Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some
hilarious funny, all perceptive.
SUNSET. Beautiful. Like a painting. Post on Instagram and hashtag "no filter."—
Teju Cole (@tejucole) August 27, 2013
The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.
So, this has been more a matter of Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas than Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (or Johnson, or Twain).—
Teju Cole (@tejucole) August 27, 2013
Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:
AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.
CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.
HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”
HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.
HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.
INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.
JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.
LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.
POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.
Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:
BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.
CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards them, when people are about.
INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.
LITERATURE — Idle pastime.
METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.
OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.
POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.
THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.
He had brought with him a dime novel, one of the Chums of Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth, and for a while each night he sat in the firelight and read to himself but soon found he was reading out loud to his father’s corpse, like a bedtime story, something to ease Webb’s passage into the dreamland of his death.
Reef had had the book for years. He’d come across it, already dog-eared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood, while languishing in the county lockup at Socorro, New Mexico, on a charge of running a game of chance without a license. The cover showed an athletic young man (it seemed to be the fearless Lindsay Noseworth) hanging off a ballast line of an ascending airship of futuristic design, trading shots with a bestially rendered gang of Eskimos below. Reef began to read, and soon, whatever “soon” meant, became aware that he was reading in the dark, lights-out having occurred sometime, near as he could tell, between the North Cape and Franz Josef Land. As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read and, reluctantly, having marked his place, turned in for the night without considering any of this too odd. For the next couple of days he enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole. Cellmates came and went, the Sheriff looked in from time to time, perplexed.
At odd moments, now, he found himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship. As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for him, even pass on to Reef wise advice, though he might not always be able to make sense of it. And sometimes in the sky, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar. Never lasting more than a couple of watch ticks, but persistent. “It’s them, Pa,” he nodded back over his shoulder. “They’re watching us, all right. And tonight I’ll read you some more of that story. You’ll see.”
Riding out of Cortez in the morning, he checked the high end of the Sleeping Ute and saw cloud on the peak. “Be rainin later in the day, Pa.”
“Is that Reef? Where am I? Reef, I don’t know where the hell I am—”
“Steady, Pa. We’re outside of Cortez, headin up to Telluride, be there pretty soon—”
“No. That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes. . . .”
“Hell it is.”
—From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (215).
1. There’s so much I like about this passage.
2. First, Pynchon explicitly ties together two groups of his characters here. Pynchon connects the Traverses of Colorado with those champions of the ether, The Chums of Chance.
And he does it through a novel, which I’ll get to in a minute.
3. I’ve already remarked on the adventurous, even light-hearted tone of the Chums of Chance episodes, which often buoy the narrative out of its byzantine winding.
4. The Chums passages contrast strongly with the Colorado episodes featuring the Traverses.
While Pynchon is not really known for his pathos or the depth of his characters, the Traverse story line is genuinely moving. We see the family disintegrate against the greed of the Colorado mining rush. Patriarch Webb cannot hold his family together, and he gives over to a deep bitterness; his union becomes his raison d’etre, and he undertakes dangerous secret missions to fight the forces of capitalism. It’s worth giving Webb’s opinion at length:
“Here. The most precious thing I own.” He took his union card from his wallet and showed them, one by one. “These words right here”—pointing to the slogan on the back of the card— “is what it all comes down to, you won’t hear it in school, maybe the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of Independence and so forth, but if you learn nothing else, learn this by heart, what it says here—‘Labor produces all wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof.’ Straight talk. No doubletalking you like the plutes do, ’cause with them what you always have to be listening for is the opposite of what they say. ‘Freedom,’ then’s the time to watch your back in particular—start telling you how free you are, somethin’s up, next thing you know the gates have slammed shut and there’s the Captain givin you them looks. ‘Reform’? More new snouts at the trough. ‘Compassion’ means the population of starving, homeless, and dead is about to take another jump. So forth. Why, you could write a whole foreign phrase book just on what Republicans have to say.”
5. It’s also worth pointing out that Webb is likley the Kieselguhr Kid: He has a secret identity and secret powers, like many of the characters who inhabit Against the Day.
6. The Traverse passages recall the social realism of Steinbeck at times, with a dose of the moralizing we might find in Upton Sinclair. There’s also a heavy dash of Ambrose Bierce’s cynicism, and something of Bret Harte’s milieu here.
