Book Review: The Devil’s Dictionary

The Devil’s Dictionary:  Complete And Unabridged, by Ambrose Bierce

The author was a Civil War veteran and a notoriously sardonic man most famous for this book.  This book is evidence that even when someone is deliberately trying to be on the side of Satan that he cannot help but expose some unpleasant truths about himself and a desire, however unrecognized, to be on the right.  Yet this book is really several sorts of books in one.  While the author (and many of his contemporary fans) are likely to appreciate the book because of the author’s belief that Christians are a type of hypocrites, which was daring in the author’s time and one of those unexamined prejudices of our own times, there are other elements to this work that are less obvious and that are somewhat in tension with the author’s apparent desire to take Satan’s side, and that is his accurate criticism of injustice and the corruption of politics.  He appears to be blaming God for the problems that are, but accurately points out the problems of corruption and violence and widespread ignorance and stupidity that make this earth such a hell, and so it is that a book that purports to be on Satan’s side exposes the evils of life in a fallen world seemingly in spite of its authors purposes.

This particular book of over 300 pages is filled with alphabetically organized short witticisms about life and the people in it.  As is often the case, it is the author’s shortest barbs that are the funniest, most of which are based on a bit of self-recognition.  For example, a bore is defined as someone who talks when you want them to listen, an impostor is a rival aspirant to public honors, and fidelity is a virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.  A substantial and surprising amount of the book is filled with the author’s sardonic and entertaining verse, which demonstrates he was a good poet as well as a corrupt wit, and some of which appear to be parodies of the poetry of others.  It is an easy book to appreciate, being short and humorous, and of the sort that it confirms the snobbery of those who look down on the ignorance of the common man as well as who sneer at conventional morality while also looking down on the corruption of sordid politics, thus giving this book a broad appeal to those who are not aware of the extent to which they are a part of the problems that this book assails.

There are a lot of layers of self-contradiction in this book, and one wonders the extent to which the author was himself aware of the various tensions and contradictions in this work of his, or that his fans have bothered to examine such areas.  When a man (or woman) lacks the interest in moral elevation yet seeks to criticize the filth of the corrupt and fallen culture around, whether that be popular culture or politics, it is hard to avoid being a hypocrite, and the author does not manage to do so.  It is especially rich that the author considers Christians (and religious folk in general) to be so hypocritical when his own work demonstrates his hypocrisy to a high degree.  Pot, meet kettle.  Furthermore, the fact that the author is complaining about the harm done to humanity as a result of corrupt tyrants and politicians suggests that he is not on the devil’s side after all, but does not want to admit being on the side of the angels because that would not be hipster enough for him.  This book would have been better as the cry of a soul bothered by the wickedness that was all around him (and within him) than as the witty castoffs of a cynical but inconsequential man.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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