Over at Larvatus Prodeo last night, regular commenter Nabakov used the expression l'esprit de l'escalier and I was vividly reminded, as I always am whenever anyone says this, of the first time I ever heard it. I was deeply puzzled. '"The spirit of the ladder"? I said. 'What on earth is "the spirit of the ladder"?'
'It's the wit of the staircase, you dope.'
'Oh. Um ... I still don't get it.'
'It's the really witty thing that you only think of to say after you've left and are halfway down the stairs. The thing you wish you'd said but didn't think of till it was too late.'
I'd always thought there had to be a name for that. I might have known it would be in another language and not immediately obvious to a citizen of a country where housing sprawls laterally and most of us don't live upstairs. Even then, it's the kind of metaphor that goes straight to the emotional core of the experience. Idioms get to be idioms for the same reason that clichés get to be clichés. They're a kind of nail in the heart.
Coincidentally, the poetics of idiomatic French were brought to my attention again this morning when I read an overnight email from my insomniacal and generous-handed friend R, currently working in Geneva and collecting new and useful examples of idiomatic French: 'I have "dormir avec les deux oreilles" - to sleep like a log, and "faire la folie, " to splurge. So far my interest groups are being covered.'
The literal (more or less) translations are 'to sleep with both ears' and 'to make the craziness', neither of which needs further explanation. But whenever I look at things like this I'm reminded of the most enchanting French phrase I've ever come across, and one of the great quests of my life: a line from a Jacques Brel song that I first heard on Judy Collins' album Wildflowers when I was seventeen.
Deep in swotting for Matric French at the time, I could hear everything she sang in La chanson dex vieux amants, the song of the old lovers, except just the one line that seemed to make no sense no matter what I "heard" it as. Maybe I would have got it if I'd been older, but at seventeen you can't imagine the particular kind of world-weariness this song conjures up, the kind where lovers have been through vingt ans d'amour, twenty years not just of love but of being lovers.
And somehow the French model of love wherein one has adventures instead of settling down, and then spends one's old age reading old letters and looking at faded photos, found its way into my grey matter (actually I don't think brains had much to do with it) and never went away.
La chanson des vieux amants is full of haunting, bittersweet feeling and images of great beauty and weirdness. The third verse, where the mystery phrase occurs, is all about how you feel after twenty years of what love does to you: how you feel and the things you've learned, and how you feel about the things you've learned.
I hunted high and low, albeit intermittently, for many years to find the written-down French lyrics -- we're talking pre-Google here -- so I could see what words Judy Collins was actually singing, and finally tracked it down in a good big French-English English-French dictionary with an emphasis on the idiomatic. It was 'le fil de l'eau' -- 'the thread of the water' -- which though very beautiful still didn't seem to make a lot of sense.
But it means the current. Dangerous, secret and strong. On se méfie du fil de l'eau, one is wary of the current.
Too right one is.