THE MAGIC MOMENT:
THE LIMINAL, DISTENDED TIME FLASHFORWARD OF AMBROSE BIERCE
The Liminal, Distended Time Flashforward
OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE" (1890), Ambrose Bierce
introduces a narrative device that has proven to be a major
influence among prominent writers and filmmakers. Elsewhere,
I have expounded on what I have termed “the liminal,
distended time flashforward.”  The
device occurs in a liminal setting; that is, it happens at
the intense sensory threshold between life and death. The occurrence
is a mental projection, a feverish fantasy in the surging near-death
consciousness of a condemned man. In the protagonist’s
pre-mortem heightened awareness, objective time gives way to
a radically slower subjective time, and in the space of a moment,
he fantasizes a flashforward of escape and survival. Hence,
the other key elements of the device involve a distention of
time and a projection into the future. The story concludes
when the subjective moment comes to an abrupt crude ending,
and the reader is brought back to the world of objective, “real” time.
The protagonist is dead, and the reader experiences a range
of reactions: confusion, surprise, the promise and loss of
hope, the tragedy of death, the ultimate coherence of objective
reality, and acknowledgement of Bierce’s carefully constructed
component parts of Bierce’s narrative device are not
exceptional. The extreme threshold of life-or-death situations
is the stuff of great drama, and is thus a mainstay in literature.
So is the idea of the hero gaining acute physical, mental,
or spiritual powers in the face of grave danger. Framing a
story within a flashback is also a common narrative technique.
Less common is the “flashforward,” although it
has been utilized since ancient times in such forms as prophetic,
symbolic dreams, mystical visions, or fantasies of the future.
We find the phenomenon of distended time in the Bible. Bierce’s
notion of beating the hangman is traced to the source of his
namesake, the protagonist from the popular play Ambrose
Gwinett; or A Sea-side Story, which is based on an older
Irish folktale.  However, the framework
of the flashforward, combined with the near-death consciousness
of a condemned man who seems to evade death in expanded subjective
time, is a relatively recent narrative combination. As far
as I have been able to ascertain, the technique is a Biercean
original. Since his short story was first published in 1890,
distended time flashforward” has
been used successfully in such noteworthy stories as Ernest
Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1927),
Hermann Hesse’s “The Indian Life” (“Indischer
Lebenslauf,” the final chapter of his last novel, Das
Glasperlenspiel [The Glass Bead Game], 1943),
Jorge Luis Borges’s “The
Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto,” 1943),
William Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956), Nikos
The Last Temptation of Christ (O teleutaíos
1960), and Julio Cortázar’s “The Night Face
Up” (“La noche de boca arriba,” 1968). 
technique also succeeds on film, because the moving image captures
and expresses the descriptive details of the narrative more
immediately than the written word. The motion picture allows
us to experience the perceptions of the protagonist more viscerally.
Furthermore, film is better suited for conveying the manipulation
of time.  Film adaptations of Bierce’s
famous story are Charles Vidor’s The Spy (also
released as The Bridge, 1929), Douglas W. Gallez’s An
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1957), Janusz
Majewski’s Most (1962), and Marcos Cline-Márquez’s Ah!
Silenciosa (1999). The most highly acclaimed adaptation
is Robert Enrico’s dramatization La Rivière
du hibou (1962), which
was featured on Rod Serling’s TV series The Twilight
Zone (1959-64), and won the 1964 Academy Award for Best
Short Subject, as well as the 1963 British Academy Award for
Short Film. Noteworthy films that utilize Bierce’s narrative
device are Adrien Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990),
Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988),
Paul Oster’s Lulu on the Bridge (1998), and
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). In
addition, other filmmakers utilize some elements of the narrative
device.  Without question, several of the
acclaimed fiction writers and film directors have incorporated
device into the dramatic heart of their stories. The technique
is important enough that it deserves a name and analysis. In this
article, I briefly examine the philosophical implications
of the "liminal, distended time flashforward" and explore
the reasons for its aesthetic appeal.
II. Bierce, the Writer’s Writer
Bierce never attained widespread fame or commercial success
as a fiction writer, many critics rate him among the very finest
American writers of his generation.  Bierce has a reputation as a “writer’s writer,” and his influence is strongest with storytellers. He is credited with shortening the short story. His influence is also impressively widespread. The great Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa admired him and based “In a Grove” (“Yabu
no naka,” 1952) directly on Bierce’s “The
Moonlit Road” (1893). This forms the plot to Akira Kurosawa’s classic motion picture, Rashomon (1950).  The great Russian pioneer of filmmaking, Sergei Eisenstein, cites Bierce as one of his major artistic influences for juxtaposition, montage, and wit.  Intriguingly,
the skillful use of montage in The Spy, Vidor’s 1931 silent film version of “Owl
Creek Bridge,” makes it one of the first American movies “to show the influence of Soviet technique.”  No doubt, Bierce would have been tickled to know that his fiction techniques impacted nascent cinematic art forms—which in turn influenced the earliest adaptation of his short story on to film.
