Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Windex for the mind . . .

Ambrose and friend.

AMBROSE BIERCE DID NOT SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY. Along with Mark Twain, he was the foremost acerbic wit in American 19th century publishing. 2011 is the centennial of the publication of his major oeuvre, "The Devil's Dictionary", a compendium of word definitions for those with no illusions:

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.

THE SMART SET is a delightful web site produced by Drexel University, in Philadelphia. Stefany Anne Golberg has a wonderful article, "To the Devil: The Devil's Dictionary at 100", where she goes to some depth to describe the man and his times.

On the surface, it’s not clear why cynicism was such a popular attitude in those years padding the front and back ends of the turn of the century. It was decades past the Civil War and years before the First World War. America had started to become comfortable in her role as a country that was powerful but not so powerful as to shoulder the burden of being a real global force. Progress was fast becoming the new religion, giving Americans a sense of excitement about their place in the universe. Americans put on wonderful exhibitions about their own wonderful inventions — light bulbs, remote control technology, the telephone, the Ferris wheel — while not yet feeling the full invasion of technology and amusement that would define the 20th century.

Yet with all this optimism came a sense of unease. It had been a while since Americans, as a whole, had felt anything to be at stake. Americans were brought together socially by the Civil War and light bulbs, but they were also becoming unmoored from the traditions that once gave them a sense of community. Cynicism became another diversion. It was a way to discuss the growing emptiness of American life and the coming disorientation of modernity with an easy hilarity — cynicism for cynicism’s sake.

MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.

Bierce’s definition of CYNIC as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be” is easily dismissed as the rant of a self-important curmudgeon. This is a grave misunderstanding. As much as anyone, Bierce saw things as they really were and knew that there had to be another way. He had seen America in the depths of hell, had seen love from the bottom of a pit. He had shaken hands with greedy governors and jaded journalists, saw how men and women could abuse each other in the name of freedom and justice and altruism. For all its humor, The Devil’s Dictionary is a damnation of human hypocrisy, avarice, and selfishness. No one gets out clean — not even Bierce. For whom better to spread the word of evil than the Devil himself, the author of Bierce’s eponymous work? The Devil’s Dictionary is a memoir of a man who knew all about selfishness and hypocrisy, a man who had seen hell. No wonder Bierce was adamant about the title. This was no The Cynic’s t’Other. This was a dictionary of the Devil.

Today, we have folks like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher to carry the torch — and Gahan Wilson.

1 comment:

sunsin said...

Check out Bierce's essay on Columbus. Sounds quite modern.