Have you ever discovered a new writer, book, or musician and fallen utterly in love (of course you have–it’s a rhetorical question)? When your enthusiasm is so intense that you become an immediate and unapologetic groupie? You think to yourself: Where have you been all my life?!
Well, I’ve been struck. I might as well just forget about whatever studying or money-generating productive activities I had planned for this weekend. I might be able to squeeze some of it in when my eyes get too tired, but I know myself–it’ll take at least 72 hours of near immersion before I knock the edge off this thing. I have an addictive personality.
I have been introduced to Mr. Ambrose Bierce.
|“I derive no joy from my studmuffin mustache or my shampoo-commercial hairdo. NOTHING MATTERS!”–Bitter Bierce|
Mr. Bierce, where have you been all my life?!
Without a doubt, he is one of the most sardonic, biting, and funny writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Insofar as cynicism is concerned, I do not think that he can be equaled, much less bested. Bierce reminds me a bit of George Orwell, only without the bourgeois good manners. Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe–I love em all, and each one could viciously and gleefully savage the object of their scorn in his own breathtaking way…but Bierce really takes the cake. His capacity for cruelty is beyond compare, but he is saved from being a common, nasty intellectual thug by virtue of his wit, hatred of hypocrisy, and what the astute will recognize as genuine empathy. He also has a keen sense of justice, and if the readings I’ve done thus far are any indication, that sense of justice is consistently and logically applied, which makes it truly moral.
Bierce had balls. The guy literally did not give a fuck. Take this piece of first-person narrative from What I Saw of Shiloh, where he served in the Civil War:
Along the sheltered strip of beach between the river bank and the water was a confused mass of humanity–several thousands of men. They were mostly unarmed; many were wounded; some dead. All the camp-following tribes were there; all the cowards; a few officers. Not one of them knew where his regiment was, nor if he had a regiment. Many had not. These men were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions. They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by a provost-marshal’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank. An army’s bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.
Whenever a steamboat would land, this abominable mob had to be kept off her with bayonets; when she pulled away, they sprang on her and were pushed by scores into the water, where they were suffered to drown one another in their own way. The men disembarking insulted them, shoved them, struck them. In return they expressed their unholy delight in the certainty of our destruction by the enemy.
That wasn’t published posthumously–that was published shortly after the war itself! Imagine how well that went over with his Victorian audience–the American contemporaries of those who ruined Thomas Hardy from fiction-writing over Jude the Obscure. Bierce accomplishes the spectacular feat of making Hardy look like Jane Austin. Remember when Bill Maher derailed his career for a few years and received death threats for saying that the 911 hijackers were not cowards? Comparatively small potatoes.
Bierce also left us with The Devil’s Dictionary. Go take a look.
Some of my favorites:
ACCOUNTABILITY, n. The mother of caution.
Advice, n. The smallest current coin.
Apologize, v. To lay the foundation for a future offense.
Callous, adj. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.
Conservative, n. A statesman enamored of existing evils, as opposed to a Liberal, who wants to replace them with others.
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
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.
Infancy, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, ‘Heaven lies about us.’ The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.
That’s enough, or else I’ll be here all day.
Look at this cartoon I found of him. I sympathize. I think he looks like he probably felt like Bill the Cat sometimes, too: