A Corrective Dose of Nonsensus


October 20, 1992|By GREGORY P. KANE

Ambrose Bierce, dispatched to his grave 70-odd years ago, is probably trying to claw his way out. Enough has happened on the American scene within the past year to make that grand curmudgeon, wit and cynic of the latter 19th century wish that he had been born in 1942, not 1842.

Bierce tantalized readers' psyches in such works as ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,'' ''Chickamauga,'' ''Parker Addison, Philosopher'' and ''One of the Missing.'' But his best and cleverest work may have been his ''The Devil's Dictionary.'' Begun as a weekly newspaper column in 1881, the book is a collection of common words redefined to suit the curious world view that was Ambrose Bierce's. Some are brief, with a tinge of cynicism. For example:

''Brute, n. See HUSBAND.''

''Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.''

Some definitions show that Bierce took no back seat to his contemporary Mark Twain as a satirist and humorist:

''Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.''

''Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.''

''Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.''

''Friendless, adj. Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.''

The book is filled with such gems, many of which are still pertinent to the American scene. Had Bierce been around to witness the fiasco of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy, he might have reminded us of his definition of the Senate:

''Senate, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.''

Had he observed the Rodney King trial and seen how three or four lawyers managed to convince a jury that it didn't see what it actually saw, he might refer us to his definitions of lawyer, justice and liar:

''Lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.''

''Justice, n. A commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.''

''Liar, n. A lawyer with a roving commission.''

We shouldn't leave the subject of lawyers without taking note of the proliferation of lawsuits now cluttering the court system. Bierce has some pithy definitions for this situation, too:

''Litigant, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.''

''Litigation, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.''

With the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern European communist bloc, many of us may have been lulled into thinking that world peace in our time may be a reality. Bierce would snap us out of our complacency by reminding us what he thinks peace actually is:

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

Of the current trend by some in society to blame their failures on anyone and everyone but themselves, Bierce would have offered us this definition of responsibility:

''Responsibility, n. a detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor.''

But this is an election year, and Bierce would have delighted us all with these observations (hope you're reading George, Ross and Bill):

''Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.''

''Politician, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.''

''Presidency, n. The greased pig in the field game of American politics.''

''President, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom -- and of whom only -- it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for president.''

''Referendum, n. A law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion.''

Finally, Bierce has a reminder for us of exactly how the Dan Quayles of our country get to be a heartbeat away from the presidency:

''Vote, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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