Picture the scene. An 18th century dinner party.
The philosopher Denis Diderot is left speechless by a witty remark.
He sums up his predicament thus:
“A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs”
And thus L’esprit de l’escalier was born.
Those moments after the event when you work out what you really should’ve said to the boss, the bully, the mother, the lover, the driver or the man.
Now, the Germans call it Treppenwitz and it’s sometimes called a Retrotort.
In the US it’s known as elevator wit and it’s often anglicized as doorstep wit.
L’Esprit De L’Escalier is a phrases that you can translate but that you have to experience it to understand.
So nothing sums up the experience quite so beautifully as “L’Esprit De L’Escalier”
It’s not just a slapped forehead or an appeal to the gods but an ethos. An ideology. A way of living.
Words and phrases that you can translate but that you have to experience to understand.
They are common all over the world.
So imagine Denis Diderot on the stairs once again, reeling from the sting of the dinner guest’s barb. It’s nice to know that the Japanese think enough of this act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking to give it a name. Denis is now practising Boketto.
Denis feels like a luftmensch, the Yiddish for someone with their head in the clouds: literally meaning an air person. Now he’s wishing misfortune on his verbal assailant as the German’s do with schadenfreude but suddenly, he’s overcome by the need to cringe at his mistake, feeling the phantom sensation of something crawling on his skin. It’s the Russian feeling of Yuputka. So he waits, pacing up and down for the man to appear at the top of the stairs, perhaps to apologise, perhaps even just to leave, so Denis can hit him with his by now well rehearsed reply. He keeps running up the stairs to see if someone is coming like an Inuit practising
You know that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet? This is the word for it. He’s so worried now that he’s scratching his head in order to help him remember or, as the Hawaian’s have it – the action of pana po’o.
A woman leaves the party and gives Denis a smile that is insincere or mocking, in Welsh a Glas wen. Literally, a blue smile. He has the sudden urge to shout Bakku-shan or the Japanese experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. But then he realises that even though it’s the 18th century, it’s really sexist. So instead he considers Kummerspeck the German expression for the excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.
But why does Denis Diderot want to live on the stairs in the first place, you ask? Apparently some people actually enjoy life on the stairs and now the French have given them a patch to stitch to their blazer. A club worth joining. The door is now shut to a party you didn’t like in the first place or the meeting that’s basically a boy’s club or the heated bacchanalian pub that was long since boorish and unruly. You did want the sour grapes in the first place. Solace now comes in your own thoughts. You have perspective gained by seeding the silt of fertile memory. Right? But Denis is bitter, angry and contrived. Of course he is. He’s a philosopher. He’s no longer alive. He only thinks of the past. Like Kermit’s nephew, Robin, he is permanently halfway: neither up nor down. Neither present nor future. Until you arrive at the party, laughing at something that happened yesterday. Denis, bitter, angry and contrived, asks you why you’re laughing. You are laughing into your beard – “Rire dans sa barbe” you tell him. And he understands. Because he’s French.
You smile as you pass Denis on the stairs.
He says nothing.
Performed at THE CABIN, Brighton on the 20th April 2012