A kind of ballast for Pynchon’s flightier whims? Not sure.
7. Returning to our initial citation:
As prodigal son Reef Traverse moves his father’s corpse across Colorado, he reads from The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth. We learn that he’s had the dime novel for years and we learn of its physical condition — “dogeared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood.” The book is a kind of abject survivor, a physical totem with powers of endurance, which, in turn, grants metaphysical powers on its user-reader.
8. (Parenthetical (i.e. unexplored) aside: The cover of The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth features handsome, uptight Lindsay Noseworth facing off against a ”bestially rendered gang of Eskimos.” Here is our Manifest Destiny; here is our White Man’s Burden).
9. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth allows Reef brief transcendence of time (“whatever ‘soon’ meant”) and space (it provides him escape from his jail cell).
10. Also: The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth grants its reader the power to read in the dark. There is something of a huge in-joke here that all late-night readers will appreciate.
Also: the major motif of At the End of the Day is darkness and light. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth works as a kind of self-illuminating object outside the confines of the physical world, but only when the user is not conscious of this power (“As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read”).
11. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth bestows upon Reef, its operator, ”a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole.” This relationship, again, won’t be unfamiliar to voracious readers. Hell, many of us chase that transcendent space the rest of our lives. The older we get, the harder it is to get back to Dickensian London or Rivendell or Crusoe’s island or Narnia or Thornfield Hall or wherever it was that we got to live out part of our dual existence.
Here Reef, a grown-ass man, gets to be one of the Chums and traverse an alien frontier.
12. And the biggie: Somehow this dime novel wakes the dead.
Now, it’s easy to say that Webb doesn’t really talk to Reef, just as we can easily say that Reef doesn’t really head to the pole with the Chums, doesn’t really transcend time and space, etc. We could look for simple answers in psychology—Reef has internalized his father’s voice; Reef is going mad.
But I think Pynchon’s presentation of the scene suggests something more—but something I don’t know how to name or describe, only a fifth of the way into this book. Something to look for in any case.
And so thus end with Webb’s line: “Somethin has happened to my eyes.”
“One Summer Night” by Ambrose Bierce
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture – flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation – the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
But dead – no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he – just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
But something was going on overhead. It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm. These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing. It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.
Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess. For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favorite pleasantry that he knew “every soul in the place.” From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.
Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.
The work of excavation was not difficult: the earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before offered little resistance and was soon thrown out. Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt. At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up. With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction. For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return. But Jess was of another breed.
In the gray of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.
“You saw it?” cried one.
“God! yes – what are we to do?”
They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room. Mechanically they entered the room. On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess. He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.
“I’m waiting for my pay,” he said.
Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong, the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.
“Epigrams of a Cynic” by Ambrose Bierce
If every hypocrite in the United States were to break his leg to-day the country could be successfully invaded to-morrow by the warlike hypocrites of Canada.
To Dogmatism the Spirit of Inquiry is the same as the Spirit of Evil, and to pictures of the latter it appends a tail to represent the note of interrogation.
“Immoral” is the judgment of the stalled ox on the gamboling lamb.
In forgiving an injury be somewhat ceremonious, lest your magnanimity be construed as indifference.
True, man does not know woman. But neither does woman.
Age is provident because the less future we have the more we fear it.
Reason is fallible and virtue invincible; the winds vary and the needle forsakes the pole, but stupidity never errs and never intermits. Since it has been found that the axis of the earth wabbles, stupidity is indispensable as a standard of constancy.
In order that the list of able women may be memorized for use at meetings of the oppressed sex, Heaven has considerately made it brief.
Firmness is my persistency; obstinacy is yours.
Our vocabulary is defective; we give the same name to woman’s lack of temptation and man’s lack of opportunity.
“You scoundrel, you have wronged me,” hissed the philosopher. “May you live forever!”
“My Favorite Murder” — Ambrose Bierce
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.
At this, my attorney rose and said:
“May it please your Honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle you would discern in his later offense (if offense it may be called) something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company that took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is hard to see how he could decently have been acquitted. If your Honor would like to hear about it for instruction and guidance of your Honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”
The district attorney said: “Your Honor, I object. Such a statement would be in the nature of evidence, and the testimony in this case is closed. The prisoner’s statement should have been introduced three years ago, in the spring of 1881.”
