Of all the anthologized American literature I devoured in my high school English classes, none stuck in my mind quite like, or quite as long as, Ambrose Bierce’s wickedly satirical masterpiece, THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY.
Putting aside any pretense to conformity or prudishness on my part, I’m the first to admit this deliciously warped glossary—originally titled THE CYNIC’S WORD BOOK when it appeared in 1906—appealed primarily to the little devil in my wayward teenage self.
A master wordsmith in the comical vein of his good buddy Mark Twain (whom he uncannily resembled and to whom he is often compared), Bierce indelibly defined love as “a temporary insanity curable by marriage,” litigation as “a machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage,” patience as “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue,” and an egotist as “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”
If you don’t find these definitions hilarious, or at least amusing, I advise you to stop reading now and go rustle up a sense of humor before it’s too late.
While studying literature in college and trying my hand at fiction, I developed a habit of keeping writing journals inspired by THE NOTEBOOKS OF F. SCOTT FITZGERALD in which I jotted down everything from jokes and snippets of dialogue to plotlines and ideas for character development.
It may come as a surprise to readers impressed by the gravitas of Fitzgerald’s rather serious novels that some of his private humor recalled Bierce. “Thank gravity for working your bowels,” quipped Fitzgerald, who also wittily observed, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
In my opinion, Fitzgerald’s most gut-busting notebook entry came in the form of his famous Turkey Recipes, a series of farcical “cocktail tall tales” with a tongue-in-cheek cookbook delivery that included my favorite “definition” …
Turkey with Whiskey Sauce: This recipe is for a party of four. Obtain a gallon of whiskey, and allow it to age for several hours. Then serve, allowing one quart for each guest. The next day the turkey should be added, little by little, constantly stirring and basting.
One recurring category in my own notebooks—no surprise here—has been satirical definitions. For many years I thought I was merely scribbling these bite-sized bursts of irreverence for my eyes only in a private homage to the Biercean and Fitzgeraldean spirit of subversion.
And maybe I was. But that changed last year when, for one reason or another, whole new crops of snarky definitions started sprouting up in my cerebral cortex as I found myself feverishly assembling THE ANGEL’S DICTIONARY, if only for my own satisfaction.
You might be inclined to jump right in and start reading the entries. That’s okay—that’s why I put them there. But if you’re interested in hearing my perspective on this Spirited Glossary for the Little Devil in You, stick with me.
You see, the biggest conundrum with publishing a book of satire isn’t the risk that no one will laugh at your jokes (some of which, admittedly, fall into the hopelessly adolescent category); the most troubling issue—for the satirist anyway—is the sad likelihood that hardly anyone will even feel insulted by them.
As it turns out, the critical flaw with any attempt at satire may be baked into the genre. Most dictionaries define satire in something like these terms: a work of literature in which human ignorance, immorality and hypocrisy are exposed through wit, irony, sarcasm, burlesque, exaggeration, or ridicule.
I’m fine with that definition. But it doesn’t tell you whether satire is actually capable of changing anything.
Satire’s Golden Age—in English literature at least—was the 18th Century. During this sublimely sardonic literary period, the effectiveness of the satirical mode was appraised from widely divergent perspectives by two irreverent geniuses with just the right temperament to perfect the art.
Henry Fielding, author of the epically picaresque TOM JONES, wrote, “The satirist is to be regarded as our physician, not our enemy.” Taking a more pessimistic view, Jonathan Swift of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS fame defined satire as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.”
Brushing aside any Fieldingesque idealization of satire as social medicine, a jocund pill capable of magically curing the satirized of their thickheadedness and ethical lapses, Swift paints the genre as an innocuous method of sermonizing. According to this jaded perspective, readers can stare until they’re blue in the face into the mirror of satire—but the warped surface undulates like a carnival mirror and, in most cases, they don’t even manage to recognize themselves.
Across the big pond a century and a half later in THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY, Bierce defined satire, well, satirically. He took particular aim at his fellow Americans:
SATIRE: n. An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are “endowed by their Creator” with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a soul-spirited knave, and his ever victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent.
Even though history remembers him as one of America’s most gifted satirists, Bierce unflinchingly represents satire as a thing of the past, a relic woefully unsuited to the sappy American sense of humor of his day. Simultaneously, the satirist is depicted as an idealistic fool swimming against the current of accepted vice and folly, his message falling on deaf ears and rendering him, effectively, a satirical victim of his own art.
So, where precisely does yours truly register on the Fielding-Swift-Bierce satirical scale? Does the author of THE ANGEL’S DICTIONARY intend to heal a mad world, if only a little, by good-naturedly mocking it? Does he—smug in his “sane” role as satirist—merely stick his tongue out at humanity’s insanity as if to sneer, “I told you so”? Or is he really just another “lunatic,” to reference this book’s epigraph, “who can analyze his delusion”?
The answer, to be a good deal more transparent than any administration in recent history, is maybe a little of all three.
One point I won’t waffle on is this: I learned in composing this dictionary that I’m not Ambrose Bierce. By which I mean: I may or may not be as witty an aphorist, but I’m unquestionably not as great a cynic, defined herein as “one who gets off the train before it reaches the station.” Thus while Bierce justly deserved the epithet “Bitter Bierce,” I titled my latter-day compendium of social inanity angelically first—and only secondarily devilish.
With or without satire, though just maybe a tiny bit faster with it, when all is said and done, I believe we humans will pull through and—despite ourselves—get the world right one of these days.
Copyright © Sol Luckman. All Rights Reserved.
Sol Luckman is a pioneering ink painter whose work has been featured on mainstream book covers and award-winning author whose books include the international bestselling CONSCIOUS HEALING and its bestselling sequel, POTENTIATE YOUR DNA. His visionary novel, SNOOZE: A STORY OF AWAKENING, winner of the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award for New Age Fiction, is the coming-of-age tale of one extraordinary boy’s awakening to the world-changing reality of his dreams. Sol’s latest book, THE ANGEL’S DICTIONARY: A SPIRITED GLOSSARY FOR THE LITTLE DEVIL IN YOU, reinvigorates satire to prove that—though we might not be able to change the world—we can at least have a good laugh at it. Then again, maybe laughter can transform the world! Learn more about Sol’s art and writing at www.CrowRising.com.