Bierce’s works reflect his obsession with ironic, unnecessary, and strange death, as well as his cynical, disillusioned attitude on the meaninglessness of life. The seminal influence on Bierce’s life and writings was his six and one half years of service in the Union army, and his extensive, horrific experiences on the battlefield. He was nineteen when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The idealistic Ambrose enlisted as a private and kept re-enlisting, serving in many capacities as he rose in rank and became an officer. He fought for the duration of the war, participated in numerous battles, was awarded numerous citations for bravery, was wounded twice, endured capture and escaped, and continued to serve in the post-war South and then in Indian territory in the West. Danger and doom, fear, pain and suffering, killing, death, dying, destruction, and surviving were no strangers to Bierce. They were seared into his battle-hardened consciousness and he knew them intimately.
He saw clearly and detested the absurdity and insanity of war, and this emerges as a connecting theme in his writings. His protagonists are anti-heroes. They make conscious decisions based on flawed thinking which lead to tragic predicaments. As Cathy N. Davidson points out, Bierce’s plots and writing techniques vary widely, but there is a unifying focus in his fiction: “Again and again the protagonist is a reasonable, articulate, or even exceptional being who has deceived himself into believing that he is logical and who dies before he realizes that his prized rationality has been mostly rationalization.”  Bierce was committed to living his own life in accordance with reason free from illusions, although he appreciated the difficulties this entailed.  As a journalist, he earned a reputation as an acerbic critic of hypocrisy, corruption, bigotry, and prejudice. "Bitter Bierce," as some referred to him, was ahead of his time, and he can justly be regarded as a precursor to existentialism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism.  But the philosophical dimensions of his work are far broader: for he raises pertinent questions about widely held metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. Philosophically, “Owl Creek Bridge” is a particularly rich story. Stephen Crane’s praises, “Nothing better exists” and “That story contains everything,”  may be hyperbole, but I share his enthusiasm insofar as the story illustrates a whole range of questions concerning the nature of time, mind, reality, knowledge, and truth. Moreover, the unsettling effect on the reader poses some challenging personal philosophic questions.
III. Bierce the Philosopher
Bierce’s father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce, saw to it that his son studied Plato, Aristotle, the Eleatics, Cynics, and Stoics.  During the war, he read as often as he could, and after the war, he remained well read in European and American philosophy.  His interests were practical, not academic. Philosophy was a means of building precision in language, clarity of perception, and a rational account of the human experience. Although Bierce was a serious student of philosophy and his writings explore philosophical themes, philosophers have neglected him as a thinker. If and when they take interest in him, they will discover a man who fits in with the innovative philosophical currents of his day. Moreover, he shares important ideas with the leading philosophers of the time, namely Nietzsche, Peirce, James, Bergson, and G.E. Moore. 
Among literary critics, barely a handful analyze the philosophical themes in Bierce. Lawrence Berkove has recognized Bierce’s attempt to formulate a philosophy of life based on logical reasoning and has expounded on Bierce’s beliefs about mind and human psychology.  Cathy Davidson has analyzed Bierce’s views on language, perception, and reason, and explained the similarities with the Pragmatists.  F. J. Logan focuses on the analytic precision of “Owl Creek Bridge” and repeatedly contends that this misunderstood literary masterpiece is philosophy. He also claims that Bierce “invented the drastic fictional distortion of time.”  Interestingly, Logan brings in Zeno’s famous paradox on the archer’s arrow never reaching its target because it must first traverse half the distance, and then keep on traversing half the distance so as to constantly come up short of the target. He explains that “Zeno’s assumption is that space is infinitely divisible; Bierce’s, that time is infinitely divisible.” 
Bierce believed that there was a great distinction between objectively measured time and subjectively felt time. Furthermore, he believed that this distinction was particularly acute in the moments before death. Commenting on one man’s attempted suicide “to experience the sensation of approaching death,” Bierce writes:
It is said that in such a supreme moment the events of one’s whole life crowd into his memory; that a mighty but stilly rhythm pulsates in his ears; that flashes of intolerable light blind his closed eyes; that confused, fragmentary speech babbles all about, and giant whispers affright the sense; that all this is felt rather than seen or heard. By those who have had this terrible experience and been afterward resuscitated, it is affirmed that one lives centuries in an instant. 
