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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ambrose Bierce And The Power Of Negative Thinking

"Gravestone" by Caireen Burns (© Caireen Burns 2006)

All is vanity the good book says. Not many people will admit it but almost everything we do, even acts of charity and goodwill… especially acts of charity and goodwill, we do for selfish reasons. You give that drunkard on the street a handful of small change not for him but so you can bask in the warm glow of self-satisfaction for a few minutes. You phone your friends not entirely for their company but so the yawning chasm that is loneliness doesn’t swallow you whole. When businesses donate money to charity you can be sure photographs of their chief executives will be plastered all over the papers. Almost everything we do we do for ourselves in some roundabout way. That’s what makes genuine compassion so remarkable and so rare. The only people who truly unconditionally live for others are saints or lunatics. Nonetheless it’s one of the central illusions by which we live our lives, one of our life-myths. It’s just one of many. Ambrose Bierce punctures these myths. He explodes our smugness. When he sees people patting each other’s backs or their own he reaches for his revolver.

To Bierce self-righteousness is self-delusion. Everything should be questioned. Nothing is sacred nor should it be. Everything respectable is an illusion. These are the cornerstones of his philosophy. In his work, particularly The Devil’s Dictionary, he demonstrates with great wit and humour that at the heart of almost every institution, every deed, even morality itself is self-interest. By revealing that everything is bullshit he produces a funny, uplifting and blissfully cynical guide to life. It’s self-help for the hopeless cases, filled with a pessimism so profound it somehow ends up being optimistic and life affirming. For though Bierce was a misanthrope he was one who loved life in all its fucked-up-ness.

Born in 1842 near Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was the son of Laura Sherwood and Marcus Aurelius Bierce. His father’s unusual name would be an uncanny portent of things to come. Following a life of continual warfare in the wilds of the frozen barbarian north the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius developed an intense gloom but a liberating one, a sort of celestial pessimism that is filled with humour and a kind of warped hope.
“Life is marrying, raising children, dying, waging war, throwing parties, farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping others will die, complaining…you can hold your breath until you turn blue but they’ll still go on doing it…it’s a wretched, whining monkey life” he claims in his existentialist collection of ramblings Mediations. His teachings range from the sublime "Take it that you have died today, and your life's story has ended; and henceforth regard what further time may be given you as an uncovenanted surplus and live it out in harmony with nature" to the almost ridiculous, "Do unsavoury armpits and bad breath make you angry? What good will that do you?" If his philosophy could be condensed into one sentence it would be this: Life is bullshit, none of this will last, none of this matters so why worry? It’s a sort of deadbeat Buddhism but without all the nonsense about Dharmas and reincarnation and the Dalai Lama.

“Before long all of us will be laid out side by side” even “doctors who tell you you’re going to die if you don’t stop drinking. All dead, it’s the only thing to be sure of. Once accepted there’s nothing to fear…Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen tomorrow embalming fluid, ash…to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything." He continues, “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, only to be swept away in its turn.”

Not that he suggests we surrender to the void. Instead “do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in life.” The pointlessness of life is not our damnation but our salvation for if nothing matters everything is possible. If nothing matters what the fuck have you got to lose? And why spend our lives in the pursuit of wealth and prestige when these things simply do not matter?

If we accept like Marcus Aurelius that life has no meaning, no rules, no grand scheme we have immense power to simply do what we want, to undertake the endeavours we enjoy. Rid your life of all the myths and frauds and all the running around like headless chickens over nonsense that doesn’t matter. For we’re all doomed and it all means nothing. Hence the liberating power of negative thinking.

If Marcus Aurelius is the Emperor of negative thinking Ambrose Bierce would grow up to be its court jester. At fifteen he left home to become a printer's devil for the anti-slavery paper The Northern Indianian. Two years later he was falsely accused of stealing money and in a state of disgrace his family made him enroll in the Kentucky Military Institute. At the age of nineteen as a Union soldier and cartographer he was plunged into the horror of the Civil War. What the next four years did to the mind of the young man is anyone’s guess, he emerged at its end a twenty three year old man who had stared into the abyss, he had seen massacres, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses, the best young men of America thrown into the fires like chaff. Yet he had found his vocation and had the dubious accolade of being the only American writer to have served in the Civil War and lived to tell the tale.

He rose quickly through the ranks of the Ninth Indiana Infantry, due to his bravery and intellect, becoming a sergeant and then a Second Lieutenant. Active in at least six major battles he witnessed the depths of the horrors involved. At Shiloh amidst the chaos he came upon a dying Union sergeant "taking his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears." He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain when in his own words " a Confederate bullet broke his head like a walnut." But he survived, escaped capture and ended the war in the temporary rank of Major. In an early forerunner of such war journalism as Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia he turned his Civil War experiences into a groundbreaking book of short stories entitled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, a book that bravely and innovatively spoke of the violence, death and destruction without flinching or censoring the realities of war. Among them the eerie tale “Chickamauga,” telling of a child discovering the aftermath of a massacre, still haunts.

