L’esprit de l’escalier (the spirit of the staircase) is a French phrase which roughly translates to staircase wisdom or staircase wit. It is the epiphany a person has after they’ve left a social situation, where they think of the ideal response (usually to an insult) they never said.
The term was coined by the enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot:
While Denis was getting cranked off of port at the crib of his buddy, Jaques Necker, he was hit with a remark which left him speechless. Later on, Denis sat at his desk, fuming in his undergarments, and agitatedly wrote: “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs.”
“The bottom of the stairs” refers to the architecture of Jacques Necker’s mansion. In such a crib the reception room, where people engaged in witty banter and busted balls, was on the second floor. To have reached the bottom of the stairs meant that you had left the party and were drunkenly stumbling out to your horse and carriage, pissed off at your social ineptitude.
After reading numerous biographies and scouring historical texts, I’ve been able to reconstruct the conversation between Jacques and Denis which led to the birth of this iconic, French phrase. Here is what Jaques said:
“So, hmph, ahem, Denis, you’re a freethinking atheist who is also a maniacal materialist. Well, answer me this. Last night the spirit of Jesus Christ visited me in bed and told me you’re an imbecile. (Crowd laughter.) He said you should have listened to your father and stayed in law, instead of living a bohemian existence for ten years and being disowned by your family. (More laughter.) Oh,
and you’re a penniless skeptic, who couldn’t even afford your daughter’s dowry so you had to sell your precious library, always questioning life and thinking about this blasphemous evolution. Well, let me give you some definite answers: I’m richer than you! I’m not a monkey! And I’m right and you’re wrong! (Room erupts with peals of uncontrollable laughter.)
Diderot sits there in silence. After he leaves the party, he finally thinks of the perfect reply:
“Your mother’s a dirty whore.”
My favorite “modern” pop-culture example of staircase wisdom is from the episode of Seinfeld called: “The Comeback.”
George Constanza had a conflict with one of his co-workers named Reilly. When Reilly sees George gorging himself on shrimp cocktail at a meeting, he remarks, “Hey George, the ocean called, they’re running out of shrimp.” George can’t think of what to say. Later on, while driving, George thinks of a comeback: “Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!” He becomes obsessed with recreating the encounter to use his staircase wit.
George’s friends don’t like the “jerk store comeback” because there aren’t any jerk stores. Elaine suggests “Your cranium called. It’s got some space to rent.” Jerry suggests “The zoo called. You’re due back by six.” Kramer finally suggests that George simply tell Reilly that he had sex with his wife.
After finding out that Reilly has changed jobs to Firestone, George flies to Ohio to attend a bullshit meeting, and brings a tray of shrimp in order to try out his jerk store line. Here’s what happens:
During the credits of this episode, George is driving back from the airport to New York and muttering to himself that he couldn’t think of a comeback. Then he says, “The life support machine called…” has a frantic fit, does a U-turn,
and begins driving back to the airport, yelling, “You’re meat Reilly! You just screwed yourself!”
I’ve always been interested in semantic discrepancies between languages concerning particular phrases and ideas. In some Kenyan tribes they don’t have a phrase for “being late.” In the Russian language there are 9 different ways to say “bastard.” In Spanish there are numerous ways to say “I miss you,” one of them being “Me haces falta,” which means “you cause my want,” or “you make my lack.” These discrepancies reveal the culture behind the language, where desires, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies dictate which expressions become more varied, powerful, frequently used, or specific.
The fact that the French have a well-worn phrase for “staircase wisdom,” reveals their culture’s emphasis on witty, biting, and sparing banter. I’ve read hundreds of French novels, and in almost all of them there’s at least one scene where people are sitting at dinner table ruthlessly making fun of one another. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have a phrase which describes the “spirit” of getting back at someone in a social scenario.
It’s been years since I’ve experienced L’esprit de l’escalier. Why? Maybe it’s because I’ve stopped caring if someone outwits me. Maybe it’s because I’m already thinking about something else, something I think is more important, while going down the stairs. But I think the real reason, though, is that I have a bigger problem than delayed-onset wit, a problem which is broader and all encompassing: I rarely am concerned about little things I should have said, but instead I’m concerned with who I was over long periods of time. Often I think back on certain situations and think, “God damn it, I was a fool for hours. I’ve been a lazy dim-wit for days.” I don’t just kick myself for not saying xyz to abc, but repeatedly beat myself for being an idiot during a string of social scenarios. I think many writers experience this phenomenon, where they wish they could re-create themselves due to long-term failure of self. So I’ve coined my own term for this broad, self-debasing memory frustration, followed by the epiphany of what should have occurred:
Empty room champ.