On l'Esprit de l'Escalier or Staircase Wit

Why do we always think of what we should have said or done too late?

Posted Jun 17, 2014

This French expression comes from the courtiers at Versailles who would leave an audience with the omnipotent King or Queen and then think of what they might have said to advance their cause or at least to amuse their sovereign with some bon mot as they descended the long staircases in the palace.

Unfortunately, it is something that many of us experience today. So many of us are haunted by these after-thoughts, by remorse, regret, and recrimination. Why had we not done or said such and such? How different might our lives have been?

We wake in the night and turn on ourselves savagely, blaming our fate on a mistake, something stupid said or done.

I still have memories of a game called Botticelli played as a young wife with my ex husband and his friends. We were all in someone’s house for dinner in New Haven and the men were all Yalees. This was fifty years ago, when only men could attend the university. In the game you had to think of someone, and then answer questions( no, I’m not so and so) until the participants guessed who you really were from the initial you gave. The person I thought of was the French mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, though I knew little about him. “ I am P, ” I said smiling proudly. I can still see the group of arrogant Yalees, with their long slim legs and broad shoulders, sprawled around me in a laughing ring peppering me with questions. They asked things like ”Did you write Doctor Zhivago? ( Pasternak) Did you make an important scientific discovery? ( Pasteur) Did you write “The Rape of the Lock.” (Pope) which in my anxiety and terror, turning from one to the other, red in the face, I was unable to answer. I became horribly confused and stammered and stuttered and would not have been able to tell you my own name. It is a moment I have never forgotten which was probably a recall of some earlier and even more humiliating experience as a child. I continue today! to think of all the answers which I knew but was unable to produce, as though this forgotten event ( by everyone else but me) would have made any difference in my life.

As Freud has pointed out so brilliantly in “Mourning and Melancholia” it is this belief that we ourselves have caused our unhappiness that leads to depression. He writes “In Mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty in Melancholia it is the ego.” It is this loss of self-regard that leads to depression.

None of the participants of that game of Botticelli would ever remember that moment. Yet I even remember the questions they asked me. They probably would not remember my name. My own narcissism surely is at the heart of the problem here, the belief in my own importance. Blaming ourselves for some peccadillo enables us to continue to believe we are in control. We remain in a sense eternally omnipotent, capable of controlling the world. Yet no one else finds these moments so important. Nor do our actions often change the course of the events. Hope, that old harpy, is perhaps at the heart of all of this and perhaps even at the heart of this essay itself.

( With thanks to Marilyn!)


Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.