Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ambrose Bierce’s stroke of insight

I have always wondered how Ambrose Bierce could possibly come up with all his impossible, disconcerting witticisms and surreal plots. I assumed he might have suffered from what is now called PTSD, but I did not know if those four years in the Union army had left a more direct mark on him. And I never bothered to find out. Now it’s the centennial of Bierce’s mysterious disappearance into Panhco Villa’s Mexico, and stories about him are hard to avoid – courtesy of the imperative to maintain web traffic which even high-brow publications can hardly escape.

As it turns out, Bierce suffered a severe wound to his left temple. He carried the bullet that caused it lodged behind his ear, and suffered from severe headaches and other neurological symptoms until the end of his life. Granted, Bierce did not experience Jill Bolte Taylor’s elevation into a state of magnificent transcendence following her left-hemisphere stroke. But, as with her, perhaps it was the brain damage he suffered that made possible the truly extraordinary associations his mind so reliably generated. Was that a blessing in disguise? Fore his devoted readers – definitely? For Bierce himself – it’s hard to tell. My guess is he would not have wanted to reclaim his young self which, he later acknowledged, had not survived the war.