(a.k.a The Devil's Dictionary, New Millennia Edition)

 
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Cynical People

Ambrose Bierce

cynic, n. A person who is prematurely disappointed in the future.

Cynicism seems to march alongside writers and soldiers, so it is no surprise that one of our most cynical heroes was both. But when you and your 12 siblings are all given names beginning with the letter 'A', you tend to see the absurdity of all things .

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce (1842-1914?) was a veteran of the American Civil War, serving for the Damn Yankees. Yet the horrors of war dulled not his wit nor sense of humor, though they may have amplified them. The bullet lodged within his skull behind his left ear – a souvenir of a battle at Kenesaw Mountain didn't even slow him down. If anything war intensified his scrutiny of all life's pleasures and travails, and he made one seem like the other (or the other way around).

After the war, Bierce settled in San Francisco, a city known to proof cynics alongside sourdough (which explain part of your humble editor's disturbing disposition). From there Bierce exploited the writing trades as a satirist, short-story writer and journalist. From San Francisco, he journeyed to London in 1872, finding even more fertile fields for collecting cynical specimens.

During his career with the poison pen, Bierce (who also wrote under the pseudonym of William Herman) created a series of memorable alternate definitions for words which he later gathered into a collection titled The Devil's Dictionary, which was the kindling for this web site. Some classic Bierce incendiaries from The Devil's Dictionary include:

HAPPINESS, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

HAND, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody's pocket.

POSITIVE, adj.: Mistaken at the top of one's voice.

SAINT: A dead sinner revised and edited.

Aside from the dictionary, Bierce is most remembered for his eerie tale of a civil war hanging titled An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Many of his short stories were of a supernatural nature, though he often ridiculed spiritualist and others involved in paranormal parlor games.

Bierce disappeared in old age riding into to war. At the age of 71, he headed south to Mexico to fight along side of the bandit Pancho Villa. Bierce was never seen or heard from again (he is presumed to have died in the siege of Ojinega on January 11, 1914). A fictional account of his last days was told in the novel The Old Gringo (1985) by Carlos Fuentes, which was later adapted for the screen and directed by Luis Punzo, starring Gregory Peck (and unfortunately, Jane Fonda).

If irony is the step-brother to cynicism, then such an ironic end to a fabled life is only fitting.

Cynical Ambrose Bierce Quotations

[Optimism] is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof – an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.


A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.


[A day] is divided into two parts, the day proper and the night, or day improper – the former devoted to sins of business, the latter consecrated to the other sort. These two kinds of social activity overlap.


[The scepter] was originally a mace with which the sovereign admonished his jester and vetoed ministerial measures by breaking the bones of their proponents.


[Rope] is put about the neck and remains in place one's whole life long. It has been largely superseded by a more complex electrical device worn upon another part of the person; and this is rapidly giving place to an apparatus known as “parole”.


Every time Europe looks across the Atlantic to see the American eagle, it observes only the rear end of an ostrich.


In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.


There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another – the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.


The existence of ghouls has been disputed by that class of controversialists who are more concerned to deprive the world of comforting beliefs than to give it anything good in their place.

In 1640 Father Secchi saw one in a cemetery near Florence and frightened it away with the sign of the cross. He describes it as gifted with many heads and an uncommon allowance of limbs, and he saw it in more than one place at a time. The good man was coming away from dinner at the time and explains that if he had not been "heavy with eating" he would have seized the demon at all hazards.

Atholston relates that a ghoul was caught by some sturdy peasants in a churchyard at Sudbury and ducked in a horsepond. (He appears to think that so distinguished a criminal should have been ducked in a tank of rosewater.) The water turned at once to blood "and so contynues unto ys daye." The pond has since been bled with a ditch.

As late as the beginning of the fourteenth century a ghoul was cornered in the crypt of the cathedral at Amiens and the whole population surrounded the place. Twenty armed men with a priest at their head, bearing a crucifix, entered and captured the ghoul, which, thinking to escape by the stratagem, had transformed itself to the semblance of a well known citizen, but was nevertheless hanged, drawn and quartered in the midst of hideous popular orgies. The citizen whose shape the demon had assumed was so affected by the sinister occurrence that he never again showed himself in Amiens and his fate remains a mystery.