When the war was over Bierce found work for the Treasury Department in the reconstruction of the ruined Southern States then for the government exploring and mapping unknown and dangerous regions of the West. Promised a commission in the freshly reformed regular army he travelled to San Francisco but found he had been deceived and so decided by accident to embark on a literary career. At the U. S. Mint Bierce found a job as a night guard and found in the midnight hours the time to read and to write starting with several tracts expounding atheism. He also became a skilled artist, drawing cartoons mocking both candidates in the 1867 election, which were published by the respective candidates failing to realise Bierce characteristically was ridiculing both. This natural anarchic streak ignited when he began to read the satires of Swift, Voltaire, Juvenal and Pope. In particular Candide, Voltaire’s extraordinary satirical odyssey, and A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift's pamphlet suggesting the poor children of Ireland be fattened to feed the rich, were inspirational showing Bierce a way to combine wit, humour and defiant outrage in his writing. Finding employment in the San Francisco News-Letter he effectively hijacked the “Town Crier” section filling it with his merciless remarks and devastating criticism. Mysteriously the editor Watkins left suddenly for New York without explanation leaving the entire newspaper in Bierce’s hands. He became a newspaper editor at the advanced age of 26. Over three years later he left having established himself as a feared and respected Svengali of Californian current affairs, “Bitter Bierce”, a man with power enough to advance or destroy careers at the slightest whim. His initials A.G.B. became “Almighty God Bierce” to his enemies but he had already gone beyond the intrigues of criticism and newspapers. His motto was typically the nihilistic but liberating "Nothing matters."

Within a year he was gold mining and shotgun-riding in the Black Hills of South Dakota for Wells Fargo & Co (think Deadwood territory) and could have disappeared then into relative obscurity had William Randolph Hearst, owner of the San Francisco Examiner, not offered him a wealthy position writing the "Prattle" column and providing caricatures. And so would begin the most prolific period in Bierce’s life, for the next 21 years he would work for Hearst the media mogul on whom the megalomaniac Citizen Kane was based. Bierce ended up eventually hating his patron. While it became an era in which Bierce found national fame it also brought heart-breaking tragedy. Bierce's marriage started to fall apart, and he developed a destructive drinking habit. His son, Day, had run away from home at fifteen. Day killed a rival suitor of a sixteen-year-old girl and eventually was killed in a duel in 1889. Bierce's other son, Leigh attempted to drink himself to death finally succumbing pneumonia at the age of 26. Grief-stricken Bierce’s wife left him and when she died he retreated into a level of despair and bitterness that made his earlier self seem cheerful. But though he was mocked as “Bitter Bierce” he had at his core a deep humanity, his bitterness was an external shell, bravado hiding a vulnerable philanthropist. He had been to the bottom and somehow discovered he could bear it.

In 1897 Bierce became famous nationwide when he successfully battled Leland Stanford and the railroad barons, industrialists who were refusing to pay colossal debts to the government. Victorious he was proclaimed a hero of the people and it seemed destined to be his last triumph before retirement. From 1908 to 1912 he settled down to compile his writing into a twelve volume Collected Works. The set contained his Civil War writings, his journalism and his highly influential macabre stories, in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, that serve as a forerunner of The Twilight Zone or the X Files. These included the story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with its final genius twist that has been stolen and used in a thousand films and books since.

Safe in the knowledge that his life’s work had been captured for posterity it was expected that he would retire to some backwater and spend his last days tending a garden or writing his memoirs. As if to say goodbye to the world he revisited the places of his youth: the battlefields of the South, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington. In San Antonio Texas he was given an honorary dinner by his old Civil War comrades. Meditating on his haunting desert surroundings he wandered along the Mexican border for several days. What happened next is one of the most extraordinary and elusive tales in American history.

What is known for sure is that at the age of 71 he crossed the Rio Grande into a Mexico that was exploding into revolution. In a letter to his niece Laura he wrote, "Goodbye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico ah, that is euthanasia… I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don't know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn't matter much. Adios, Ambrose."

His last letter was sent from Chihuahua on December 26, 1913 to his secretary and partner Carrie Christiansen. He explains that the next day he is leaving by train for Ojinaga, where he planned to join the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa, who was preparing to attack a cornered Federal army and overthrow the governing regime. It ends “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Ambrose Bierce was never heard from again.

