Scribbler’s Saga #87 – The Spirit of the Staircase

Posted: July 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

I learned a new word today, well a phrase – le esprit de l’escalier. Technically I learn new words most days; dictionary.com does send me their Word of the Day. Most days I either know the word or don’t have the time to open yet another alert on my phone.

Le esprit de l’escalier – a compound noun describing all those times when your wit fails you and you don’t have comeback or cool thing to say until after you leave the room. It apparently comes to us from the French of Diderot and then adapted wholesale into English about a hundred years ago. The French being so borrowed with no love for the direct English translation, the spirit of the staircase.

The phrase in both French and English conjures the image of a man stepping to the bottom of the staircase (typically already out the door) and kicking himself for all the things unsaid. I suppose I picked this Word of the Day because of how often I actually am that guy. And perhaps the couple-three times when I did have something to say before going out the door. I’m also the writer famous for overusing a related phrase when telling stories – “when I rewrite this moment for the movie…”

My saying usually pops up when I tell a story and it’s important to let the listener know that while I didn’t actually say or do anything my feelings in the moment are part of the story. Maybe I wasn’t quick enough and the moment for the devastating zinger left the building with Elvis. Maybe it was shit dangerous (did you see that guy?). And maybe I can’t repeat the times where I did bust out my wit on time; it’s a family blog…sort of.

In the movie, the guy sitting next to some large and loud assclown going off about Mexicans throws an elbow. Or in the less violent Use Your Words spirit of le esprit de l’escalier that guy finds a clever way to verbally cut the pig fucker (it’s not that much a family blog) at the knees; the gold standard being Cyrano taking down a jerk that led with – “Sir, your nose is rather large.” Reality check, I listened, kept my shit together, ate donuts, drank punch and waited it out.

Reasons not to include of course the physical not fully covered by the spirit of the staircase. The movie will allow 5’10” and 190lbs (at the time) to go fisty-fisty with 6’2” and 220-ish and win. The recurring dream of a verbal two-point reversal and takedown has to give way to the fact that this much racism has a way of shutting down all but the very best agile minds, leading back to the fight that never happened.

But, the part of this story that is covered by le esprit de l’escalier pretty much tells me that like most writers the closest I ever came to Cyrano busting the Hey Big Nose Guy with twenty better insults, I’ve needed my usual four drafts and lots of rewrites. The movie or book allows that writer biting his tongue being minutes late to get it right…eventually. We call this magic spell…editing.

The spirit of the staircase also strikes in more normal times at a party among friends. Beer on the table. An important story to tell. The guys are bored. Hecklement ensues. A great smashback lands five minutes too late. The opportunity and the original point of the story…also just left the building with Elvis.

I suppose I just got tickled that this particular compound noun that I swear didn’t know existed landed on an otherwise slow news day. The beauty of these four words is that I’ve always described the concept with maybe a ten-word sentence. And the Use It In a Sentence part of my prompt – “for writers, le esprit de l’escalier is a common experience” – will always eat my attention.

It’s an easy bet that these tricksy-tricksy dictionary people have the average writer’s personality wired. That we are, in strict point of fact, the kind of people likely to grind teeth over the unsaid. And then adopt – “when I rewrite the scene for the movie” – as almost a personal motto and talisman of faith. And, yes, I do rewrite things for the movie, no lie G.I.

It occurs to me that the state of being a writer has a way of feeding the condition of missing the perfect moment. We get used to editing everything at least four times. We don’t practice rolling up our sleeves in these situations and thus lose the skill.

I suppose the remainder might be to ruminate why the French phrase ended up as a direct loanword instead of the equally descriptive translation – the spirit of the staircase. But, I already sort of know and so do you. Americans just love our pseudo-French words that we mugged Pierre, Jacques and Jean-Luc for to avoid making up our own words. And we also love saying it knowing we stand a good chance of mangling the accent what with that pernicious le, de, second hyphenated le and -ier ending.

Now that I think about it, the spirit of the staircase really sounds like a horror movie title. A hack writer would simply go for the monster bloodily tripping people down the staircase to their respective dooms. Nothing wrong with this simple version of the movie, but imagine a skilled writer incorporating the true meaning of le esprit de l’escalier into the narrative where the things people don’t say at the top of the stairs affects how the fall down them? (The pen draft to this post paused to record the idea.)

So there it is, a filled word quota and a seemingly brilliant idea just because the Word of the Day struck me weird. A good day, but now you go off and do your own writing.

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