Sunday, 30 July 2017

Masquerades in Literary And Academic Circles According to "The Devil’s Dictionary"

Part of what I admire in Ligotti is his absolute humility, his refusal to pretend that having literary talent makes him a superior being. He’s had a difficult life and that’s made him intolerant of arrogance.

One way to deal with confusion linguarum is to rely on dictionaries. Out of the dozens of dictionaries that pile up on my shelves there is an exceptional one that through its biting critique provides a vehicle for moral instruction… and by doing so brings huge amounts of merriment and laughter. The work in question was compiled by one of the classic weird fiction writers, Ambrose Bierce. I am of course referring to The Devil’s Dictionary, of which I am a huge enthusiast. I have been stopping to browse it on and off for over a decade.
The targets for Bierce’s mockery are wide-ranging: from lawyers to the institution of marriage, from religion to… the world of academia and literary circles.  I recently stumbled again upon the following definition of the word “Connoisseur”, which always strikes me as particularly spot-on:
CONNOISSEUR, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.
An old wine-bibber having been smashed in a railway collision, some wine was poured upon his lips to revive him. "Pauillac, 1873," he murmured and died.
I went back to The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary (ed. by David E. Schulz and S. T. Joshi) and in the supplementary section found another version of the same entry, which appeared in San Francisco magazine, The Wasp, where an earlier version of the dictionary was printed:
CONNOISSEUR, n. One who knows what is what, and is commonly content with that degree of knowledge.
Reading these entries from Bierce’s lexicon one might find it difficult to deny the sad truth that emerges from the otherwise hilarious definitions.
“The Bitter Bierce”, just as Ligotti (quoted in this post’s epigraph), seems to have had little tolerance for arrogance in the literary and academic circles. Sycophancy, narcissism, hypocrisy, cliquism, cronyism, mean-spirited criticism and exclusivity are just a few characteristics and practices one can come across in literary and academic milieux. Some parts of The Devil’s Dictionary can be read as a self-referential literary device, a critique of the world of literature, academia and the art of writing itself.
The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Univ Tennessee Press (2006)
The author of the humorous dictionary through his conscious mockery paints himself as a narcissistic intellectual, a lexicographer proud of his unique abilities and his work of superior merit. Here are a few entries through which Bierce speaks of his own unequivocally exceptional work:
IMBECILITY, n. A kind of divine inspiration, or sacred fire, affecting censorious critics of this dictionary.
NONSENSE, n. The objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.
TYPE, n. Pestilent bits of metal suspected of destroying civilization and enlightenment, despite their obvious agency in this incomparable dictionary.
Elsewhere Bierce’s cynical satire ridicules the arrogant disposition of writers, literati or scholars reducing those who succumb to their vanity to amusing buffoons firmly convinced of the sheer ingenuity of whatever they put down on the page.
Regardless of what Bierce really thought of his literary endeavours, his dictionary is a work of the true genius of mockery. The following is my selection of appropriately piquant, sobering and funny definitions related to all things literary and scholarly.

Some notable translations:
French: “Le Dictionnaire du diable” (1964) tr. by Jacques Papy with a preface by Jacques Sternberg – the latter an important figure in the Belgian School of the Strange.
German: "Aus dem Wörterbuch des Teufels" tr. by Michael Siefener. Siefener is an important figure in German weird fiction who also works as a translator. In the past he has translated Thomas Ligotti among others. His fiction will most likely be discussed on CL in the future.
Polish: "Diabli Dykcjonarz" - the highly anticipated Polish translation by Mateusz Kopacz planned for publication this year. This will be the first edition of the book in Polish. Knowing this translator's previous works, I have not doubt we can expect a very meticulous and comprehensive edition. I am most eagerly awaiting the reactions of the Polish readers to the unparalleled irony that emerges from the lexicon’s pages.

A list of translations of The Devil’s Dictionary can be found on Wikipedia:

Further Reading:

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