There are many theories, claims and counterclaims, books and even a film, Old Gringo starring Gregory Peck, surrounding his disappearance. Theories have been advanced as to why he did it. Some see it as the adventure of his youth rekindled, others as an act of suicide; the truth is likely to be a mixture of both. At the end of a remarkable life the only way to leave was to go down guns blazing. Nobody knows when and where exactly he died. Some conspiracy theorists say he was killed by hitmen from his old chief Hearst, who owned hacienda lands in northern Mexico. Hearst was allied with the dictatorship and was seeking to wipe out an expose Bierce had written on him, which then suspiciously disappeared from a safety deposit box in Laredo, Texas. According to another explanation Bierce did not go to Mexico at all but, instead, committed suicide in the Grand Canyon and wanted to throw his loved ones off the scent.

It is more likely that shortly after Villa captured Ciudad Juarez, Bierce crossed the Rio Grande and marched with Villa’s army to Chihuahua. At Tierra Blanca, a railway station thirty miles south of Juarez, Villa’s army defeated a strong force of federal soldiers. According to eyewitness accounts Bierce took part in the battle in which, after having been taunted by young soldiers, he killed a federal soldier by picking him off with a rifle from great distance. The revolutionaries were so delighted that they reportedly gave the elderly gringo a large sombrero as a prize for his marksmanship. From here it is likely the aged, asthmatic Bierce either passed away in the savage winter of 1913 or was killed in the frenzied battle of Ojinaga on January 11th 1914. Some, displaying a very un-Bierceian optimism, say he boldly ventured further into South America. All that matters is he left this world in spectacular fashion and more importantly while he was here he created works that will ensure he is never forgotten.

The Devils Dictionary is arguably Bierce’s masterpiece. It is not a conventional text but even over a century later it remains a remarkable satire. The original title The Cynics Wordbook is appropriate though not in the “cynical” sense of the word. Rather he was a cynic as the original Cynics were, a Greek sect who ridiculed the absurdities of society and held those in power to account through humour and derision. Though presented as a dictionary the book goes beyond the standard dictionary format including snippets of thought, quotes, sonnets, poems and limericks. Rather than discuss how it mocks our self-deceptions it is perhaps best to let his definitions speak for themselves:

Happiness, n.
An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

Rubbish, n.
Worthless matter such as religions, philosophies, literature, art and science…

Bigot, n.
One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

Debt, n.
An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver.

Brandy, n.
A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the- grave and four parts clarified Satan.

Mammon, n.
The god of the world's leading religion. The chief temple is in the holy city of New York.

Egotist, n.
A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Blackguard, n.
A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market -- the fine ones on top -- have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.

Fidelity, n.
A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.

Cabbage, n.
A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head.

Optimist, n.
A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.

Apologize, v.i.
To lay the foundation for a future offence.

Ghost, n.
The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

Patience, n.
A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

Dawn, n.
The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.

Intimacy, n.
A relation into which fools are providentially drawn for their mutual destruction.

Peace, n.
In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

Bacchus, n.
A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.

Idiot, n.
A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but "pervades and regulates the whole." He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a deadline.

Alone, adj.
In bad company.

Bore, n.
A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Alliance, n.
In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.

Barometer, n.
An ingenious instrument, which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

Christian, n.
One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbour.

Disobedience, n.
The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.

Famous, adj.
Conspicuously miserable.

Gunpowder, n.
An agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted. By most writers the invention of gunpowder is ascribed to the Chinese, but not upon very convincing evidence. Milton says it was invented by the devil to dispel angels with, and this opinion seems to derive some support from the scarcity of angels

is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection.

Labour, n.
One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

Love, n.
A temporary insanity curable by marriage

Needless to say the book is damned funny and almost too close to the bone. It is scathing in its honesty as only real honesty can be. Everything is a lie it says we’re all a bunch of self-deluding frequently tiresome cunts and the world will be all the better if we admit it to ourselves.

Bierce’s time seems to have finally come. A new edition of The Devil’s Dictionary, containing all of the above and many more, has been published complete with exploding inkblot illustrations by the brilliant Ralph Steadman, he of Fear And Loathing… notoriety. Bierce blazed a trail for others to follow. The Simpsons, the late great Bill Hicks, the almost horrible honesty of Curb Your Enthusiasm are all Biercian in their perceptions and attitudes. From Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Luis Borges in South America to Akutagawa Ryunosuke in Japan he has influenced a multitude of writers. In 2004, 180 years after his birth, the writers Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss and Eli Horowitz compiled The Future Dictionary of America as a political act of satire and a literary descendant of The Devil’s Dictionary. 200 writers supplied entries and the book promised to benefit groups who are “devoted to expressing their outrage over the Bush administration’s assault on free speech, overtime, drinking water, truth, the rule of law, humility, the separation of Church and State, a woman’s right to choose, clean air and every other good idea this country ever had.”
Feeling blue?
Throw the latest talk-show book club choice onto the fire, put your feet up, pour yourself a whiskey and reach for the Bierce.

An edited draft of this article originally appeared in