“In a statutory sense,” said the judge, “you are right, and in the Court of Objections and Technicalities you would get a ruling in your favor. But not in a Court of Acquittal. The objection is overruled.”
“I except,” said the district attorney.
“You cannot do that,” the judge said. “I must remind you that in order to take an exception you must first get this case transferred for a time to the Court of Exceptions on a formal motion duly supported by affidavits. A motion to that effect by your predecessor in office was denied by me during the first year of this trial. Mr. Clerk, swear the prisoner.”
The customary oath having been administered, I made the following statement, which impressed the judge with so strong a sense of the comparative triviality of the offense for which I was on trial that he made no further search for mitigating circumstances, but simply instructed the jury to acquit, and I left the court, without a stain upon my reputation:
“I was born in 1856 in Kalamakee, Mich., of honest and reputable parents, one of whom Heaven has mercifully spared to comfort me in my later years. In 1867 the family came to California and settled near Nigger Head, where my father opened a road agency and prospered beyond the dreams of avarice. He was a reticent, saturnine man then, though his increasing years have now somewhat relaxed the austerity of his disposition, and I believe that nothing but his memory of the sad event for which I am now on trial prevents him from manifesting a genuine hilarity.
“A Baby Tramp” by Ambrose Bierce
If you had seen little Jo standing at the street corner in the rain, you would hardly have admired him. It was apparently an ordinary autumn rainstorm, but the water which fell upon Jo (who was hardly old enough to be either just or unjust, and so perhaps did not come under the law of impartial distribution) appeared to have some property peculiar to itself: one would have said it was dark and adhesive — sticky. But that could hardly be so, even in Blackburg, where things certainly did occur that were a good deal out of the common.
For example, ten or twelve years before, a shower of small frogs had fallen, as is credibly attested by a contemporaneous chronicle, the record concluding with a somewhat obscure statement to the effect that the chronicler considered it good growing-weather for Frenchmen.
Some years later Blackburg had a fall of crimson snow; it is cold in Blackburg when winter is on, and the snows are frequent and deep. There can be no doubt of it — the snow in this instance was of the colour of blood and melted into water of the same hue, if water it was, not blood. The phenomenon had attracted wide attention, and science had as many explanations as there were scientists who knew nothing about it. But the men of Blackburg — men who for many years had lived right there where the red snow fell, and might be supposed to know a good deal about the matter — shook their heads and said something would come of it.
And something did, for the next summer was made memorable by the prevalence of a mysterious disease — epidemic, endemic, or the Lord knows what, though the physicians didn’t — which carried away a full half of the population. Most of the other half carried themselves away and were slow to return, but finally came back, and were now increasing and multiplying as before, but Blackburg had not since been altogether the same.
Of quite another kind, though equally ‘out of the common,’ was the incident of Hetty Parlow’s ghost. Hetty Parlow’s maiden name had been Brownon, and in Blackburg that meant more than one would think.
Eleven Authors Who Were Also Veterans of War
1. Stendahl (Napoleonic Wars)
2. Ambrose Bierce (Union Army, American Civil War)
3. Erich Maria Remarque (German Army, WWI)
4. George Orwell (Republican Army, Spanish Civil War)
5. Kurt Vonnegut (U.S. Army, WWII)
6. Joseph Heller (U.S. Air Force, WWII)
7. Eveyln Waugh (British Royal Marines, WWII)
8. Norman Mailer (U.S Army, WWII)
9. Gore Vidal (U.S. Army, WWII)
10. Tim O’Brien (U.S. Army, Vietnam War)
11. Anthony Swofford (U.S. Marine Corps, Persian Gulf War)
“John Mortonson’s Funeral,” a very short story by Ambrose Bierce
John Mortonson was dead: his lines in ‘the tragedy “Man”‘ had all been spoken and he had left the stage.
The body rested in a fine mahogany coffin fitted with a plate of glass. All arrangements for the funeral had been so well attended to that had the deceased known he would doubtless have approved. The face, as it showed under the glass, was not disagreeable to look upon: it bore a faint smile, and as the death had been painless, had not been distorted beyond the repairing power of the undertaker. At two o’clock of the afternoon the friends were to assemble to pay their last tribute of respect to one who had no further need of friends and respect. The surviving members of the family came severally every few minutes to the casket and wept above the placid features beneath the glass. This did them no good; it did no good to John Mortonson; but in the presence of death reason and philosophy are silent.
