In my village, we have an idiom. “When’s last time you looked in on [X]—?”
“X” is always some acknowledged literary classic everybody reads early in life and then forgets. For example, More’s Utopia. I did read it, but I might as well not have. I was nineteen. Anyone today who had just read the back cover of a copy of Utopia would, in a knowledge contest, smoke me like a cheap cigar. About the book’s narrative I remember … well, nothing.
Wait. They didn’t think gold was valuable. I forget why. Their toilets were gold. Or the chains that they loaded prisoners with. Or something. Not toilets; chamberpots. And the narrator had some cross-eyed name like Holofernes Hwum-buppa-zipplebibble or something.
However! Suppose that I (prompted by shame) decided to engineer a little ol’ Utopia project. I pore over the book for a week and think, Huh—this is full of good stuff! At that point I would say to my neighbors, Hey, when’s last time you looked in on More’s Utopia—?
We’re like this in my village. Humane. We know very well that to read a book is not to have read it. Forgetting and noncomprehension must be given their due. And more than their due.
You’re about to reread The Mayor of Casterbridge. That’s excellent. Then you can remind me what happens in it. You just opened Paradise Lost to a random page and found something surprising? Do tell. I promise to be equally surprised. It’s been quite a while since I looked in on it.
All of which is to say it is especially frustrating to people from my village when critics or theorists write about literature with the assumption that the typical reader remembers everything. Or worse: that we not only remember everything but that we know where all the good stuff is in it.
When’s last you looked in on W. H. Auden’s preface to Shakespeare’s sonnets? Here’s a vexing bit:
On going through the hundred and fifty-four of them, I find forty-nine which seem to me excellent throughout, a good number of the rest have one or two memorable lines, but there are also several which I can only read out of a sense of duty.
Every time I think of this passage, I GET SO ANGRY. I’m like, Why, why, and why-why-why do you mention having picked out the forty-nine best, and then not tell us which ones you mean? What, you think I’m going to go through all 154 of those jumping-jack-doing, nine-dimension hieroglyphs, on the outside chance I can spontaneously regenerate your list?
To quote Gloucester in King Lear: “Give me the letter, Sir!”
I am about to come to the point. Auden had “done the work” on the sonnets, and then withheld the results. This was evil, but … that was a different time. The point is, I’m not going to do that to you. Get ready for this. I, unlike you, have read every word of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)—and read it recently. And it gets better. I, at the cost of an ocean of labor, have cherry-picked the seventy-four best bits out of the approximately three thousand billion trillion entries, and I am going to give you those seventy-four: yours, free of charge, to judge and find wanting.
I wish to note, before the presentation, that in assembling this set I looked at no other. I would have looked, if H. L. Mencken, who was a great admirer of Bierce, had made one. But as far as I can see, he did not. Also, it bears mentioning that my original selection contained around 250 entries, was winnowed to 100, and then further winnowed to 74.
So what do you think, Subhuti? When’s last you looked in on The Devil’s Dictionary—? Here, allow me, like a good neighbor, to refresh you.
Abdication, n. An act whereby a sovereign attests his sense of the high temperature of the throne.
Absent, adj. Peculiarly exposed to the tooth of detraction; vilified; hopelessly in the wrong; superseded in the consideration and affection of another.
Acephalous, adj. In the surprising condition of the Crusader who absently pulled at his forelock some hours after a Saracen scimitar had, unconsciously to him, passed through his neck.
Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
Advice, n. The smallest current coin.
Air, n. A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.
Alliance, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.
Applause, n. The echo of a platitude.
Archbishop, n. An ecclesiastical dignitary one point holier than a bishop.
Armor, n. The kind of clothing worn by a man whose tailor is a blacksmith.
Babe or Baby, n. A misshapen creature of no particular age, sex, or condition, chiefly remarkable for the violence of the sympathies and antipathies it excites in others, itself without sentiment or emotion.
Back, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.
Blackguard, n. A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market—the fine ones on top—have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.
Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.
Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
Cemetery, n. An isolated suburban spot where mourners match lies, poets write at a target, and stone-cutters spell for a wager.
Centaur, n. One of a race of persons who lived before the division of labor had been carried to such a pitch of differentiation, and who followed the primitive economic maxim, “Every man his own horse.” The best of the lot was Chiron, who to the wisdom and virtues of the horse added the fleetness of man.
Cerberus, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance—against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance.
