A Dictionary Fit for the Devil
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The Devil’s Dictionary tells it like it really is — if we had the literary chops to say what we really thought it was.
By Sean Braswell
Ambrose Bierce, the irreverent 19th-century American journalist and writer, was an unbeliever, in every sense of the term. If you live by a creed or hold any idea or institution particularly sacred, then chances are Bierce once had a go at shredding the pretense behind your deeply held belief — often in just a single sentence.
Bierce’s best definitions are the work of a literary magician.
Faith is, after all — according to Bierce in his magnum opus, The Devil’s Dictionary — belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. Such is just one of hundreds of definitions in that work, a lexicon of sparkling witticisms and stinging barbs lovingly crafted by Bierce, American literature’s premier satirist and Cynic: a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.
And far from being defeatist or demoralizing, Bierce’s compendium of demonic definitions is just as pert and laugh-out-loud funny as it was when it was first published in 1906. It reveals us humans as the elaborate pretenders and amateur spin doctors that we are, each playful jab the perfect antidote to those earnest, smoke-up-your-butt-blowing motivational posters that are the bane of so many 21st-century workplaces. “When the sun rises, it rises for everyone,” goes one such corporate billboard to opportunity. For Bierce, on the other hand, Opportunity is merely a favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.
Bierce had seen action in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War as a young man, and his writing, particularly his often macabre short stories, bears the scars of that experience. He would eventually become a newspaper columnist and Reporter — a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words — for a number of William Randolph Hearst publications. The Devil’s Dictionary began as a sort of late-19th-century Twitter feed, Bierce’s entries appearing in weekly columns under the title “The Cynic’s Word Book.” “To some degree,” says S.T. Joshi, a literary critic and leading authority on Bierce, “the cynicism Bierce displays in The Devil’s Dictionary is an act — the act of a ‘professional cynic’ who has a persona to maintain.”
Bierce’s best definitions are the work of a literary magician, evincing clever reversals and sleights of hand in which an innocuous but distracting opening gives way to a spectacularly dead rabbit being pulled from the hat. In the dictionary’s dim view of human nature, Happiness is but an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another, and even being Famous, as Bierce would become, was only to be conspicuously miserable.
Some of Bierce’s most devastating handiwork is reserved for organized religion: a Saint being but a dead sinner, revised and edited, and Impiety really just your irreverence toward my deity. Or, my personal favorite, Ocean, in which Bierce manages to scupper the entire notion of an anthropocentric universe in just four words (it took Mark Twain an entire 1903 essay, “Was the World Made for Man?” to do the same): a body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
Despite appearances, Bierce wasn’t “an unrelenting misanthrope,” says Joshi. “The best that could be said is that he was disappointed in the human race for being so much inferior to its lofty ideals.”