As the hour of two approached the friends began to arrive and after offering such consolation to the stricken relatives as the proprieties of the occasion required, solemnly seated themselves about the room with an augmented consciousness of their importance in the scheme funereal. Then the minister came, and in that overshadowing presence the lesser lights went into eclipse. His entrance was followed by that of the widow, whose lamentations filled the room. She approached the casket and after leaning her face against the cold glass for a moment was gently led to a seat near her daughter. Mournfully and low the man of God began his eulogy of the dead, and his doleful voice, mingled with the sobbing which it was its purpose to stimulate and sustain, rose and fell, seemed to come and go, like the sound of a sullen sea. The gloomy day grew darker as he spoke; a curtain of cloud underspread the sky and a few drops of rain fell audibly. It seemed as if all nature were weeping for John Mortonson.
When the minister had finished his eulogy with prayer a hymn was sung and the pall-bearers took their places beside the bier. As the last notes of the hymn died away the widow ran to the coffin, cast herself upon it and sobbed hysterically. Gradually, however, she yielded to dissuasion, becoming more composed; and as the minister was in the act of leading her away her eyes sought the face of the dead beneath the glass. She threw up her arms and with a shriek fell backward insensible.
The mourners sprang forward to the coffin, the friends followed, and as the clock on the mantel solemnly struck three all were staring down upon the face of John Mortonson, deceased.
They turned away, sick and faint. One man, trying in his terror to escape the awful sight, stumbled against the coffin so heavily as to knock away one of its frail supports. The coffin fell to the floor, the glass was shattered to bits by the concussion.
From the opening crawled John Mortonson’s cat, which lazily leapt to the floor, sat up, tranquilly wiped its crimson muzzle with a forepaw, then walked with dignity from the room.
Definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, which was published 100 years ago—
WALL STREET, n. A symbol for sin for every devil to rebuke. That Wall Street is a den of thieves is a belief that serves every unsuccessful thief in place of a hope in Heaven.
DEBT, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
ARREST, v.t. Formally to detain one accused of unusualness.
‘God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh.’ The Unauthorized Version
DISOBEDIENCE, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.
CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
DICTATOR, n. The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to the plague of anarchy.
FREEDOM, n. Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint’s infinite multitude of methods. A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly. Liberty. The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
NOISE, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.
LAND, n. A part of the earth’s surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist.
INCOME, n. The natural and rational gauge and measure of respectability, the commonly accepted standards being artificial, arbitrary and fallacious; for, as “Sir Sycophas Chrysolater” in the play has justly remarked, “the true use and function of property (in whatsoever it consisteth— coins, or land, or houses, or merchant- stuff, or anything which may be named as holden of right to one’s own subservience) as also of honors, titles, preferments and place, and all favor and acquaintance of persons of quality or ableness, are but to get money. Hence it followeth that all things are truly to be rated as of worth in measure of their serviceableness to that end; and their possessors should take rank in agreement thereto, neither the lord of an unproducing manor, howsoever broad and ancient, nor he who bears an unremunerate dignity, nor yet the pauper favorite of a king, being esteemed of level excellency with him whose riches are of daily accretion; and hardly should they whose wealth is barren claim and rightly take more honor than the poor and unworthy.
MACE, n. A staff of office signifying authority. Its form, that of a heavy club, indicates its original purpose and use in dissuading from dissent.
POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
LAZINESS, n. Unwarranted repose of manner in a person of low degree.
JESTER, n. An officer formerly attached to a king’s household, whose business it was to amuse the court by ludicrous actions and utterances, the absurdity being attested by his motley costume. The king himself being attired with dignity, it took the world some centuries to discover that his own conduct and decrees were sufficiently ridiculous for the amusement not only of his court but of all mankind. The jester was commonly called a fool, but the poets and romancers have ever delighted to represent him as a singularly wise and witty person. In the circus of to-day the melancholy ghost of the court fool effects the dejection of humbler audiences with the same jests wherewith in life he gloomed the marble hall, panged the patrician sense of humor and tapped the tank of royal tears.
PLUNDER, v. To take the property of another without observing the decent and customary reticences of theft. To effect a change of ownership with the candid concomitance of a brass band. To wrest the wealth of A from B and leave C lamenting a vanishing opportunity.
TAKE, v.t. To acquire, frequently by force but preferably by stealth.
RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable— omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, “soaring swine.”)
RIOT, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.