Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

Such warriors are cast in the role of The Man Without Illusions, a role that has been played by many actors in the history of the world, but with some peculiar flourishes by Americans.  Fire-and-brimstone preachers also glory in the role of The Man Without Illusions.  In the most famous of all American sermons, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards describes the most nightmarish aspects of Calvinist theology, dwelling on them with great relish precisely because, in their horror, they are supposed to be the undisguised truth.  Other professionals have also taken on the same role; perhaps the relative popularity of free market economists in the USA is a result of their tendency to say things that horrify the wage-earning majority of the population.  An anti-free market economist like Lawrence Dennis could affect the same pose in the 1930s, though his published works jeering at America’s leaders and ideals appealed to a much narrower public.        

Perhaps the economists are the heirs of the preachers, and the invisible hand of the marketplace is the same hand Edwards saw dangling the sinful soul over the pit of Hell.  If so, the battle scenes in which Bierce so frequently describes men writhing in fiery pits would mark the warrior as another heir to the same legacy.  The irrationality of Bierce’s battlegrounds shows a truth that surpasses the understanding of mere civilians. 

How has a tendency to identify “truth” with horror, and specifically with the horrors of war, come to be so prominent in the American mind?  Obviously, it would take more research than I’m willing to put into a single blog post to settle that question.  But I can speculate. 

First, the influence of Calvinism may explain part of it.  Bierce was one of many Americans who spent his childhood in a family and a town that were still dominated by the sort of theology that animated Edwards.  Calvinist ideas about the  Total Depravity of Man and the absolute freedom of God’s will have brought on quite a few nightmares over the centuries.    

Second, it may be possible to analyze the psychology that makes The Man Without Illusions so attractive a figure to so many in terms of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief.  Americans who love their country want to see it as a land of peace, perhaps a uniquely peaceful place, certainly one of the world’s peace-loving nations.  Yet the fact of the matter is that the USA has been engaged in warfare throughout virtually the entire history of its existence, US defense spending has been at wartime levels continuously for 70 years, and we lead the world in the production and export of weapons of war. 

Confronted with these facts, the patriotic American may go into denial and pretend that the USA is simply a peaceful state that occasionally finds itself in need of a bit of defense.  Denial requires ever greater amounts of energy to maintain, however, so that even this stage tends to magnify the imporance of war in our national consciousness.  Once denial comes to require more energy than the person has available, it collapses and the person is consumed with anger.  This stage too magnifies the importance of warfare.  The angry person cannot really believe that other people do not share his or her fixation on the object of anger.  Angry that the country they love is in fact quite warlike, patriotic Americans come to demand that others focus on the most repellent aspects of the wars in which the USA has involved itself.  The journalism of “Bitter Bierce” was filled with classic examples of this sort of anger.  Like denial, anger takes energy, and to prolong anger beyond a certain point takes more and more energy.  Again the person breaks down, this time passing out of anger into the stage of bargaining.  It becomes intolerable to focus on America’s wars and their horrors; one tries to create another history, one in which those horrors are minimized, drained of their awful finality. 

It might be too flip to break the American political spectrum down in terms of these stages, suggesting that the cheerleaders for war who enjoy cable news and AM radio are in denial, that the New Left (it was new in the 1960s) is in anger, and that the Old Right with its invocation of the Constitution and the “Old Republic” is in bargaining.  Bargaining gives way to depression; again, it is probably too facile to see in the USA’s low rates of political participation a sign of depression in Kubler-Ross’ sense, but there may be some truth to it.  Many Americans do indeed think that there is something terribly wrong with their country, and have despaired of changing it.  Depression need not be the last stage of the process; there is also such a thing as acceptance, in which we begin not only to face the facts that have started us through our journey of grief but also to see those facts in the perspective that we can gain by being aware of other facts at the same time.  Starting with Ambrose Bierce, we might end with Star Trek; our focus is supposed to be US popular culture, after all.  In one episode Captain Kirk responds to a villain who justifies his homicidal ways by declaring humans to be a murderous species.  Yes, says the captain, we are killers; but the need not mean that we will kill today.  Let us just say that one thing, “We will not kill today,” and we will surprise ourselves by our ability to create peace.   

So that’s an idea from pop psychology.  My third idea as to what might drive Americans to identify “truth” with the horrors of war comes from pop anthropology.  Humans need rites of passage.  However deficient American culture may be in providing rites for girls to pass to womanhood, it is remarkably deficient in rites through which boys can pass to manhood.  Military training is one of very few recognized activities that involve actual questions of life and death and that is structured to take its participants from one stage of life to another.  In view of the fantastically luxurious lives most Americans lead, the hardships of military life, especially the ultimate hardships that come in consequence of battle, may well dwarf all other rites of passage into insignificance.  If humans as such really do need rites of passage, then a life without them would of course seem insignificant compared to a life with them.   

The phrase “military romanticism” is often applied to views that glorify war and sentimentalize army life, especially to views that deproblematize the idea of war “making boys into men.”  The warrior in possession of a truth he alone is strong enough to bear is plainly a variety of this sort of military romanticism.   This is where Irving Babbitt comes in.  I wonder how Babbitt’s study of Romanticism proper can illuminate the history of America’s military romanticism.  Certainly Babbitt showed that Romanticism as he defined it pervaded every other aspect of American thought; perhaps whatever forces drove Bierce and his readers to embrace military romanticism and to equate the ultimate horror with the ultimate truth also underpin the phenomena Babbitt documented.


  1. vthunderlad

     /  August 1, 2010

    I’ll add something the irascible Robert McKee writes in his wonderful book STORY: “But the pacifist pleas of antiwar films (OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR, APOCALYPSE NOW, GALLIPOLI, HAMBURGER HILL) rarely sensitize us to war. We’re unconvinced because in the rush to prove he has the answer, the writer is blind to a truth we know too well – men love war.”

    As a huge fan of APOCALYPSE NOW I’d have some speaks with McKee about that one, but his point is well made, even if that’s a fine film. I’ve met people who freely admit they became soldiers because they’d really like to “get some” and many more who are avid fans and deliriously happy witnesses to “action” from their beanbags and Barcaloungers. Often that desire isn’t tied to patriotism, duty or anything other than primal aggression, but I like your thoughts on what may be a peculiarly American way of rationalizing our wars.

    The answer likely involves the simple fact that we’ve never paid a truly heavy price for fighting compared to other societies. We defeated our most imposing, early enemies through audacity, skill and endurance, and we’ve had few reasons since to worry about real defeat.

  2. acilius

     /  August 1, 2010

    Those are some good points, V. McKee’s book sounds good, too.

    Speaking of movies, Mars Needs Women is on my TV right now. If you watch it without sound, it looks like a Scorsese film.

  3. vthunderlad

     /  August 1, 2010

    Sadly, I’ve never seen that one, though I sympathize with the title!

  4. acilius

     /  August 1, 2010

    When I turned the movie on, the screen was suffused with a weird reddish light and there were three bland-looking guys in a car having an awkward conversation. The car stopped in front of a movie theater with a big poster advertising The Fortune Cookie, complete with a picture of Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder’s name. One of the guys gets out of the car, looks around bewildered for a second or two, then stares at the poster in wonder. It looked like a cross between Mean Streets and <Taxi Driver. It was beautiful.

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