Thursday, 16 April 2009
The devil's dictionary
I bought a copy of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary yesterday. It has a cover price of £3.50 in the Dover thrift edition. Now that's a bargain.
Bierce is a writer who I have always been intrigued by. I have a couple of compilations of his short stories and he pops up in mixed collections. He has a very particular tone of world-weary cynicism that I respond to. It gained him the nickname Bitter Bierce during his lifetime. He was a short story writer, political commentator, journalist and merciless critic.
But he was not your usual cynical wit though. He saw a lot of action (and was badly wounded) fighting for the Union in the American Civil War and the horrors he saw inform some of his writing. In his seventies he decided to head to Mexico and get some first-hand experience of the revolution. He rode with Pancho Villa as an observer. Then some time around 1914 he disappeared. Literally.
No one knows for sure what happened to Ambrose Bierce. It seems likely that he simply got himself shot but that hasn't stopped the mystery from fuelling the imagination of other writers over the years.
Here are some of the definitions Bierce comes up with in his 'dictionary':
Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.
Battle, n. A method of untying with the teeth a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.
Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
And so on. . .