
Monthly. Oops. Fact-checkers, where are you?
Delaney isn’t alone. The manufactured Sartre quote has been picked up over the past few years by hundreds of bloggers and readers around the world who now believe that Sartre actually said that. He said no such thing. Google the quote to see it’s real origins, and how it has morphed countless times into the Rauchian witticism, without most readers knowing it. The fake
quote has now taken on a life on its own, thanks to the speed at which people read online and the power of the Internet to spread false facts and quotes.
In Sartre’s famous play titled “No Exit, Sartre had one of his characters say ”Hell is other people.” Period, Nothing about breakfast, Not one word about breakfast. But bloggers and
readers of Rauch’s faux pas, mixing up their p’s and q’s and never bothering to check if the quote is correct, do quote Sartre in the post-Rauchian way.
This led one American blogger in Africa to note recently on her blog: “Alain’s gone to the market this morning without me. We usually go together on Saturday mornings for each week’s produce and essentials. But today I needed some time alone. My friend Charlie recently sent me an article from 2003 in ‘The Atlantic’ about the nature of introverts. The author calls on Sartre with the quote, ‘Hell is other people at breakfast’.”
And her blog is echoed by dozens, hundreds of other blogs, that quote the faux Sartre quote as if it was real, and at this point in time, even after several polite emails to Rauch, the Atlantic misquote from 2003 has not been ”explained” online in an editor’s note or corrected online. How much longer must one wait for Jonathan to wake up and admit he made a huge yet comic gaffe that has resounded around the world.
Poor Jean-Paul Sartre. He must be turning over in his grave after eating his breakfast in Hell. Of course, that is where all existentialists go!
There’s more: when I contacted the New York Times by email this week, I was told “we’re taking care of it.” Apparently, the New York Times Weekly
edition will issue a correction about all this in one of the upcoming editions overseas. Not a word about this gaffe in the daily New York Times print
edition or any of its blogs. The Atlantic still has not responded to my emails. From Rauch, not a word, although a fellow Atlantic writer who knows
Jonathan said he will forward my query over to him.
When I asked someone in the legal department at the New York Times in Manhattan if this gaffe would be met with a correction or a news story about
how the fake Sartre quote has travelled so far in almost ten years, I was told: “Danny, I just heard from someone in the newsroom that the issue was being addressed. I think some other Sartre-ites also noticed the gaffe.”
And another writer who knows Rauch personally told me, and it’s worth noting: ”I will pass all this on to Jonathan Rauch by email. How about that?
I think he was making a joke. He assumed people would know the real quote, but with time that is less true of course.”
And there lies the existential problem: Rauch assumed in 2003 that readers would know the real quote, and would know that he was
making up his own fake quote to fit the theme and tone of his humorous magazine piece about introverts and extroverts. But with the passage
of time, almost ten years, and the power and sloth of Internet speed reading and skimming, Rauch’s assumption has proven less true.
Is Hell really other people at breakfast? Now it is, and there is even a line of t-shirts hawking the message. Welcome to Age of Sloppy Screen-Reading.
And ”caveat emptor”. That means “be careful what you eat for breakast” — in Latin. Kurt Vonnegut said that.