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Book Review: The New Devil’s Dictionary: A New Version of the Cynical Classic by Rhoda Koenig, Illustrated by Peter Breese

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The devil, of course, is in the details. And on page 52 of The New Devil’s Dictionary: A New Version of the Cynical Classic – your new one-stop source for “eternal abstractions, fashionable imbecilities, and words that are used without regard to their implicit fatuity or chicanery”: “evil adj. Term used in less enlightened societies to denounce people we now know will respond well to sympathetic listening and fresh fruit.” Author and theater critic Rhoda Koenig’s witty and mordant compendium of brickbats and bon mots–the shock of the titular New that signifies the update of Ambrose Bierce’s 100-year-old curmudgeonly classic — takes a less sanguine tack in her fruitless embrace of the “dried plum.” While allowing that it is indeed a noun (so far, so good) Koenig remarks in a refreshingly no-nonsense manner that, heedless of the makeover efforts of the prune industry’s image consultants — you can’t just botox those wrinkles out, you know, and after all… when the defecation hits the oscillation, it’s just not a “dried plum n. It’s a prune. Grow up.”

A bracing bit of whimsy, for certain, in a collection that varies from the quotidian to the consequential, in the spirit of the discernment and the breadth of Bierce’s original, The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911 and reprinted in 1925, when unabated critical success and sales really took off (going viral old school style, I suppose, which I guess is akin to a copy of the book being passed around from sickbed to sickbed). But something wicked this way comes through in Koenig’s new volume, just by hiding in plain sight. After Koenig’s incisive Introduction — in which she successfully and expressively provides a biography of “Bitter Bierce,” critically couching her work within the context of his original, and laments the past century’s “explosion of idiotic behaviour, beliefs and words ” – the author kicks off her roguish and irreverent satire with Absolution n. Start of a new round of sinning,” offering new hope for the hapless, a Pass-Go/Collect-$200 card for life. But now that legal tender has conceivably entered into a cyclical and cynical picture,  we can borrow a nugget from a standout entry in The New Devil’s Dictionary, the list of succinct new maxims – with that new wisdom smell, too! — underpinning the definition of “proverb,” in this case calling for the no-muss, no-fuss adage that “The wages of sin are whatever you can negotiate.” And just to toss in another: “A fool and his money are soon popular.”

Again, there’s a devilish impudence, conspicuous by its acquiescence, in even the most seemingly optimistic of terms (“optimism n. Ignorance with a smiling face. The optimist asks only that the laws of time, motion, and probability be altered in his favor…”). Therefore, any hope that Koenig’s companion to 21st century life (life n. stress“) can be used for good as well as evil is dashed in definitive revisionism when we seek the meaning of ‘good.’ In contrast to the “hail, fellow, well met” bonhomie, we find the  “good”(adj.) to be “Virtuous in a way that profits no one.” Koenig further contends that “A good woman was once understood to be kind, charitable, or chaste. The virtuous woman of our own time refuses whole milk, fried potatoes, and the slice of pie, then exercises by hugging herself as she proclaims, “I’m so good!” (Cue “self-esteem n. Feeling that, unlike self-respect, requires no objective correlative. Despite much time and effort spent inculcating the belief, no one can teach its perquisites: inexperience and bad memory.”)

Indeed, “of our own time” encapsulates a key merit and appeal of The New Devil’s Dictionary. Interwoven throughout the strictly alphabetical lexicon is an assorted and sundry admixture of sharp wit and woebegone drollery – some buttressed with quotes from philosophers, historians, and pop culture figures — that doubles as pointed commentary on contemporary society. “The cynic’s insistent questions and contradictions annoy the conventional,” Koenig says in the Introduction, but there’s a larger purpose in play for the truly committed detractor, who “wants to make his fellow citizens stare into the abyss between principles and practice, to shame them into the path of righteousness…”

Although, Koenig says, some might deride Bierce in prosperous times for his “certainty that ignorance, arrogance, and greed pull the levers of society,” and deem him “a loser and spoilsport,” it’s harder to dismiss him in harsh times like these. “The failure of our legal and economic systems to prevent disaster and the disregard for ordinary prudence and foresight have made us uncomfortably aware that we cannot trust those in charge either for compassion or competence.” Elsewhere the author broaches the subject of parallels between cynicism and “amused detachment,” how aloof is too aloof, the limits on mockery, striking a balance with empathy, and such. What was Bierce’s stance on this issue, how does she reconcile herself with the issue?: “In a time of wars, economic gloom, family breakdown, and other daily miseries, won’t a book based on the idea of universal stupidity and venality make people even more unhappy?”

Maybe the answer starts with the individual. And so the aphorism “Know thyself” comes under scrutiny not just as sagacity tendered by the ancient Greeks, but more devastatingly as a cautionary warning “regarded as superfluous by the young. Also regarded as superfluous by the middle-aged and the old, and regarded by many of all ages as disruptive or irrelevant.” “Know thyself” also gets support – which is not superfluous by any means — with an anecdote about director Preston Sturges and his classic Sullivan’s Travels. (See “laughter,… A giveaway, on reading in public, of incipient insanity. Useful when wanting to keep the adjoining seat vacant.”)