The possibility of distended time during the process of dying is also evident when we examine Bierce’s denunciation of the new invention, the electric chair.
physicians know nothing about it; for anything they know to
the contrary, death by electricity
may be the most frightful torment that it is possible for any
of nature’s forces or processes
to produce. The agony may be not only inconceivably great,
but to the sufferer it may seem
to endure for a period inconceivably long . . . Through what
unnatural exaltation of the
senses may not the moment of its accomplishing be commuted
into unthinkable cycles of time?
. . .Theories of the painlessness of sudden death appear to be
upon the fact
that those who undergo it make no entries of their sensations in
their diaries. 
a given period of time feels longer (or shorter) to some is
hardly a new insight, as any adult caring for babies can attest.  We
all relate to time feeling faster or slower, depending on whether
we are having a great time or experiencing the stress of being "put
on the spot." But Bierce exploits this familiar distinction
to an extreme. His technique of telescoping time, such that
a vivid hours-long experience is condensed into a moment, may
indeed be foreign to our waking state consciousness, but it
is by no means a novel or implausible concept. The biblical
revelation at Mt. Sinai, according to tradition, was experienced
by the entire Israelite nation in a singular moment. The text
of the Ten Commandments was spoken by God in one utterance.  A
popular belief holds that dreams lasting only a matter of seconds
can feel like an experience of hours (as if the brain races
on fast forward while the subjective mind processes the experience
in slow motion).  Most dream research
does not support this view. However, there are many viable
scenarios consistent with current research in neuroscience
and psychology which can support the claim that we experience
distended time during REM sleep.  The
use of psychoactive drugs provides another way to bring out
the differences between objective and subjective time. It is
well known that Bierce enjoyed drinking. It is little known
that he also enjoyed the effects of cocaine, opium, and hashish.  From
his extensive combat experience to his pipe dreams, Bierce
understood the subjective nature of felt time.
James analyzed our consciousness of time in such a way that
may have inspired his contemporary, Ambrose Bierce.  In “The
Perception of Time” (1886), James endorses E. R. Clay’s
notion of the “specious present.”  The "present" refers
to the boundary, conceived of as a coterminous between the
future and past. The specious present is described both as
a “durationless instant” and a moment that cannot
last “more than a minute."  For
Bierce, the specious present can linger in duration. His portrayal
of time more closely resembles the work of Henri Bergson. The
influential French philosopher elaborated on the sharp distinction
between objective, standardized, spatialized, scientifically
measured time, which is synchronized with the solar system
and can be measured with watches and chronometers, and the
time that we directly experience, which he characterizes as durée
reele (“real duration” or “pure time”).  Scientific
time does not correspond to immediately apprehended durée
reele. Therefore, we feel the flow of time differently
from how we measure it. Scientific time is an abstract intellectual
construct that misrepresents the real time of our inner consciousness.
Bergson also rejected materialism, that is, the viewpoint that
regards the human “mind” as a product of the physical
brain. Instead, he argues “there is vastly more in a
given occasion of consciousness than in the corresponding brain
state.”  Thus, in Bergson we
find a philosophy of time and mind that can support the notion
of Bierce’s narrative device.  It
is interesting to note that Kazantzakis studied with his “revered
master” Bergson in Paris (1907-1909), and Borges regarded
Bergson as one of his favorite authors. 
The distended time technique is rendered more credible when Bierce combines it with the "abnormal" psychological state of near-death consciousness. Extreme danger can and does trigger extreme physiological reactions. Fear and pain set off metabolic disturbances that bring on heavy secretions of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, along with abnormal levels of endorphins, noradrenaline, seratonin, and other neurotransmitters in the brain. The mix can lead to any number of responses for a given individual--ranging from dramatically heightened awareness, sensitivity, and increased physical strength, to hallucinations, brain malfunctions, or fainting. There is no reason to think that dramatic changes in felt time would not be a part of such intense experience. Moreover, even when a person reacts to the pain of death not by higher consciousness, but by blacking out, it remains entirely possible that on an unconscious level or even in an hypoxic or comatose state, the person is imagining a detailed, oneiric impulse that corresponds to experiencing a future that might-have-been. In “Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce’s narrative plumbs the depths of his protagonist’s mind in a way that marks an innovative investigation on the potential of the mind in extremis. As Thomas Votteler notes, the story is “an early and significant exploration of psychology in fiction.”  Bierce speculates on the processes of heightened perception and cognitive powers and makes it believable. He builds on Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum: “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” 
plausible is that the flashforward can occur during the process
of dying. If so, then the magic moment of the liminal, distended
time flashforward can take place over minutes or hours. Bierce
understood that dying takes time. We are too quick to assume
that receiving a decisive mortal wound causes instantaneous
death. Bierce, who witnessed several hangings, clearly recognized
that executions, which are supposed to be very fast and efficient,
do not kill immediately.  Recall
his comments on the electric chair and his fascination with
hangings that were not carried out properly.  As
Donald Blume points out, it takes up to fifteen minutes for
a person’s heart to stop beating after the neck is broken.
