January 2, 2008

Diagnosis of Death | Ambrose Bierce

June 24, 1842 – 1914(?): Age 71

"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."

Ambrose Bierce was a soldier, journalist, writer, and misanthrope — the kind of misanthrope who hates humans because he loves humans, and cannot ignore our propensity to inflict cruelty on one another.

Bierce was born 10th of 13 children. His father indulged a peculiar whim of giving each of his 13 children names starting with the letter "A": Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia.

Bierce was a brilliant writer, with a clear and direct style. He worked as a journalist for many years, but today he is remembered most for his many short stories. He wrote in three genres, roughly: war stories, based on his (horrific) experiences in the Civil War; ghost stories; and grotesque humour. Almost all of his stories have to do with death — my kind of writer! His style was clear and very direct, but the most remarkable thing about his writing is that, underneath the cynicism (and it is very cynical) there shines, unmistakably, a deeply compassionate heart. Don't take my word for it; read him for yourself. I include links to three of his stories below. (Another writer like this is Dorothy Parker; read her work, too, if you get the chance.)

He was repelled by charm. Here is what he had to say about Oscar Wilde, who most intellectuals were crazy about: "The ineffable dunce has nothing to say... embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitudes, gestures and attire. There was never an impostor so hateful... a crank so variously stupid and dull. He makes me tired." Interesting, in that Wilde was another literary figure whose cynical exterior hosted a genuinely compassionate heart. But Bierce would have none of it.

By the time Bierce was 70 he was well-known for his bitterness and his complete disgust with human nature. He traveled to Mexico, then in the middle of a revolution, and toured with the army of Pancho Villa as an observer. In one of his last letters he wrote:
"Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that 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 — ah, that is euthanasia!"

It is certain he was with Villa's army in Chihuahua. His last letter, to a friend, was dated December 26, 1913. After that, he was never heard from again. Some believed he had simply shot himself. All investigations led nowhere, and to this day nobody knows what happened to him.

Three Short Stories by Bierce
War: Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, probably his most famous story.
Supernatural: A Diagnosis of Death
Grotesque Humour: My Favourite Murder

Source: Wikipedia

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