The Devil’s Dictionary (12)

I have always tended towards pessimism on the basis that I will never be disappointed. Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906, defined pessimism as “a philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile”, part of a philosophy, which is “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing”.

A physician may be someone “upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well”, but Bierce reserves his characteristic scorn and scepticism for those practicing on the edge of scientific acceptability. Phrenology he defines as “the science of picking the pocket through the scalp, It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with”. Physiognomy, meanwhile, is“the art of determining the character of another by the resemblances and differences between his face and our own, which is the standard of excellence”.

From this distance it is always interesting to see how cutting-edge technology then was viewed. Bierce, of course, is willing to oblige. A photograph is “a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art” while a phonograph is “an irritating toy that restores life to dead noises”. I’m sure they will never catch on!

Still, the latter may be better than a piano. Bierce defines one as “a parlour utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience”. Quite!

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