Koenig also offers constructive ripped-from-the-mists-of-time events in an attempt to pin down the ever-changing denotations of “diversity n. the Doctrine that variety is the spice of life and the ideal habitat an Indian restaurant.” More helpful than an abstract by-the-book definition is an illustrative bit of background bluster that brings to the fore the squawking-head incident of a senator who, in 1970, had defended a Supreme Court nominee said to be a mediocrity. “There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers,” posits the officeholder (“politician n. Official afflicted with a proleptic form of amnesia…”). “They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?” Back to Koenig: “At the time he was ridiculed and his candidate defeated. Time however, proved him a visionary.”

Imagine the scenario: I’m sorry if you are sensitive to me calling you mediocre and I apologize if you feel ridiculous when I ridicule you. Which is, though I exaggerate for effect, the belabored, non-apologetic kind of lip service that frequently passes for an apology these days. As if! (conj.) I bet Bierce never thought the lowly two-letter ‘if’ would be misapplied by irresponsible social scofflaws and lend itself to revisionist denotation. What’s next? Defining what “is” is? In any case, Koenig now sees an embellished role for the “Modifier used by those who don’t want to risk apologizing for nothing.”

“We are sorry if you have suffered any inconvenience.”

“I am sorry,” …wait for it… “if I have caused distress by not waiting to publish my account of his sexual habits until after the funeral.” (“funeral n. Opportunity, like weddings and christenings, for social climbing”).

Speaking of death (“n. Event whose unknown arrival time and lack of photo opportunities lead many to doubt it will arrive at all”), Koenig also adapts and updates and in general helps fill in the information gaps, technological breakthroughs, scientific and artistic advances, and innovations (“n. Something that can fail in a new way”) made since Bierce’s mysterious disappearance at the end of 1913 when he was 71; he supposedly went off to observe the Mexican Revolution — it was all the rage back — never to be seen again.

So in addition to missing out on the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote — which would’ve have sent Bierce reeling in his grave, if he were indeed in one – old Ambrose never got to experience the convenience of “email, n. Technological advance that ensures that one’s letter will not be ignored by a correspondent too busy to write a reply.” Instead, Koenig goes on to say, “one’s message is sent to a person too busy to type two words and click.”

Speaking of communications, stick this in your ear and hold, please: the “cell phone n. Invention that has brought more hope to mankind than the promise of an afterlife, with tidings far more interesting than whatever the person who is receiving the call is doing. Sometimes the companions of the called take their demotions personally, but they are usually old or have something wrong with them.’

For the world of art and design, The New Devil’s Dictionary offers a brief description post-World War II “minimalism”; in keeping with the non-essential, sparse concepts at issue, it may be helpful to cite a proverbial reminder from Koenig that, of course, “A little learning is usually sufficient.” With that in mind, the author starts to sketch out the movement as a “Style that allows the cold and vacuous to appear disciplined and refined.” Deferring to an authority on the matter, she then quotes a prominent decorator who maintains that “The conspicuous austerity of minimalism is a powerful statement about self,” and concludes that “This statement can be made only by those for whom austerity is a choice. The cold and vacuous poor are out of luck.”

And usually not empowered — ‘empower’ being the buzzword of last decade, and probably this decade too, no doubt. But not as ubiquitous as it had been since Oprah, for whom austerity is indeed a choice, went media minimalist on us. In any event, true to its all-encompassing nature (“multi-task v. To do three or more things at once … none very well”), The New Devil’s Dictionary spotlights a three-fold definition of “empower v. (1) To enable to make a purchase or create a nuisance. (2) To instill false hope: ‘The children were empowered by the increase in their self-esteem.”’ But when the psycho-prattle chin music makes a transition to an entity without a human face, I get trepidacious, heading for the exits: “(3) To give a sum or service that contributes far less to the recipient than to the donor’s self-satisfaction. Seen on the envelope of a charity that had been given free postage: “Empowered by Pitney Bowes.'”

In Rhoda Koenig’s ambitious and devilishly addictive dictionary, the entries are garnered from personal experience, newspaper reports, and works of philosophy and fiction. “As in Bierce’s dictionary,” she writes, “no one is spared, not even the reader.” In this regard, she’s even ganging up with one of my favorite authors: reading n. Pastime of the unfit, unpopular, and sexually suspect. Americans, said Raymond Chandler, do not seems able to acquire brains without losing blood.” Hey!

Nevertheless, The New Devil’s Dictionary, with engaging illustrations by Peter Breese, is an inspired and audacious accomplishment that will have you running the gamut of thoughts and feelings even in the course of a page or two – if you want to painstakingly insert Method A to Madness A. But if you’re the crayons-over-the-lines kind — come on you know you are! — if you aren’t flipping through the book randomly by intent, you’re going to give in to temptation and be sent packing by the citations and links hop-scotching off to far-flung pages and places willy and nilly. Whatever your course of action, Koenig forewarns against “falling into the trap of vulgar and superficial cynicism, a notion that coarseness and contempt are expressions of frankness and independence.”

Reiterating that the larger aim of The New Devil’s Dictionary is to “demolish the complacency of liberal and conservative, rich and poor, male and female, old and young,” Koenig, who has extensive experience as a book reviewer (New York magazine), writer (including Harper’s The New York Times) and — after moving to London — writing social commentary and book, art, and theater reviews for many publications (including The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement) sums up by proclaiming that “Armed with knowledge and self-knowledge, as well as ideals, we can start putting the heat on those who give us most reason to be cynical.”

I practically feel… empowered.

 

The New Devil’s Dictionary: A New Version of the Cynical Classic
by Rhoda Koenig
Lyons Press  ISBN: 978-0-7627-7247-6
Pub Date:11/08/2011   $18.95

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