Childhood, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth—two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.
Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
Consul, n. In American politics, a person who having failed to secure an office from the people is given one by the Administration on condition that he leave the country.
Conversation, n. A fair for the display of minor mental commodities, each exhibitor being too intent upon the arrangement of his own wares to observe those of this neighbor.
Curse, v.t. Energetically to belabor with a verbal slap-stick. This is an operation which in literature, particularly in the drama, is commonly fatal to the victim.
Deputy, n. A male relative of an office-holder, or of his bondsman. The deputy is commonly a beautiful young man, with a red necktie and an intricate system of cobwebs extending from his nose to his desk. When accidentally struck by the janitor’s broom, he gives off a cloud of dust.
Die, n. The singular of “dice.” We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, “Never say die.” At long intervals, however, some one says: “The die is cast,” which is not true, for it is cut. The word is found in an immortal couplet by that eminent poet and domestic economist, Senator Depew:
A cube of cheese no larger than a die
May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.
Dog, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship. This Divine Being in some of his smaller and silkier incarnations, takes, in the affection of Woman, the place to which there is no human male aspirant. The Dog is a survival—an anachronism. He toils not, neither does he spin, yet Solomon in all his glory never lay upon a door-mat all day long, sun-soaked and fly-fed and fat, while his master worked for the means wherewith to purchase an idle wag of the Solomonic tail, seasoned with a look of tolerant recognition.
Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
Elegy, n. A composition in verse, in which without employing any of the methods of humor, the writer aims to produce in the reader’s mind the dampest kind of dejection.
Envelope, n. The coffin of a document; the scabbard of a bill; the husk of a remittance; the bed-gown of a love-letter.
Epicure, n. An opponent of Epicurus, an abstemious philosopher who, holding that pleasure should be the chief aim of man, wasted no time in gratification of the senses.
Exhort, v.t. In religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.
Exile, n. One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.
An English sea-captain being asked if he had read “The Exile of Erin,” replied: “No, sir, but I should like to anchor on it.” Years afterward, when he had been hanged as a pirate after a career of unparalleled atrocities, the following memorandum was found in the ship’s log that he had kept at the time of his reply: “Aug. 3d, 1842. Made a joke on the ex-Isle of Erin. Coldly received. War with the whole world!”
Fork, n. An instrument used chiefly for the purpose of putting dead animals into the mouth. Formerly the knife was used for this purpose, and by many worthy persons is still thought to have many advantages over the other tool, which, however, they do not altogether reject, but use to assist in the charging of the knife. The immunity of these persons from swift and awful death is one of the most striking proofs of God’s mercy to those that hate Him.
Frog, n. A reptile with edible legs. The first mention of frogs in profane literature is in Homer’s narrative of the war between them and the mice. Skeptical persons have doubted Homer’s authorship of the work, but the learned, ingenious and industrious Dr. Schliemann has set the question forever at rest by uncovering the bones of the slain frogs.
Gallows, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.
Geology, n. The science of the earth’s crust—to which, doubtless, will be added that of its interior whenever a man shall come up garrulous out of a well. The geological formations of the globe already noted are catalogued thus: The Primary, or lower one, consists of rocks, bones of hired mules, gas-pipes, miners’ tools, antique statues minus the nose, Spanish doubloons and ancestors. The Secondary is largely made up of red worms and moles. The Tertiary comprises railway tracks, patent pavements, grass, snakes, mouldy boots, beer bottles, tomato cans, intoxicated citizens, anarchists, snap-dogs and fools.
Graces, n.pl. Three beautiful goddesses, Aglaia, Thalia and Euphrosyne, who attended upon Venus, serving without salary. They were at no expense for board and clothing, for they ate nothing to speak of and dressed according to the weather, wearing whatever breeze happened to be blowing.
Handkerchief, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears.
Harangue, n. A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harangue-outang.
Hearse, n. Death’s baby-carriage.
Hemp, n. A plant from whose fibrous bark is made an article of neckware which is frequently put on after public speaking in the open air and prevents the wearer from taking cold.
Hog, n. A bird remarkable for the catholicity of its appetite and serving to illustrate that of ours. Among the Mahometans and Jews, the hog is not in favor as an article of diet, but is respected for the delicacy of its habits, the beauty of its plumage and the melody of its voice. It is chiefly as a songster that the fowl is esteemed; a cage of him in full chorus has been known to draw tears from two persons at once.