He argues that Peyton Farquhar’s flashforward takes place
during this lengthier span of time (rather than what critics
assume to be an instant), and that Bierce would defend this
as “the realistic core of the story.”  Even
the guillotine, which decapitates in 1/70 of a second does
not kill instantly or even make its victims unconscious right
away. There is evidence to suggest that enough blood remains
in the brain to sustain mental activity after beheading. 
the narrator of “Owl Creek Bridge” expresses the
fleeing Farquhar’s expanded awareness, Bierce’s
literary device resembles the age-old mystical experience.
The liminal moment may or may not be sublime. It can occur
during a traumatic life-or-death experience, or in the case
of Hesse, making the most important decision of one’s
life. The device as a mystical experience turns out to be a
more precise explanatory factor in the works of Hesse, Borges,
Hemingway, and Kazantzakis. In “The Indian Life,” the
hero Dasa experiences a flashforward to the path his life would
take if he leaves the forest to return to a life of a princely
householder. He experiences future decades in approximately
fifteen minutes, and this convinces him to remain with his
guru and never leave the forest. In “El milagro secreto,” the
hero, Jaromir Hladík is a Jewish philosopher who prays
to God the night before he must face a Nazi firing squad. He
petitions for one year to finish the final acts of his literary
masterpiece, a drama in verse. The next morning, just as the
rifles bear down on him and the sergeant signals the command
to fire, time is frozen. God grants Hladík’s prayer
with the subjective experience of a year in order to complete
his play. The miracle occurs in a nanosecond. In “The
Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Harry, the adventuresome writer,
is stuck in the African bush with a badly gangrenous leg. Facing
death, he realizes that he has squandered his writing talent
by enjoying the comforts of money, fame, sensuality, and success
rather than devotion to work. As his life is ending, he confronts
the painful truth that he sold out his hard-edged integrity
for bourgeois security. His only hope is the rescue airplane
that is expected the following day. In the final section, we
have a description of the arrival of the airplane, its take-off
and flight, and its unexpected ascent to the top of Africa’s
highest peak: “as wide as all the world, great, high,
and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro.” But
in the end, the narrator returns to Harry dead in his tent.
The flight to the mystical peak of Kilimanjaro, “The
House of God,” takes place in Harry’s dying mind.
It can be interpreted as his flighty fantasy (a lá Bierce)
or symbolic of the artist’s rise to heaven. In The
Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is dying on the cross
when he is rescued by his guardian angel, who oversees his
recuperation, marriage, and survival into old age as a venerable
family man. After an angry encounter with Paul of Tarsus, witnessing
the catastrophe of the Roman attack on Israel, and realizing
that his guardian angel is actually Satan, the repentant Jesus
pleads to God for a second chance in determining the course
of his life. He was tricked by the Devil, like Farquhar was
fooled by the federal scout. His prayer is answered, as it
were, for the drama takes place in his mind as he is being
crucified. In some indeterminate moment, he lives out what
might have been his natural life, only to return willfully
to his agony on the cross in order to fulfill his spiritual
mission. The "last temptation" is the lure of a
long, normal life. The dichotomous choice between total devotion
to God and the life of a householder closely resembles Hesse’s “Indian
Life.” (A key difference is that Hesse’s Dasa
experiences a flashforward to a life of Princely pleasures
Bierce’s device also presages what philosopher-turned-psychiatrist Raymond Moody would later call the “near-death experience,” which is characterized by “a loss of a sense of time, thought acceleration, and a life review.”  However, instead of some general, unspecified thought acceleration, or specifically experiencing one’s past in a flashback, the protagonists mentioned above all experience a projection into the future.  Just as the liminal, distended time flashforward is likened to the pre-mortem NDE, it can be interpreted as a postmortem.  If there is such a phenomenon as life after death, then continuation of consciousness (in some form) can follow from it. If it is possible that the death of the body precedes the death of the mind or spirit (i.e., if there is any moment of consciousness beyond the instant of physical death), then a postmortem experience can happen. This can be consistent with a materialistic scientific view in the form of the final fling of personal identity or the brain’s last gasp before annihilation. It is also consistent with the dualist distinction between mind and body in the form of the mind’s or soul’s transition to the mysterious great beyond. The postmortem is the premise of Golding’s Pincer Martin (which was re-titled for its American publication as The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin). The protagonist drowns, and the book is about the death of his ego. He struggles to maintain his personal identity and sanity because of his greed for life, selfishness, and fear. He is trapped in a hellacious literal purgatory because he cannot let go gracefully.  Whether we interpret this story or the others as pre-mortem or postmortem, the narrative device remains credible. It raises serious questions about the process of death and dying, distinctions between objective and subjective time, and the potential of the mind in extraordinary circumstances.
