After the Staircase

A couple of decades before the French Revolution said pooh-pooh on all things half-interesting, prominent Enlightenment figure and ne’er-do-well libertine Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, taking things rather personally.

It was in the home of statesman Jacques Necker where a remark rode roughshod enough over Diderot’s auricular sense that it nonplussed him, after which he proceeded home quite miffed about the whole thing. But why not just take a swig of something strong, toss on a wry grin, provide the assailant with the final lexical haymaker, and call it a night? Simple: Diderot had not yet reached a staircase. 

Esprit De L’Escalier, known to most English speakers as Staircase Wit, but which might also be known as Escalator WitAfterwit, or the neologism Retrotort, was psychologized by Diderot in his Paradoxe sur Le Comédien thusly:

“a sensitive man, such as myself (sic), overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and [can only think clearly again when he] finds himself at the bottom of the stairs.”

Whether the result of lighthearted badinage or a life-drowning lover’s wreck, espirt de l’escalier is that perfect response or remark that comes to mind later, after the chance to make it has passed. Esprit is also an English noun meaning liveliness or vivacious wit, which plays part in the word bel-esprit: a person of intelligence and wit.

And this phenomenon seems universal enough to have swept its way eastward. 

Yiddish did it first with trepverter (staircase words). 

As usual, the Germans took things a step further. The German calque is Treppenwitz (Staircase Joke) and also applies to events that appear to be the result of a joke played by fate or history. Moreover, contemporary German’s Treppenwitz engineers further meaning, referring to events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context. This stems from the frequently used phrase “Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte” (staircase joke of world history), which supports Diderot’s original hypothesis that staircase wit derives from a personality paradox. 

And speaking of cognitive dissonance, there seems a lack of harmony as regards the best psychological representation of staircase wit, namely, which part of the staircase truly evokes this agenbite of could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.

There are essentially two factions. 

Faction One takes the lesser-informed top-of-the-stairs approach. It suggests this psychological phenomenon’s mot just—although Diderot denoted that those under possession of the spirt of the staircase are “confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs—” to be best represented whenever “inspiration is gained upon ascending the stairs to retire to bed, long after the opportunity for retort has passed.” Thus, espirt de l’escalier  is unknown to those who rent bottom-floors and those who own rancher homes.

The second is the popular bottom-of-the-stairs faction. We are reminded that Jacques Necker’s home, a haven for apparent offense, was less of a home and more of a hôtel particulier, a kind of lavish mansion. In such houses (and in hotels in which I cannot afford to doss) the reception rooms were on the etage nobel, one floor above ground-level. To have alighted upon the bottom of the staircase connecting the two would mean to have left the gathering.

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