Written by Phil Guarnieri Friday, 10 August 2012 00:00
It is a paradox that the esteem of young Americans appears to grow in proportion to how far they academically recede from their counterparts in the industrial world. Perhaps this is because they have been serenaded about how wonderful they are ever since they were mewing about in their playpen. If you are always being congratulated the idea of self-improvement strikes one as totally unnecessary. As a corrective, perhaps on this year’s assigned reading list we can recommend a book of maxims, those quotes characterized as much by their concision and pithiness as by their sagacity. When we think of maxims or aphorisms, sayings of Benjamin Franklin come to mind: “Haste makes waste” and other assorted pearls that serve as a guide for living efficiently and wisely. But there are other maxims, not as well known that illuminate our weakness, frailty, self-delusion, pretensions, unseemly piety, vanity and a host of hypocrisies too subtle and unnerving to admit to ourselves. In the hands of a master, these self-serving delusions are not only revealing but bitingly comical. The French writer Guy De Maupassant said that if you want to understand human nature look to the underside.
Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) intimately knew its underside and salted it with a rich and subtle vein of sarcasm. “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue” is justly famous but La Rochefoucauld minted a host of these mighty morsels. How about this: “It seems that nature, which has so wisely arranged the organs of our body for our happiness, has also given us pride to spare us the pain of knowing our deficiencies.” Ah yes, touché La Rochefoucauld! He mocks us for our affectation, pomposity, veiled ambition and inflated self-importance. His adventurous life gave his writing color and candor. La Rochefoucauld was a womanizer of Casanovian proportions, a brave soldier who had the misfortune of being thrice on the wrong side of civil wars and a cunning and shrewd operator in the regency of King Louis XIV. It was said that La Rochefoucauld first whetted and then sharpened his penetrating but caustic observations in the Salon of the hypochondriac Madame de Sable whose doting ministrations once prompted him to pen that “Virtue would not go far if vanity did not keep her company.”
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) was an American version of La Rochefoucauld. His piquant bon mots were less refined but packed no less a punch to the solar plexus of haughty self-righteousness. The tenth of 13 children, his idiosyncratic father gave all of them a name beginning with the letter “A.” His literary opus is relatively obscure today but no less a literary light than Kurt Vonnegut called his “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” the greatest American short story ever written. Bierce’s style was not graced with rolling, majestic sentences of Proustian dimensions, rather his genius was that of economy pungently expressed and trenchantly honed that was best illustrated in what he malevolently called his Devil’s Dictionary, a mouth-watering oeuvre where one could masticate juicy slices of delectable misanthropy. He once defined a conservative as a “statesman enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with other evils.” His definitions are hygienic, cleansing blotches of fraud and phoniness of which I provide but a sampling:
Admiration: A polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
Congratulation: The civility of envy.
Christian: one who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
Conscience: The act of examining one’s bread to see what side it is buttered on.
Friendship: A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.
Saint: A dead sinner revised and edited.
Bierce delighted in exposing the crass self-centeredness percolating below the polished carapace of liberality, altruism and self-abnegation. An occasional thread sometimes stretches through the centuries making a caustic connection between the two dart throwers as when Rochefoucauld observes, “In the misfortune of our best friends we always find something that does not entirely displease us” and just as sardonically, “We all have enough strength to bear the troubles of other people.” Compare this with Bierce’s definition of calamity: “Misfortune to ourselves or good fortune to others.” It’s uncomfortable to admit that it is often easier to sympathize with our friends than to express pleasure in their achievements, especially if they surpass our own. The writer Gore Vidal was a classically cynical exception to this rule: He candidly admitted that whenever he read of a friend’s success a little something inside of him died.
The columnist Joseph Epstein wrote of La Rochefoucauld what might even be truer of Bierce: he wouldn’t be employed at the Hallmark greeting card company. I don’t intend this as an article about how to divorce oneself from conceit, narcissism and fanfaronade, (it seems a useless exercise). Besides, as I grow older, I’ve become chary about dispensing counsel remembering, once again, La Rochefoucauld: “Old people like to give good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set a bad example.” Both La Rochefoucauld and Bierce were shaped by the dirty business of life. Each was deeply affected by war, indeed were casualties of it, and it bleakly colored everything they wrote about the human race. La Rochefoucauld ultimately took a musket ball to the face that disfigured and half-blinded him. His malady made the world increasingly invisible and he brooded how his fast-approaching death would make himself invisible to the world he so rapturously flagellated. He spent the remaining years of his life dwelling mostly in darkness thinking dark thoughts.
Bierce’s fate was in some ways even more depressing. Thrust into the American Civil War as a young man, he found himself at Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles in America’s bloodiest war. Later he suffered a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. While partially recovering his physical health, psychically the wounds never healed. His two sons predeceased him, one by his own hand, and he divorced his wife after finding compromising letters from an admirer. She would be dead in a year’s time. Withered and cheerless, he meandered down to Chihuahua, Mexico to join, of all things, Pancho Villa’s army only to vanish somewhere in the dry, dusty heat of a semi-arid desert. Some say he met his end before a Mexican firing squad, but for all intents and purposes his disappearance became for the literary world what Amelia Earhart’s missing aircraft was for aviation.
Their poison-tipped arrows tell us that the world is not always what it seems and we are not always what we seem even if we have convinced ourselves otherwise. I find their satiric vehemence a refreshing antidote to the cottage industry dedicated to boosting our self-regard. So many youngsters today are force fed so many heaping tablespoons of self-esteem that they are literally gagging on the stuff. “Everyone,” said La Rochefoucauld, complains of his memory but no one complains of his judgment.” The time of protest may be now by way of a youthful sampling of La Rochefoucauld and Bierce that would serve as an instructive and entertaining way to disabuse the maturing brood of their parents’ press releases and allow them to peak at the world and themselves as they really are.