The narrative device provides further insights into the metaphysical questions of the human condition and how humans construct reality. Charles May describes Pincher Martin as “Golding’s attempt to write a story of the universal human need to create the self and a world for the self to inhabit in the face of nothingness.” May holds that the fictional account illustrates just how subjective and fragile our world-views are. What Martin does:
is what every man must inevitably do: create his own reality, assert the self against nothingness, make up his own fictional experience which he then takes to be reality. In an existential sense, the novel insists that all human beings are always under penalty of death and must therefore constantly assert the self in spite of the fact that this assertion is only a fiction and that death is the only reality… In this sense, Pincher Martin is an example of a fiction that is about the essential fiction-making process of life. 
Golding’s novel captures his predecessor’s existentialist angst. Bierce was bitter, cynical, suspicious, misanthropic, and as disillusioned as they come. When he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Volunteers, he subscribed to a romantic view of war, patriotism, honor, and fighting for a just cause. This all changed as the war dragged on and took its toll. His innocence, ideals, and faith were shattered as a young man, when he came to understand the tenuousness of reality.  His broken faith gave way to meaninglessness and nothingness. As a prominent reference work on Bierce concludes, “his works are counted among the most memorable depictions of human existence as a precarious, ironic, and often futile condition.”  As his biographer Richard O’Connor puts it, “he boiled his new philosophy down to two words: ‘Nothing matters.’” 
From an epistemological standpoint, Bierce’s narrative device leads us to reexamine how adept we are at constructing a coherent reality, a process that most take for granted. The consensus among neuroscientists and philosophers of mind is that human consciousness can be explained in scientific, physical terms. Countless, complex physiological processes must be operating in harmony in order for human consciousness to occur. Our everyday consciousness is a matter of numerous sensory and cognitive functions that gather, filter and process data, and reconstruct it to suit our practical purposes. On this view we are not too far removed from Pincher Martin, Peyton Farquhar, Jacob Singer, Hemingway’s Harry, or Cortázar’s unnamed protagonist. One does not have to be in the liminal state of gazing into the abyss or knocking on heaven’s door to create one’s own reality. We all possess this power and use it all the time rather effortlessly (and sometimes erroneously). In a dream state we seemingly recreate people’s faces and mimic their voices accurately. We can compose and arrange music without a semblance of writer’s block. We can be superbly creative, rational, imaginative, or quirky.  In a drug induced mental state people can experience distended time, heightened powers of imagination, and a need to reassess their conceptions of reality. I believe that Bierce’s frequent and close encounters with death made him acutely aware that we potentially possess far more of our mental powers when experiencing the adrenaline rush associated with the liminal predicament of facing death. He understood the exhilaration of total primal awareness and heightened sensitivity of the soldier in battle.
The Liminal, Distended Time Fastforward and the Reader
Encountering the liminal, distended time flashforward in a story also brings to light issues of the reader’s personal construction of reality. Here the audience becomes a part of the narrative device.  Bierce’s
meticulously crafted narrative sets up readers for a major
blow to their logic and comprehension. The author takes advantage
of our epistemological weaknesses. By exploiting our confidence
in literary conventions, he speaks to the fact that much of
our understanding of life and the world is based on unwarranted
assumptions, false expectations, perceptual and conceptual
short cuts, habits of mind, provincialism, and laziness. He
reminds us how we readily jump to conclusions before seriously
considering the evidence. He disorients and interrupts by effectively
shifting back and forth in his narrative techniques. In “Owl
Creek Bridge,” Bierce does not lie to the readers outright,
but he withholds information so as to lead them along. For
the first time reader, the narrator’s manipulation of point of view is confusing, and the strategic omissions that set up the sudden, surprise ending are disturbing. The reader is led and misled by the shifting narratives, and credibility is stretched and strained to the point of credulity.
