Have you ever felt haunted—haunted by things you wished you’d said? Especially when the wittiest of retorts pops in to your head at the bus stop, well beyond the point of being any use whatsoever. There’s a phrase for that—a French one that verily rolls off the tongue: “l’esprit d’escalier.” English speakers sometimes translate it as “staircase wit,” but I prefer the more lyrical translation, “the Spirit of the Staircase.” It’s said to come from philosopher Denis Diderot, who described the predicament when, at a dinner party, he felt overwhelmed by a remark against him. He was only able to think clearly again after leaving the gathering and reaching the bottom of the stairs. His response, the one never delivered, was the product of the Spirit of the Staircase, and trailed after him along the misty streets of Paris like a bad smell.
We’ve all been there.
The phenomenon entered popular culture in the Seinfeld episode “The Comeback.” George Costanza has a conflict with a coworker who caught him stuffing himself with shrimp cocktail at a meeting. The coworker says, “Hey George, the ocean called; they’re running out of shrimp.” Later, the Spirit of the Staircase delivers George this gem: “Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you.” (No one said The Spirit is infallible.) Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer disapprove and hilarity ensues. (Note: There really are no jerk stores.)
The Spirit, as I like to call her, is particularly active at family gatherings, especially when the topic of politics comes up at dinner. That’s a special slice of hell, how the Spirit trails me, whispering this and that on the long drive home. Dinner parties and business events are also potent lures for the Spirit. A dozen conversations hang in the air, and two of my best frenemies are giggling by the bar, stopping to throw sarcastic smiles, then giggling some more. The crap that people spew, it all clamours for an injection of wit or knowledge; it just happened to be napping in a corner of my mind at the time. So out I come with my own jerk store moment, and then leave as quickly as possible.
Sometimes the Spirit tries to save you from yourself. On the way out of one of those delightful evenings, I can be haunted by the kinder things I could have said instead of dishing up habitual acerbic helpings of cynicism, sarcasm, and misanthropy. Less a whisper and more like a kick in the butt, the Spirit moves uncomfortably close to my ear and says, “Really? That’s what your best self looks like? That’s who you are? That’s when I usually strengthen my resolve to think more, speak less, saying nothing at all when I cannot say something nice.
I’ve thought that the Spirit of the Staircase would make a great Hallowe’en costume, but I fear the concept is too subtle, requires too much thought, and I’d spend most of the night explaining. (Kind of like the time I dressed my son as Pugsley Addams and everyone assumed he was just a sick child.) It’s hard to find people who really enjoy thinking about a costume—they’d rather reach for the low hanging fruit: boobs and gore. Those parties are mecca for the Spirit though. It’s probably a good thing my thoughts are largely limited to the staircase—this is a pretty small town; I could do some real damage.