Monday 26 July 2010

The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary provides a window into the author's humorous and pithy outlook on the world. Contained within it are a number of insights into his view of the psychology of fiction. The brain, for example, is defined as "n. An aparatus with which we think that we think." To publish, is "v. In literary affairs, to become the fundamental element in a cone of critics." Some entries, like his definition of reading, appear dated, "n. The general body of what one reads. In our country it consists, as a rule, of Indiana novels, short stories in 'dialect' and humor in slang." Considerable more thought, however, appears to have been given to his definition of a novel:

Novel, n. A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting, the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination, and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes--some of which have a large sale.

Some additional definitions might be useful in deconstructing his thoughts. A photograph, for example, is defined as "n. A picture painted by the sun without instruction in art." Realism, similarly, is "n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring worm."

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