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Ambrose Bierce, the anti-Santa

In his 'Devil's Dictionary,' Ambrose Bierce stripped all pretense from Americans' holiday of consumption: Christmas. But the nation's greatest cynic was hardly a Scrooge.

December 20, 2011|By Rhoda Koenig
(Klair Bybee / Handout )

Ebenezer Scrooge took only one night to change his tune from "Bah! Humbug!" to "God bless us, every one!" Ambrose Bierce was made of sterner stuff. He reviled the holiday (and just about everything else) to the day he was last heard from, south of the border, on Dec. 26, 1913.

Perhaps the greatest wit in American literature, and certainly its greatest cynic, Bierce defined Christmas in his satirical 1911 lexicon "The Devil's Dictionary" as "a day set apart and consecrated to gluttony, drunkenness, maudlin sentiment, gift-taking, public dullness and domestic misbehavior." The gifts we reluctantly gave, he said, were offered "in expectation of something better." They were "today's payment for tomorrow's service."

Though Bierce saw self-indulgence as the point of the day ("Men make gods of their bellies, and then these gods ordain festivals"), he expected little gratification from American cooks, who made "unpalatable that which was already indigestible." The typical Christmas pudding, he said, was as inedible as the typical yule log.

Before Christmas, Bierce grumbled, one was beset by pester power ("the irrepressible solicitations of babes"), and for several days around it worn down by monotonous wishes. He had given up hope, he said, "of meeting some day a brilliant genius or inspired idiot who will have the intrepidity to vary the adjective and wish him a 'Happy Christmas' or a 'Merry New Year'; or, with an even more captivating originality, keep his mouth shut."

Those of us to whom "Jingle Bells" is the signal to hide under the duvet for a week, or to stock up, as a friend of mine does, on DVDs of films about serial killers, will hail a kindred spirit. But only the most determined curmudgeon will subscribe to all of Bierce's gloomy views of humanity and its works. An idiot, he wrote, was "a member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling." Religion was "a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable," self-esteem "an erroneous appraisement," love "a temporary insanity curable by marriage," and a lawyer "one skilled in circumvention of the law" (well, we might get together on that one).

It is important, however, to appreciate the difference between Bierce and Scrooge, between the cynic and the creep. Scrooge, applied to for charity, says that the poor should go to the prison or the workhouse. "I can't afford to make idle people merry." (I think we always knew Scrooge was a Republican.) When told that many would rather die, he replies that "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Bierce, by contrast, was mischievous rather than cruel (he once proposed that the epitaph of a San Francisco politician should read: "Here lies Frank Pixley, as usual), and he hit hardest where hypocrisy was greatest, at the cruelty and complacency of wealth and power. "Labor" he defined as "one of the processes by which A acquires property for B," and "air" as "a nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor." His own word for the American system of government was "plutocracy: a republican form of government deriving its powers from the conceit of the governed — in thinking they govern."

Bierce also did more than sit back and satirize. He railed against the exploitation and discrimination suffered by the Chinese, who had created so much of the wealth of California. He denounced the corruption of the railroad in the state, and at one point became so incensed at a proposal to forgive the company $75 million in tax that he traveled to Washington to campaign against it. He was offered a large bribe to go home; he refused it; the railroad lost and paid up.

In October 1913, at age 71, Bierce set off for Mexico to observe the revolution there. "Good-bye," he wrote to his niece. "If you should hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and being shot to rags, please know that I think it is 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 — oh, that is euthanasia!" He was never heard from again.

Bierce's savage indignation arose from disappointed ideals. He showed his claws as often as he did out of rage at stupidity and injustice in a land that prided itself on being rich and free. And he included himself among the lazy, selfish and weak. That definition of self-esteem sounds as if its author were conscious of sin.

If the cynic, therefore, scorns what we hold dear, perhaps, instead of condemning his bad manners, we should examine our own consciences. Perhaps we should even try to repair our faults, and call on others, especially those above us, to mend theirs. We might begin, quite modestly, by altering our habitual seasonal greeting so as to make its recipients really hear it and know we mean it. A merry new year, everyone! And Happy Christmas!

Rhoda Koenig is the author of "The New Devil's Dictionary: A New Version of the Cynical Classic," published this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Bierce's lexicon.

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