Geneva, February 12, 1911.
Filthy weather on La Rue de la Croix-d'Or that night. The wind whipped the freezing rain to horizontal, and my opera cloak streamed like a battle-standard away from my neck, useless against the driving tempest. I clutched my trilby to my head, as much to preserve what little remained of my amour-propre as to keep dry my now sodden hair. At first in vain did I search for my destination -- it is not a well known address -- but at last it hove into view. I approached the place quickly, passing without a glance the street-arabs who importuned an easy mark for a groat or a crust of bread. On an ordinary night I would linger, imparting a coin here, a bluff jest there, appreciating a flirtatious show of stocking or a flashing gamine eye. But this night was not an ordinary night.
The Café Seigneur, my destination, arose from the gloom. Desultory music leaked from its windows, wispy and frail: a gypsy air, melancholy yet defiant, played upon the accordion. A loud babble of voices, an impenetrable fug of cigar smoke, and the sickly sweet redolence of absinthe greeted the newly arrived patron. I handed my dripping outer clothes to a passing scullery-maid, who departed hastily with a murmured instruction to see to their care still caressing her ear.
I became aware that my arrival had not gone unmarked. A frisson passed through the room, and whispers reached a sibilant crescendo as the news passed, multiplying, from ear to ear: "Régard! C'est l'américain! Tiens, l'américan est arrivé!"
The crowd parted respectfully as, fresh Pernod in hand, I strolled toward the cusp of the room's attention, the omphalos. There I first saw him as I had in the photographs, commanding the best table in the room, holding all eyes on him as he held court before his worshipful claque. Nearly immediately I had seen him, his eyes in turn rested on me, and I am prepared to swear a momentary look of resignation fleeted across his ruddy features.
He kicked a chair in my direction in the now-silent room.
-- Asseyez-vous, américain.
-- We will speak your tongue, hein?
-- Merci beaucoup. Je suis désolé, mais mon français est...
-- It matters not. I will, 'ow you say, 'and you your ass, -- hein? -- in any language, non?
He laughed gutturally, spraying phlegm and Pernod on the table.
I rewarded him with a wan smile. The room tittered.
This unleashed a tirade, a veritable verbal Niagara, through the cigar smoke and the Pernod vapors, an onslaught that would have crushed a lesser man:
-- The elements of language relate to each other in the present, that is, 'synchronically' rather than 'diachronically'. Linguistic signs are composed of two parts, a signifier (the sound pattern of a word, either in mental projection - as when we silently recite lines from a poem to ourselves - or in actual, physical realization as part of a speech act) and a signified (the concept or meaning of the word). This is quite different from previous approaches which focus on the relationship between words on the one hand and things in the world that they designate, on the other....
Placidly, a quiet smile playing about my lips, I let the storm blow itself out, for I knew, as I had since I first walked into this café, that I held the trump card. After his diatribe had finally exhausted itself into a panting silence, I gathered myself up to my full height, summoned all the folksy country wisdom at my command after twenty-five years in the wilds of Illinois, and let him have it, full bore, both barrels:
-- Oh yeah? And what makes you . . . Saussure?
You could have heard a pin drop. In point of fact, several pins dropped at exactly that moment, evoking queasy winces from the crowd as they clanged away against the marble floor tiles.
For perhaps the first time in his garrulous life stunned into silence, seminal semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure -- for indeed, it was he -- stared, agape, unable to speak. Then, as the full import of my retort made itself clear in his mind, his leonine head threw itself backward and he eructed a full-throated guffaw of approval.
--Touché, mon brave! Touché!
His cheering crowd of lackeys carried me in triumph through the café's door and down la Rue de la Croix d'Or to the American Embassy, where I was deposited with great approbation.
Two weeks later, aboard the RMS Lusitania on the return voyage home, a telegraph arrived informing me of my formal induction into the Académie Française. Tant pis, I thought to myself. My work is already done.