Bierce planted some contradictory clues to remind us that we are careless readers. For example, when the fleeing Farquhar looks back at the soldiers firing at him he sees them as silhouettes—but at the same time, he also sees enough detail of their faces that he can discriminate the eye color of a soldier taking aim. If we accept both accounts, we are stuck in a logical incongruity.  Bierce prided himself on being a “close reader” and he delighted in shaking the confidence of the “bad reader.”  He reminds us that we allow pertinent facts to escape our notice because we are in the habit of taking conceptual short cuts in constructing our worldview. Thoughtful readers must re-read, or at least refigure the story in order to understand both the story and their own suspension of disbelief. One reading or viewing is not enough to "take it all in." To borrow a term from Cortázar, Bierce challenges the reader to become a lector cómplice.  That is, the reader struggling to make sense of the story becomes an accomplice in filling in gaps in the narration. As Davidson explains:
There is a difference, though, between narrative and the act of reading narrative…Yet one function of the particular fictional experiments…is to minimize the gaps between fictional events and the interpreter of those events by making interpretation intrinsic to those events. The human limitations, as we have seen, that lead the reader to misread “Owl Creek Bridge” are the same as those that lead Farquhar to believe the rope has broken or that, more abstractly, lead him to Owl Creek Bridge in the first place. This contiguity of narrative and interpretation is crucial to Bierce’s
fiction just as are his trick endings. Both cue the reader to
the ways in which Bierce works to minimize the distance between
writer and reader, to extend the meaning of the narrative into
the reader’s life, and, finally, to assault the
the text. 
The narrative device effectively involves readers in an effort to identify closely with the protagonists. For example, we want Farquhar’s escape to succeed and so wish fulfillment plays a role in convincing us to believe his reversal of fortune. It contributes to our gullibility in believing the flashforward. So strong is this wishful thinking that we overlook the protagonist’s shortcomings. Those familiar with the corpus of Bierce’s writings recognize the extent to which he held people like Farquhar in contempt—even though Bierce himself was taken prisoner by the Confederates in Northern Alabama, fled, evaded bloodhounds, trekked through swamps, and found his way to a Union camp. Bierce hated warmongers who let others do the fighting. He was also raised to oppose to the moral evil of slavery.  Farquhar is a slave owner, “an
original secessionist and ardently devoted to the southern
cause.” Perhaps the self-proclaimed student of hanging was even an active participant in lynch mobs. But because of his social standing, he does not serve in the Confederate army. He was a stay-at-home gentleman. He was also a naïve fool several times over. He was swept up by the rhetoric of war propaganda into a patriotic fervor. He was duped by the “gray-clad soldier.” When the federal scout came to his plantation and conveyed the importance and vulnerability of the Owl Creek Bridge, he did not bother to inquire about the soldier’s background. Farquhar aspired to cross enemy lines to be a saboteur, without realizing that the enemy sends its people to do the same. He failed and was captured. Finally, he deceived himself into believing an imaginary escape. Although he understood the penalty for sabotage, he was caught unprepared. Golding, Hesse, and Hemingway also portray their leading character negatively.  Nonetheless, we can identify with their immediate plight. We sympathize with those who fight heroically to hold on to life. We applaud life’s struggle to assert itself over death.
Another reason the narrative device succeeds is the liminal setting. There is a human fascination with life on the threshold, particularly the act of dying and the transitory moments between life and death.  This remains a mystery of direct concern to us all. The device makes a dramatic play on our emotions. From a grave situation we have a glimmer of hope and then high hopes. In the stories by Bierce, Borges, Golding, and Hemingway, just as redemption is within the protagonist’s grasp, he comes up short. All hope is dashed and the reader is presented with the finality of death. We ride an emotional roller coaster of danger, fear, struggle, hope, and despair. We journey from reality to fantasy and then back to a cruel reality.
All the stories feature a skillfully constructed surprise ending that jolts the reader or viewer. What Logan refers to as Bierce’s “whiplash ending” is discomforting, tragic, and most unhappy.  A crash landing may be less pleasant than a soft one, but it certainly gets our attention. (Hesse and Kazantzakis leave us on a more inspiring note, without diminishing the surprise.) The litterateurs and filmmakers challenge the audience to think deeply on a host of philosophical questions.
After we are manipulated or duped, the entire story and our experience reading it eventually makes sense. In the end, it is comforting to conclude that what we call “objective reality” remains intact. We no longer have to stretch and strain to see the coherence of the tale. We can breathe a sigh of relief to be back in our familiar reality and appreciate a narrative device that involves the reader in an interactive relationship with the text.
shorter, earlier version of this essay, “Explorations
on a Narrative Device by Ambrose Bierce,” was presented
at the American Literature Association meeting in Long Beach,
California, May 30, 2002. A longer version was published as “The
Experience of a Lifetime: Philosophical Reflections on a Narrative
Device of Ambrose Bierce,” in Studies in the Humanities,
29:2 (December 2002), 83-108.
full name was Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce. Isaac Bickerstaffe,
an Irish writer, published anonymously a popular folktale in
1770 entitled The Life and Strange, Unparallel’d,
and Unheard-of Voyages and Adventures of Ambrose Gwinet, formerly
known to the public as the Lame Beggar Man; Written by Himself.
