Sunday Pages: "Decalogue"

A comic poem by the late, great Ambrose Bierce.

Dear Reader,

This week has been a cocktail of emotions: rage, fear, anxiety, sadness, regret—but also, especially this weekend, hope, love, pride, compassion, anticipation. It has been, for me, a period more given to tears than laughter. We are living through history, after all. It is heavy stuff.

So for today’s “Sunday Pages,” I want to introduce a little levity. Today I’m sharing a poem by one of the wittiest wordsmiths in the history of this country—my answer to the question, “If you could bring one writer back to life and give him or her a Twitter account, who would it be?” I speak of Ambrose Bierce (b. 1842), journalist, short story writer, satirist extraordinaire, and compiler of The Devil’s Dictionary.

Comedy tends not to age as well as tragedy, but Bierce bucks this trend. He published the first edition of his lexicography way back in 1906, and it remains chef’s-kiss funny. The guy was ahead of his time. He even looks like someone one might encounter in some hipster part of Brooklyn:

The Devil’s Dictionary, originally published as The Cynic’s Dictionary, is an actual dictionary, containing any number of clever “definitions,” such as:

ALONE, adj. In bad company.

CHRISTIAN, n. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

DEFAME, v.t. To lie about another. To tell the truth about another.

FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

IMPUNITY, n. Wealth.

LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

LICKSPITTLE, n. A useful functionary, not infrequently found editing a newspaper.

NOVEMBER, n. The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.

ONCE, adv. Enough.

OPTIMIST, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.

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

PLEASURE, n. The least hateful form of dejection.

PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

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.

REALLY, adv. Apparently.

As you can see from this smattering, Bierce would have had little trouble adapting his cynical views to 2020 America. One marvels at what he might have made of Donald John Trump.

Ambrose Bierce came to mind this week, when Trump had his ill-starred photo op with the Bible in front of the teargassed church—specifically his poem, “Decalogue,” concerning the Ten Commandments, which is in The Devil’s Dictionary. (Robert Ingersoll argued for agnosticism, and was known as The Great Agnostic):

Decalogue

Thou shalt no God but me adore:
'Twere too expensive to have more.

No images nor idols make
For Robert Ingersoll to break.

Take not God's name in vain; select
A time when it will have effect.

Work not on Sabbath days at all,
But go to see the teams play ball.

Honor thy parents. That creates
For life insurance lower rates.

Kill not, abet not those who kill;
Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.

Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless
Thine own thy neighbor doth caress

Don't steal; thou’lt never thus compete
Successfully in business. Cheat.

Bear not false witness—that is low—
“But hear ‘tis rumored so and so.”

Covet thou naught that thou hast not
By hook or crook, or somehow, got.

For all his cynicism, Bierce was an influential journalist, always seeking out the truth. In 1913, at age 71, he went to Mexico to cover the revolution happening there; he was last seen at Chihuahua, after which time he disappeared for good. But his words live forever.

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Photo credit: Ambrose Bierce Collection, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.