A Cynic's Quote For A Quote We'll Choose Ambrose Bierce Over Boris Yeltsin Any Time

Posted: November 06, 1989

Dear Jack:

Re: your column of Sept. 20, "A Cynic by Any Other Name," unfortunately, I do not have a copy of Bartlett's at my disposal, but I do have an Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I hope Bartlett's included Ambrose Bierce's full definition of a cynic, as:

"A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision."

Bierce also wrote:

"I will say this for my own profession, horribly as I hate it. Journalism is more nearly a profession of common sense than any other."

A.G. Bierce certainly would have appreciated the piece by Vittorio Zucconi.

Bierce went to Mexico in 1913 to observe that country's Revolutionary War and did meet Pancho Villa and his forces. His last letter was posted the 26th of December, and the rest is silence.

Presumably, Bierce encountered his favorite fictional character, Death, but we are not certain.

I like to believe that the old man provided the last word on the matter. In one of his last letters to his niece, Bierce wrote:

"If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico, ah, that is euthanasia."Bryan Hoag,


Dear Bryan:

You have just confirmed something Chuck Stone told me about Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations. The Oxford is more complete.

At least it's more complete than our morgue's edition of Bartlett's, which omits "the Scythians plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision."

Ironically, that line also bears on the column you cite, which related how Pravda reprinted an account of Boris Yeltsin drinking his way through a U.S. lecture tour, as reported by Vittorio Zucconi in the Italian daily La


The Scythians, remember, were marauders who swept west from Russia in the First Millennium B.C.E. After the modern Scythians at Pravda used La

Repubblica's piece in full, they got so much heat from the Yeltsinites that they printed an apology and plucked out Zucconi's eyes, metaphorically of course, by discrediting him for using "secondary sources."

That was before someone came up with unedited videotape of Yeltsin acting like a drunken buffoon in one of his U.S. appearances. And before Yeltsin added to his own legend by reporting (and then retracting under closer scrutiny) his bizarre story about being kidnapped and tossed off a bridge in Russia.

Speaking of Boris the Boorish, he is still being described by the U.S. news media as the "populist reformer" who "topped the polls" with 89 percent of the votes in the Soviets' first free elections. But do you know of any reforms Yeltsin accomplished - or even proposed - when he was still occupying the

catbird seat in Moscow?

As for topping the polls, Yeltsin had nothing on Alla Yaroshinskaya, an investigative journalist in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir. Yaroshinskaya, 35, offended many high officials with her revelations of mismanagement in public housing. But despite their frantic attempts to keep her name off the ballot, she beat four Communist Party members and won with 90.4 percent of the vote!

Getting back to Ambrose Bierce: When I wrote that column, I had no idea he'd be the title character of the film, "The Old Gringo," as portrayed by Gregory Peck. Our Gary Thompson, while semi-trashing the movie as a vanity trip by Jane Fonda, wrote:

"Only Peck outclasses the material. It is true that he's given the best lines, but he lends a winsome, crafty charm to even the mediocre lines. Had 'Old Gringo' been a better movie, I'm sure Peck would loom as a strong Oscar contender."

I don't know which lines Peck was given, but some of Bierce's best were in his "Devil's Dictionary" (1906), the source of the complete definition of cynic that you cited. Another caustic beauty was:

"Edible, adj. good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm."

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