Hostility, n. A peculiarly sharp and specially applied sense of the earth’s overpopulation.
Idleness, n. A model farm where the devil experiments with seeds of new sins and promotes the growth of staple vices.
Innate, adj. Natural, inherent—as “innate ideas,” that is to say, ideas that we are born with, having had them previously imparted to us. The doctrine of innate ideas is one of the most admirable faiths of philosophy, being itself an innate idea and therefore inaccessible to disproof, though Locke foolishly supposed himself to have given it a “black eye.” Among innate ideas may be mentioned the belief in one’s ability to conduct a newspaper, in the greatness of one’s country, in the superiority of one’s civilization, in the importance of one’s personal affairs and in the interesting nature of one’s diseases.
Interpreter, n. One who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter’s advantage for the other to have said.
Interregnum, n. The period during which a monarchical country is governed by a warm spot on the cushion of the throne. The experiment of letting the spot grow cold has commonly been attended by most unhappy results from the zeal of many worthy persons to make it warm again.
Introduction, n. A social ceremony invented by the devil for the gratification of his servants and the plaguing of his enemies.
Kilt, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.
Lap, n. One of the most important organs of the female system—an admirable provision of nature for the repose of infancy, but chiefly useful in rural festivities to support plates of cold chicken and heads of adult males. The male of our species has a rudimentary lap, imperfectly developed and in no way contributing to the animal’s substantial welfare.
Litigation, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.
Logomachy, n. A war in which the weapons are words and the wounds punctures in the swim-bladder of self-esteem—a kind of contest in which, the vanquished being unconscious of defeat, the victor is denied the reward of success.
Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.
Me, pro. The objectionable case of I. The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive.
Meander, vi. To proceed sinuously and aimlessly. The word is the ancient name of a river about one hundred and fifty miles south of Troy, which turned and twisted in the effort to get out of hearing when the Greeks and Trojans boasted of their prowess.
Medicine, n. A stone flung down the Bowery to kill a dog in Broadway.
Misdemeanor, n. An infraction of the law having less dignity than a felony and constituting no claim to admittance into the best criminal society.
Miss, n. A title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market. Miss, Missis (Mrs.) and Mister (Mr.) are the three most distinctly disagreeable words in the language, in sound and sense. Two are corruptions of Mistress, the other of Master. In the general abolition of social titles in this our country they miraculously escaped to plague us. If we must have them let us be consistent and give one to the unmarried man. I venture to suggest Mush, abbreviated to Mh.
Mustang, n. An indocile horse of the western plains. In English society, the American wife of an English nobleman.
Nose, n. The extreme outpost of the face. From the circumstance that great conquerors have great noses, Getius, whose writings antedate the age of humor, calls the nose the organ of quell. It has been observed that one’s nose is never so happy as when thrust into the affairs of another, from which some physiologists have drawn the inference that the nose is devoid of the sense of smell.
Notoriety, n. The fame of one’s competitor for public honors. The kind of renown most accessible and acceptable to mediocrity. A Jacob’s-ladder leading to the vaudeville stage, with angels ascending and descending.
Ostrich, n. A large bird to which (for its sins, doubtless) nature has denied that hinder toe in which so many pious naturalists have seen a conspicuous evidence of design. The absence of a good working pair of wings is no defect, for, as has been ingeniously pointed out, the ostrich does not fly.
Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.
Piracy, n. Commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it.
Plague, n. In ancient times a general punishment of the innocent for admonition of their ruler, as in the familiar instance of Pharoah the Immune. The plague as we of to-day have the happiness to know it is merely Nature’s fortuitous manifestation of her purposeless objectionableness.
Polygamy, n. A house of atonement, or expiatory chapel, fitted with several stools of repentance, as distinguished from monogamy, which has but one.
Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.
Quiver, n. A portable sheath in which the ancient statesman and the aboriginal lawyer carried their lighter arguments.
Rear, n. In American military matters, that exposed part of the army that is nearest to Congress.
Recruit, n. A person distinguishable from a civilian by his uniform and from a soldier by his gait.
Sycophant, n. One who approaches Greatness on his belly so that he may not be commanded to turn and be kicked.
Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
Telescope, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details. Luckily it is unprovided with a bell summoning us to the sacrifice.
Tenacity, n. A certain quality of the human hand in its relation to the coin of the realm.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.