L’esprit de l’escalier

Kage Baker always maintained that one of the reasons she wrote books was an overwhelming case of  l’esprit de l’escalier – that formulation of the scathing retort only after you have left the party or argument or debate. The perfect response usually comes in the middle of the night, while you are gloomily going over the day’s happenings; it sits on the bedstead at your feet, and gibbers at you.

Or so Kage claimed. In order to lay these ghosts of still-born debate, she further claimed, she wrote books. In those, she was complete mistress of the conversation, and her heroes could always have the bon mot, the last retort, the game point. At least, if she decided the plot was properly advanced by it, they could. If not, she let them, too, stew in miserable second-guessing themselves in the middles of their nights.

That happened a lot to Mendoza. It was one of the reasons Kage also frequently said she hoped she never met Mendoza in a dark place, as she anticipated getting punched in the nose by her creation.

But in the meantime, the stories and novels gave Kage a bully pulpit. She could say those things that had only occurred to her long after quarrels at the family table, or over after-dinner drinks; the brilliant counter-arguments that were only ever addressed to the deaf ears of the evening news. She was far too shy to proffer her opinions in most social situations, although she argued freely with the television set (we both did and I still do); but in her books, Kage had all the time in the world and could craft her conversational sallies from safe ambush.

The little stupid people were born, in part, from that – the evidence of something like them, their cowardice and machinations and sneakiness, demanded they be given a face and then soundly refuted. Kage felt that the attitude they embodied had to be personalized and identified to be fought: so she wrote them into the world and then alerted everyone to their works and influence. And can any of you, Dear Readers, really deny that there is some prissy, fussy, cowardly evil in the world that – once outlined by Kage – obviously has their shape?

Her descriptions of the Beast Liberation Movement, the growing ABSO persecutions in England, the resurgence of Prohibitions, the discouragement of individualism and the demonization of the different: Kage’s books gave her the platform from which she could argue with these ugly trends safely. She couldn’t get run over in the conversation – which happened, in real life; she was always being talked over, and she hated it.

But in her books, she could take the time to come up with the perfect scathing retort in time to use it.

More importantly, as time went on, she found she could do more than just Dorothy Parker some moron from the safe ambuscade of her computer screen. She could sound the warnings. She could blow the copper’s whistle, sound the alarm, wind the alerting trumpet and the cautionary drum … Fire! Fear! Foes! Evil is vaulting the gates and burrowing under the walls – it may be petty now, but if we ignore it, it will grow to a black tide and sweep us all away.

Being Kage – and despising melodrama – she chose to most of all laugh at the new Puritanism she saw growing, at the tide of self-righteousness, and the rebirth of the No-Nothings. Ignorance has become, not Bliss, but Pride: Kage fought that. She took trends to such extreme lengths that they became ridiculous, and inspired giggles – but we remembered them, Dear Readers. We didn’t forget them. It maybe funny to postulate a scenario where Devon Cream is a Controlled substance, but the idea itself is so absurd that it sticks in the mind – and then when the Mayor of New York outlaws super-sized sodas, someone will eventually stand up, pointing and laughing, and declare how idiotic this all is!

That was Kage’s hope, anyway. Don’t outlaw pleasures, she would say, rolling her eyes – that only increases the demand for them! If you think they’re dangerous, then make them safe, and teach people to make good decisions. But banning everything the most timid members of a society fear and dislike doesn’t work.

If cheese is outlawed, she once said somberly at a Convention, only outlaws will keep cattle. The audience roared with laughter at the image. Kage waited it out with her wry little half-smile and then added, Keeping livestock was one of the things that launched civilization. Cheese and beer and bread and writing – all dangerous, you know. Cheese is beast exploitation, and beer is bad for you and bread makes you fat and writing – why, only elitist snobs need to write! Gonna throw them ALL out, kids?

They stopped laughing, then. Maybe they thought a little more about it the next time someone tried to outlaw something “for their own good”.  One hopes they did.

Kage hoped they did. And I look around at this new year, and I hope so, too. Oh, I hope and pray with all my heart, Dear Readers. And so, I hope, do you.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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11 Responses to L’esprit de l’escalier

  1. Mark says:

    Why do I have an image of Kage doing a high-five with Benjamin (“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”) Franklin?


  2. Jan Foley says:

    You’ll be happy to hear (if you haven’t already) that ASBOs are no longer being dished out, here in Blighty. Why? They didn’t work. In fact, owning one became a badge of honour within certain circles. Fancy that. Now don’t get me started on the banning of pear trees in public parks…


    • Kate says:

      I am indeed pleased to know the ASBOs are in abeyance. And wildly amused to learn they did not work – which is pretty much what Kage expected. It’s wonderful to know that common sense does, from time to time, come out of hibernation and do its job.


  3. Medrith says:

    In Iceland you can only be named with a name on the Government List. What has become of the descendants of the Vikings???


    • Kate says:

      The descendents of the Vikings got tired of neo-hippies and lunatic fringe parents trying to name their kids things from logorhythm tables and death metal bands, I think.


  4. Miz Kizzle says:

    George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Kage Baker should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of civilization. We crossed a line somewhere, and we’re teetering on a precipice. Unmanned predator drones are killing civilians in Afghanistan, a presidential candidate actually asserted that desiring a college education for one’s children makes one an elitist snob, religious fundamentalists of every stripe gleefully preach intolerance and hatred, gun nuts think it’s perfectly reasonable for private citizens to own assault weapons and opine that what we need to keep us safe from homicidal maniacs are more guns… the list of Really Awful Stuff goes on and on.
    We need more writers like Kage to point out that we’re headed toward a point of no return unless we start paying attention to more than who the next winner on American Idol is going to be and whether or not some actress/model is pregnant.


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