Seeing things as they are: the enlightened cynicism of Ambrose Bierce.
It is unfortunate that the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce often overshadows his significant contribution to America's literary heritage. At the advanced age of seventy-one, and suffering for years from asthma, Bierce traveled to Mexico to ride with Pancho Villa's revolutionaries as a credentialed observer. He was never heard from again, becoming America's greatest literary mystery.
It shouldn't be such a mystery. Long before Jack Kevorkian, Bierce wrote that he agreed with Robert Ingersoll that suicide was a viable, though seldom used, option that should have "as honorable a place as any other courageous, reasonable and unselfish act." Bierce crossed into Mexico carrying at least $1,500 in U.S. currency, an open invitation for mayhem. Before he left he wrote to his nephew's wife, Lora, "If you should hear of me being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico - ah, that is euthanasia!"
It would be fitting for the old and ailing soldier to want to die on a Mexican civil war battlefield. It was on the battlefields of the American Civil War where Bierce had felt most alive. He is our only fiction writer of consequence who endured extensive combat during that war. A forerunner of Stephen Crane, Bierce's realism is tinged with an element of horror that other war fiction seldom matches. For the rest of his life Bierce existed as if he had a death wish, whether inviting assassination as an honest U.S. Treasury agent during the early and corrupt days of Southern reconstruction, or by scathingly insulting rich and powerful men in the newspapers.
Lost with Bierce seems to be the venomous, and humorous, cynicism that made him a celebrity at home and in England, where he was nicknamed "Bitter Bierce." He was both fearless and shameless in his attacks on individuals and institutions. To call Bierce a pessimist is to call Einstein a pretty smart guy and it is frightening to think of Bierce as a visionary - his vision for America was exceedingly dark. But there is a strange sense of virtue and honesty in Bierce's misanthropy, a single-mindedness of purpose that creates an aura of respect for such an abrasive cynic.
Religion was a favorite target of Bierce. He saw the hypocrisy of many religious institutions and clergy with a clarity that he maliciously exploited. Bierce's father was best known for two things: giving all his thirteen children names beginning with the letter a and his religious fanaticism. In fact, much of the Ohio region in which young Ambrose grew up was a focal point of a new Puritanism that seemed to have migrated from the East. The home and community life of the Bierce family centered around hymn singing and Bible reading. Albert Bierce, Ambrose's brother and the only one he was close to, told how he and Ambrose once scattered a revival meeting by driving a white horse through the congregation. This effectively illustrates Bierce's feelings on his upbringing (he probably relished the added sting of an apocalyptic white horse). Bierce begrudged his parents all his life for their lack of affection on the one hand, yet their exuberance in the corporeal punishment they meted out on the other hand (or with the other hand). Bierce referred to his parents as "unwashed savages" and wrote a short collection of stories entitled The Parenticide Club. No one needs to wonder from where Bierce's initial mistrust and dislike for religion stemmed. Of course, Bierce had his own idiosyncrasies. As a boy he asked his mother if Santa Claus was indeed a reality. She answered that he was. Bierce, for the rest of his life, never forgave her for this seemingly innocent deception. But according to Bierce, complete forgiveness does not exist.
Bierce created an incendiary and popular column that he called "Prattle." It was here that the first definitions of The Devil's Dictionary materialized. His dictionary became a regular feature and eventually Bierce compiled his definitions into book form. Everyone and everything was fair game for the acerbic Bierce. Its definitions attacked scholars, writers, politicians, scientists, and physicians. He bludgeoned labor unions, the military, the government, and marriage. It is difficult to pick only a few choice examples:
Academe, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
Academy, n. (from academe). A modern school where football is taught.
Belladonna, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
Clairvoyant, n. A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron - namely that he is a blockhead.
Dentist, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
Friendless, adj. Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.
Rear, n. In American military matters, that exposed part of the army that is nearest to Congress.
Senate, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with duties and misdemeanors.
But Bierce may have been his most deliciously malicious when sniping at religion. He had a keen and discerning eye that could pick apart hypocrisies in an acerbic manner that can be appreciated by believer and non-believer alike.
Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
Clergyman, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
Convent, n. A place of retirement for women who wish for leisure to meditate upon the vice of idleness.
Deluge, n. A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.
Evangelist, n. A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors,
Exhort, n. In religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.
Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel.
Gallows, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.
Heaven, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound on your own.
Impiety, n. Your irreverence towards my deity.
Mythology, n. The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.
Orthodox, n. An ox wearing the popular religious yoke.
Piety, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.
Primate, n. The head of a church, especially a State church supported by involuntary contributions. The Primate of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury, an amiable old gentleman, who occupies Lambeth Palace when living and Westminster Abbey when dead. He is commonly dead.
Repentance, n. The faithful attendant and follower of Punishment. It is usually manifest in a degree of reformation that is not consistent with continuity of sin.
Reverence, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
Rite, n. A religious or semi-religious ceremony fixed by law, precept or custom, with the essential oil of sincerity carefully squeezed out of it.
Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
This, of course, only scratches the surface of the gaping wounds that Bierce had inflicted with his wit. His cynicism and bleak satire is not limited to the definitions in his Devil's Dictionary. The flavoring in his short stories, articles, and fables are just as delightfully bitter. As we embark into the next century, I hope other severe social critics like Bierce will emerge. We could all savor their attacks on the silliness that still surrounds us.
Glenn Odden is an occupational therapist and a playwright.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 1996|
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