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
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.
God's [geography] deals with physical boundaries (oceans, mountains, etc.) while man's deals with arbitrary boundaries composed of the currently popular state of ill will and suspicion.
In his great work on Divergent Lines of Racial Evolution, the learned Professor Brayfugle argues from the prevalence of this gesture – the shrug – among Frenchmen, that they are descended from turtles and it is simply a survival of the habit of retracing the head inside the shell. It is with reluctance that I differ with so eminent an authority, but in my judgment the shrug is a poor foundation upon which to build so important a theory, for previously to the Revolution the gesture was unknown. I have not a doubt that it is directly referable to the terror inspired by the guillotine during the period of that instrument's activity.
The frying-pan was invented by Calvin, and by him used in cooking span-long infants that had died without baptism; and observing one day the horrible torment of a tramp who had incautiously pulled a fried babe from the waste-dump and devoured it, it occurred to the great divine to rob death of its terrors by introducing the frying-pan into every household in Geneva. Thence it spread to all corners of the world, and has been of invaluable assistance in the propagation of his somber faith.
It is related of Voltaire that one night he and some traveling companion lodged at a wayside inn. The surroundings were suggestive, and after supper they agreed to tell robber stories in turn. "Once there was a [tax collector]." Saying nothing more, he was encouraged to continue. "That," he said, "is the story."
[Palistry] consists in "reading character" in the wrinkles made by closing the hand. The pretence is not altogether false; character can really be read very accurately in this way, for the wrinkles in every hand submitted plainly spell the word "dupe."
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.
An absolute monarchy is one in which the sovereign does as he pleases so long as he pleases the assassins. Not many absolute monarchies are left, most of them having been replaced by limited monarchies, where the sovereign's power for evil (and for good) is greatly curtailed, and by republics, which are governed by chance.
From women this ancient faith [of the great God Stomach] commands but a stammering assent. They sometimes minister at the altar in a half-hearted and ineffective way, but true reverence for the one deity that men really adore they know not. If woman had a free hand in the world's marketing the race would become graminivorous.
[Love] This disease, like many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.