Friday, March 16, 2007

Quoting the Devil

Think of him as Mark Twain's forgotten brother. Both lived remarkably similar lives, were good friends, and lived in San Francisco around the same time. Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce (1842-1914), however, followed a path different from that of his more famous contemporary. While both shared a good sense of humour and were on par in terms of their genius, fans of Bierce swear that he was clearly the better when it came to wit. Public figures quaked in fear of his satirical pen.

Newspaper sales soared and over the years, many of his pot shots and jabs at the establishment appeared in local newspapers. These were later collected into the `Devil's Dictionary', one of the 19th century's greatest satirical works. It belongs to a tradition much closer to the realm of the literary, journalistic and satirical than to the lexicographic and academic. `Bitter Bierce' was quite famous back then, but today only academicians know about him. His name figures often in the list of `Quotable Quotes'. Some of his definitions are popular even to this day, but most of them are attributed to the ubiquitous `anon'. The sad fact is that arguably the biggest misanthrope and the greatest realist of all times is not in the spotlight where he belongs. Bierce is certainly one of the most under-appreciated authors and journalists of all time.

This acerbic satirist believed that the dictionary was a `device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic'. He defined wit as `the salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.' In Genesis, `Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field', but Bierce's `Devil' redefined them. To him, the mule was an after thought of God, `an animal that Adam did not name'. The origin of the word `adder', he, in his mock-scholarly style, says, is `from its habit of adding funeral outlays to the other expenses of living'. An abstainer, according to him, is `a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure'. A total abstainer is `one who abstains from everything but abstention'.

While absurdity is `a statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion', the brain is `an apparatus with which we think that we think'. An acquaintance is `a person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to'.

It is a truism we all know (and practise), but it takes Bierce to define the degree of friendship -- slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous. Admiration is `our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves'. He lived in different times and in a different country, but his definition of legislator as `a person who goes to the capital of his country to increase his own', is perhaps as valid now as then. Though Dr Samuel Johnson gave the `punster' the short shrift, dismissing him as a `low wit, who endeavours at reputation by double meaning', Bierce revelled in it. According to the second part of his definition, tongue in cheek, he says the elected representative is `one who makes laws and money.'

There is, of course, an insinuation behind the uncharitable definitions, but then that is the modus operandi of the `devil'. Bureaucracy, religion and women -- three of Bierce's favourite targets, were predictably mauled by his vitriolic pen. This is evident even while defining `male' as a `member of the unconsidered or negligible sex', or `mammon' as `the God of the world's leading religion', or `mouse' as `an animal which strews its path with fainting women'. His explanatory statements were often even more hilarious, such as the `male' of the human race is commonly known (to the female) as `mere man'. Describing the politician as `an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared', he adds, `when he wriggles, he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive'.

Displaying his wry sense of humour, he describes `alliance' as `the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third'. An `ambidextrous' person is `able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left', Bierce defines. Some of the definitions are terse, but delightful all the same, like `alone' (adj)- in bad company; or actually (adv)- perhaps, possibly; or really (adv)- apparently; once (adv)- enough. Readers of `Finnegans Wake' would enjoy finding `shebrew' as a `female Hebrew'.

He never spared a chance to poke fun at himself, as he did when he described a lexicographer as `a pestilent fellow who, under the pretence of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.' Going by his definitions, Bierce could be called a `cynic' whom he defined thus -- a blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.

The `Devil's Dictionary' was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way for long. It was not until 1906 that a large part of it was published under the title of ` The Cynic's Word Book'. The power to reject or happiness to approve the name was not to the lot of Bierce. This more reverent title had previously been forced by the religious scruples of the last newspaper (which did not want to use the word devil) in which a part of the work had appeared. The copyright on the book has expired and one of the recent editions cautions the reader thus: `Since the material here represents the view of one individual and was written in the early years of this century, there will no doubt be material here that you will find sexist, nationalist, racist, or just generally offensive. Proceed at your own risk.' Don't say you were not warned.

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