I’m finding myself declining dinner invites more and more only because I’m tired of disappointing my hosts. The poor things: Here they were expecting a writer from Vanity Fair, an American who’s lived in New York and now Paris, and all they got was this lousy t-shirt.
And it’s not like I’m aggressive or intentionally provocative at these things – just someone who lets you down gradually, like a bad birthday musician or wedding DJ.
I used to embrace the role of the expat dinner invitee. For me it was a chance to dress up and prepare for, and since I knew little was expected of me, the pressure was mostly off.
“Obama is good” was taken as sharp political insight. “Jean Claude van Damme, what a guy!” was interpreted as biting sarcasm. Plus people assumed that since French was my second language, the fatuousness that spilled out of my mouth wasn’t a result of me being simple, more a condition beyond my control, as if I had Tourette’s or a recent stroke.
After ten years though that excuse has worn thin. No longer am I expected to be the smiling conjoint of my wife, but an adult with his own ideas and beliefs, and the results haven’t been pretty.
At a recent dinner for example I found myself at the table talking about the director Claude Lanzman and his famous documentary Shoah. Yes my friends are depressing like that.
The conversation made it’s way towards me, and unfortunately I was more interested in the Brie and the Bordeaux in front of me and hadn’t been closely listening. I knew the broad strokes of course: Germany, sure, war or misery, check, so the time it got to “so John what do you think of all this,” I was caught flat-footed.
“Bah…what do YOU think?” I was asked directly, “I mean with a name like VON SOTHEN you must have a position.”
I looked down at my napkin as if it were a cheat sheet snuck up my sleeve, then stuttered back “Did you know that the director Fassbinder and the actor Fassbender are not the same family?” which was topped off of course with a dumb smile and another gulp of wine.
The table stared back at me silently, some with looks of miscomprehension, others with pity. But to be honest, what I said wasn’t completely stupid. It just didn’t make sense to normal people whose brains aren’t on crystal meth. And as the unbearable moment drew out, someone was finally kind enough to throw me a life vest.
“Well it is true Fassbinder captured a feeling inside Germany at the time.” And like that, the conversation mercifully moved on without me like a museum tour group shuffling off to another room.
I sat in my chair ashamed the rest of the dinner, the child ordered to sit and behave, and it wasn’t until after the party, whimpering on my way home that the response I should have used hit me.
In fact it seems more and more this kind of thing happens. Only when I’m drunkenly descending the staircase or in the Uber throwing up, does it suddenly come to me –that retort I wanted to make, that incisive position people hadn’t thought of, the name of the person that hosted the dinner. There are times at dinners even where I’ve even contemplated getting up from the table and heading down the stairs, just so I can return with something interesting to say.
One time I even found myself returning to the apartment long after I’d left – climbing the stairs, ringing the bell, my hosts answering the door in their pajamas asking if I’d forgotten something.
“Well yes actually. Remember when you asked me why corporations don’t pay US taxes?” I pushed myself in. “It’s an issue that actually dates back to the Reagan tax code of 1982. I could go into it with you now if you want. Because I can?”
I’ve been comforted to learn there’s a name for this – the wit of the staircase, coined by the famous philosopher Denis Diderot, a pretty bright guy apparently who, too, from time to time, found himself at a loss of words. « L’homme sensible comme moi,” wrote Diderot,” tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retourne qu’au bas de l’escalier »
(A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs.)
Since Diderot, it’s fare to say stairways throughout the world have been filled with oafs like me, stumbling down them, sliding against their walls, only to find inspiration at the rez de chaussee.
The mystery of this inspiration intrigues me. Like a déjà vu or a simple premonition, the wit of the staircase is a sort of cloudy tweak of the brain everybody eventually experiences but nobody knows really why. Some assume it’s the oxygen that comes from walking down the stairs. Others argue it’s the release of pressure that comes from finally not having an audience. Personally I think it’s God giving you the cruel illusion you’re witty just as long as nobody can hear you.
Just this week, le minister du Travail, Myriam El Khomri, found herself in a wit of the escalier moment. When pressed by the journalist Jean-Jacques Bourdin on his show Le Grand Jury, as to how many times somebody could renew their CDD, the minister first answered with an incorrect response the followed it up with a horribly awkward “I don’t know.” It was only over the weekend, that El Khomri, at the bottom of her career staircase, the but of a tsunami of jokes on Twitter and Facebook, was able to pull it together enough to explain what she should have said on Thursday.
There’s the famous scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall where Woody and Annie are waiting in line at a movie theater. Unfortunately they’re in front of a blow hard intellectual who’s pontificating about pop culture, Fellini and modern media. Woody can’t help but overhear everything the man says, and as the scene progresses, gets more and more annoyed – eventually to the point where he manages to find the subject of the man’s speech, Marshall McLuhan, to tell the intellectual in question he’s a fraud.
“Wouldn’t it be great if life were like this?” Woody says at the end of the scene. Unfortunately life isn’t like this. And nowadays, with every pregnant silence covered live and spread virally within seconds, a wit of the staircase moment is less forgiving. All of a sudden you’re on your own, the seconds seem like hours, and nobody will speak on your behalf, not Marshall McLughan, not Jean-Jacques Bourdin, not even Claude Lanzman.
I’ve grown so fearful of this moment now I’ve tried to cheat. For example, once the wit of the staircase hits, I know now to write it down in a small notebook at the ground floor before I forget. Then, when I’m at another dinner long afterwards (with all new people), I’ll steer the conversation back towards that subject in the hopes of using the prepared comeback. Unfortunately it never comes over as genuine and somebody will invariably ask “Why are we all of sudden talking about this?”
Like athletes who replay their recent matches, I mentally replay my dinner parties, this time with the shiny comebacks I should have used. When someone at a recent dinner asked my wife and I if we were married, I simply replied with a polite yes at the time, when in retrospect, I really should have said, “No this is the audition.”
I even tried an improvisational acting class with the hopes of learning tips or techniques on how to harvest the wit of the staircase without going down the staircase. The problem was I was the only non-actor in the class and when we introduced ourselves and explained why we there, everyone looked at me strangely when I responded “to be a better dinner guest?”
I guess in the end I’m trying to impress my friends way too much, trying to live up to some Cole Porter-Noel Coward-P.G. Wodehouse long cigarette/smoking jacket standard that’s not really necessary nor really based in reality. They too I’m sure talked about Fassbinder when they shouldn’t have, and I imagine it must be tiring for a host to have a guest who’s constantly zinging phrases he’s rehearsed in his bedroom three hours earlier. If anything, it suggests he hasn’t been listening at all to the conversation and couldn’t care less what the others have said. (Which is kind of true in my case).
So for this upcoming weekend, I’ve decided to host my own dinner without thought of what I’m going to say, trusting of course I’ve evolved a bit from my “Obama is good” days. Perhaps I’ll start with a “how many times can you renew your CDD?” opener which I’m sure will impress – only because the others I doubt will have anything wittier to say on the spot or even afterwards. You see I live on the ground floor.