Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Occurrence at the Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author's ideas that they were "concatenated without abruption."

My daughters say funny things all the time. They can’t help it. Today in the car Xian asked what a ‘Terrier’ was and I told her it was a small dog, popular as a pet, that was good at hunting small cute furry critters. To which she said, “What, like an ant?”
“No, a wee bit bigger.”
“Oh, like an iguana?”
“Nobody hunts iguana, honey. They just pick them up off the ground, and besides, iguanas aren’t furry.”
“Hmmm…” I could see her wheels spinning. “so like, a moldy Easter Egg?”
Well… I thought it was funny.
ELYSIUM, n. An imaginary delightful country which the ancients foolishly believed to be inhabited by the spirits of the good. This ridiculous and mischievous fable was swept off the face of the earth by the early Christians — may their souls be happy in Heaven!

Bekah is not to be outdone by older sis. The other day watching Arab revolution footage on TV, she asked why more countries didn’t put pink stars and rainbow hearts on their flags. Those are certainly her most favorite things to draw… that and snails, rainbow snails. Yes, more countries should consider putting rainbow snails on their flags… it’s just cute.
I couldn’t agree more.
ELOQUENCE, n. The art of orally persuading fools that white is the color that it appears to be. It includes the gift of making any color appear white.

The subject of funny words that conjure confusing dreams appeared in class last week as we looked at the works of Ambrose Bierce. Who? YOU asked… oh, and happy you did.
Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce was a ridiculous and vehement critic of American life (June 24, 1842-after Dec 26, 1913). He was George Carlin at his word-smith best and Jerry Bruckheimer sans explosions and cool soundtracks at his suspenseful white-knuckle worst. He was a journalist, satirist, moustache enthusiast, a fabulist, and rivals Houdini, Elvis Pressley, and Tupac Shakur for most mysterious circumstances around an alleged death. His two word motto should be tattooed somewhere on your body or at the very least, post-it noted on your bathroom mirror: “Nothing Matters.”
HEARSE, n. Death's baby-carriage.

A Word-Smith, you say? How droll. Well, with parents like these, how could he not? Bierce was born at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce (Sweet!) and Laura Sherwood Bierce who was a descendant of William Bradford…oh yes… I see a connecting theme here, Mr. Hartenstein.
PANDEMONIUM, n. Literally, the Place of All the Demons. Most of them have escaped into politics and finance, and the place is now used as a lecture hall by the Audible Reformer. When disturbed by his voice the ancient echoes clamor appropriate responses most gratifying to his pride of distinction.

He was the tenth of thirty children…that would be Mark and Laura plus a Baker’s Dozen, if it were reality show on TLC, and Bierce gave his children names all beginning with the letter “A”. Okay, quick, give me thirteen names that start with “A”: Aha! I thought so.
Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius (first boy, junior for short) then Augustus (keeping with the Roman theme, are we?) Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Amborse, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia… not to be confused with Areola, which would be a perfectly unsuitable and misfortunate name for anything other than a blemish on a boob.
QUIXOTIC, adj. Absurdly chivalric, like Don Quixote. An insight into the beauty and excellence of this incomparable adjective is unhappily denied to him who has the misfortune to know that the gentleman's name is pronounced Ke-ho-tay.

The Bierce family was poor but rich in literary spirit, instilling a deep love of books and writing. The boys grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana where they attended school, and Ambrose left home at the age of 15 (yes, another common theme kids… you’re old enough to be a man or woman, act like it…) to become a “printer’s devil,” and never looked back.
WEDDING, n. A ceremony at which two persons undertake to become one, one undertakes to become nothing, and nothing undertakes to become supportable.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army and eventually fought at the Battle of Shiloh, a horrible experience that later inspired much of the darkness and realism of his work. Later, he was wounded in the head but recovered. He was decorated numerous times for bravery in battle, and was honorably discharged and conflict’s end, but this was later called back into service on a wagon expedition through Nebraska, arriving in San Francisco, where he lived for many years.
WITTICISM, n. A sharp and clever remark, usually quoted, and seldom noted; what the Philistine is pleased to call a "joke."

Bierce’s own family life was full of sadness. He married beloved Mary Ellen, “Mollie” on Christmas Day, and had three children. Both sons died before him. One was shot in a brawl over a woman and another of alcoholic pneumonia. He divorced his wife in later years after discovering love letters written from an admirer. Mollie Bierce died the following year.
ZIGZAG, v.t. To move forward uncertainly, from side to side, as one carrying the white man's burden. (From zed, z, and jag, an Icelandic word of unknown meaning.)

In San Francisco, Bierce wrote voraciously for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including a famously public scandal he broke on money embezzlement for government contracts of the Transcontinental Railroad. After which, Bierce was lauded a literary hero. But this was only the beginning of hot water ink that Bierce’s dipping pen landed him into. Later his short stories are among some of the best the 19th century produced, including “Chickamuaga,” and “Killed at Resaca”… but my favorite, and the one I teach, will always be “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” about a widowed Confederate soldier’s foiled attempts at terrorism and execution by hanging above his childhood fishing hole that results in a dramatic dream sequence of running through the woods toward the outstretched arms of his wife, only to have the rope “snap” the exact moment their bodies meet.
Another notable work is the much-quoted, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” first published in 1906 as “The Cynic’s Word Book,” consisting of silly and inane definitions of English words and political double-talk.
GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet of the self-made man, along the path by which he advance to distinction.

In October of 1913, Bierce, now seventy-one, was touring old Civil War battlefields, when he made his way through Texas into Mexico via El Paso, which was in the midst of revolution, to Ciudad Juarez, to join Pancho Villa’s army as an observer… (I know, Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be … journalists) His last known communication was to a friend dated one day after Christmas, which read… “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination…”
Ambrose Bierce was never heard from again.
What I love about Bierce is that he had all the macabre devilish-torture of Edgar Allen Poe without the character flaws, and all the personal wit, charm, and adventure of Mark Twain without the ruinous upheavals of fortune. He is a lesser known American writer and one to be discovered and savored at one’s own unique leisure. It’s discoveries like this that are important, nothing else really matters.

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