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.
[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.
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.
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.
[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.
In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.
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.
Every time Europe looks across the Atlantic to see the American eagle, it observes only the rear end of an ostrich.