Falsely accused of murder, the young Gwinet is sentenced to
be hanged, but the amateur hangmen bungle the execution and
he survives and escapes. In 1828, the same story was re-written
as a three-act melodrama by the English playwright Douglas
Jerrold as Ambrose Gwinett; or A Sea-side Story. The
play was successful in both England and the United States.
In all likelihood, Bierce’s parents were influenced by
the pocket-sized edition of Jerrold’s melodrama.
During his stay in London (1872-1875), Bierce used a pseudonym “Dod Grile,” which Paul Fatout argues is an anagram for Douglas Jerrold. For more on this see Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Lexicographer (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 8-9, 97. See also M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971), 38. Lawrence Berkove offers two other sources that might well have captured Bierce's interest and imagination in framing "Owl Creek Bridge" with death by hanging. Sam Davis's "The Reporter's Revenge" includes a passage that contemplates what the final moments must be like for the condemned. Another source is an interview, "Man Almost Hung," published in the San Francisco Examiner (10 Dec 1889) with a Mr. McCarthy, who survived a hanging. Both provide detailed descriptions of what the condemned experiences. See Berkove’s A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002), 115-16. For a more thorough discussion of Bierce’s fascination with the gallows, see Donald T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004), chapter 14.
3. “Owl Creek Bridge” first was published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890, page 12. The slightly modified definitive version appears in a collection of Bierce’s short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, (E. L. G. Steele: San Francisco, 1891). For the other named works that make use of the technique, see: Ernest Hemingway, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (New York: Scriber, 1927); Hermann Hesse, "Indischer Lebenslauf," Das Glasperlenspiel (Zurich: Fretz & Wasmuth Verlag, 1943); Jorge Luis Borges, “The Secret Miracle,” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, eds. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962); William Golding, Pincher Martin (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956); Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, trans. P. A. Bien (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960); Julio Cortázar, “The Night Face Up,” Blow-up, and Other Stories, trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier Books, 1968).
4. See Julius Bellone, “Outer Space and Inner Time: Robert Enrico’s ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’” in Gerald R. Barrett and Thomas L. Erskine, From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1973), 178-79 (also see 215). John Howard Lawson makes the same point in Film: the Creative Process; The Search for an Audio-Visual Language and Structure, 2nd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), chapter 26, esp. 311ff.
5. Among the other films utilizing some
of the elements of the distended time, liminal flashforward
are: Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t
They? (1969), Irvin Kershner’s, The
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A
Space Odyssey (1968) and The Killing (1956), Chris Marker’s La
Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse Five (1972),
Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola
Run (1998), Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), Joel
Schumacher’s Flatliners (1990), Adam Simon’s Brain Dead (1989),
Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flowers from
Shanghai (1998), and
an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The
Pennywhistle” (AKA "The Inner Light," 1992).
It is interesting to note that producer Darryl Zanuck, director
Henry King, and
screenwriter Casey Robinson replaced Hemingway’s Biercean flashforward
with a Hollywood "happy-ending" in their adaptation (1952) of “The
Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Thus, the protagonist Harry Street survives. For
the screenwriter’s unconvincing explanation on why the ending was changed,
see Casey Robinson’s “Adaptor’s Views: ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’ Challenge
to Writer,” New York Times, October 12, 1952, 4.
6. For an insightful discussion of Bierce’s “notorious obscurity” and “underground” status,
see the opening paragraphs to Cathy N. Davidson’s “Introduction” to Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982). See also: Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context,
Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston and Toronto: Little,
Brown and Company, 1967), chapter 16, esp. 283f; H. E. Bates, The Modern Short
Story: A Critical Survey (Boston: The Writer, 1941), 55-56.
For observations that Bierce deserves greater recognition, see for example, Richard
O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, Introduction, 3-7; H. L. Mencken,
Prejudices: Sixth Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), chapter
Clark Pope, “The Introduction,” The Letters of Ambrose Bierce (New
York: Gordian Press, 1967), esp. vi; B. S. Field, Jr., “Ambrose Bierce as
a Comic,” Western Humanities Review, XXXI: 2 (Spring 1977), 173-75;
Mary E. Grenander, “Bierce’s Turn of the Screw: Tales of Ironical
Terror,” Western Humanities Review, XI: 1 (Winter, 1957), 257-64.
7. Cathy N. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring
the Ineffable (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 130-33.
8. Sergei M. Eisenstein, The Film Sense, ed. and trans. Jay
York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1942), chapter 1, esp. 4-5. See also M. E.
Grenander, Ambrose Bierce, 159, 166, 178, 179.
9. Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film: a Critical History with an
Experimental Cinema in America, 1921-1947 (New York: Teachers College Press,
10. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce,
13. See also
45-46, 133-34. Berkove writes: "Without exaggeration, it may be
said that one of the most distinctive (and perhaps unique) characteristics of
Bierce's style of fiction is his conscious use of reason and his treatment of
reason to arrive at conclusions in his stories that call into doubt the value
of reason." Continuing, he writes: "But more important than plot or
even character in Bierce's stories is his study of mind. His protagonists are
distinguished by intelligence precisely because he wants to call our attention
to their rationalism" (Prescription for Adversity, 84, 86).
11. On this point see Davidson,
ibid., esp. chapter one; and Lawrence I. Berkove, “The Heart Has Its Reasons:
Ambrose Bierce’s Successful Failure at Philosophy,” in
Davidson, ed., Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, esp.
136ff. In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defines “reason” as: “Devoid
of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.” Elsewhere,
he states: “All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his
delusion is called a philosopher.” “Epigrams,” in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce VIII (New York: Gordian
Press, 1966), 369.
12. In the final sentence of Davidson’s The
Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce,
she writes: “[It]
is time we caught up with a writer who is preeminently . . .
the premodern precursor of postmodern fiction” (134). For
a specifically Freudian interpretation of Bierce, see James G.
Powers, “Freud and Farquhar: An Occurrence at Owl Creek
Bridge?” Studies in Short Fiction, 19:3 (Summer,
1982), 278-81. See also M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce,
77-78, 111ff. For a study on precursors to postmodernism, see
David Ray Griffin,
ed., Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce,
James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (Albany: SUNY
13. These praises were made to Richard Harding Davis. See R. W.
Stallman and Lillian Gilkes, eds., Stephen Crane: Letters (New
York: New York University Press, 1960), 139-40, note 94.
14. See for example, Bierce’s “Actors and Acting” (1893)
and “To Train a Writer” (1899). They are found respectively
in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, vol. IX, 176-77
and vol. X, 76. A good account of Bierce’s familiarity
with ancient philosophy is found in Berkove, “The
Heart Has Its Reasons,” op. cit., and his “Ambrose Bierce’s
Concern With Mind and Man,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University
of Pennsylvania (1962), chapter 3, esp. 70ff. Bierce’s
favorite uncle, Lucius Verus Bierce, published a book on Stoicism
15. See for example, M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce,
esp. 32, 40, 76ff; Lawrence Ivan Berkove, “Ambrose Bierce’s
Concern With Mind and Man,” and “The Heart Has Its
Reasons: Ambrose Bierce’s Successful Failure at Philosophy,” and Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce.
See also, Adolphe DeCastro, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (New York:
The Century Co., 1929), 10.
16. It is beyond the scope of this article to connect Bierce to
his famous contemporaries. I draw some connections with James,
Peirce, and Bergson elsewhere in the text. The resemblance to G. E.
Moore and analytic philosophers is based on Bierce’s attention
to precision in the meaning of words. As a topic for future study,
it would be worthwhile to explore his resemblance to Nietzsche.
Both were thoroughly iconoclastic, irreverent, original, and bold—anxious
to strip away human illusions. They were literary giants, committed
to writing precision, and they each developed a style of composing
quotable epigrams. Furthermore, they were both elitists who expressed
contempt for the masses, and misogynists who wrote mean remarks
about women. However, they differed in their appreciation of warfare.
Whereas Nietzsche extolled the manly, heroic concept of war, Bierce
knew better. He learned the hard way not to romanticize mass killing.
In my opinion, it is a shame that Nietzsche did not read and learn
17. See, “Ambrose Bierce’s Concern With Mind and Man,” op.
cit., and “The Heart Has Its Reasons: Ambrose Bierce’s
Successful Failure at Philosophy,” op. cit.
18. Davidson, The
Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, op. cit.
19. F. J. Logan, “The
Wry Seriousness of ‘Owl Creek
Bridge,’” American Literary Realism 1870-1910, 10:2
(Spring 1977), 106. I would not go so far as to say Bierce invented
this technique in fiction; rather, he was a pioneer in developing
it as a literary technique.
20. Ibid., 111. Logan
adds that “Bierce pairs unanswerable
philosophical logic with the implacable logic of natural law.” For
explanations of Zeno of Elea’s arrow paradox as well as the
paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, see Aristotle, Physics,
231a20 - 231b18. Berkove also discusses Zeno’s
arrow paradox in the context of “Owl Creek Bridge” in “The
Heart Has Its Reasons,” 142.
See also Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose
Bierce, 124-25, 148n. Jorge Luis Borges
also makes use of Zeno’s paradoxes in his fiction. Here,
see Gene H. Bell-Villada, Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to
His Mind and Art (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1981), 28-9; and, Howard M. Fraser, “Points South: Ambrose
Bierce, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Fantastic,” in Studies
in Twentieth-Century Literature 1 (1977), 173ff.
21. The quotation is from Bierce’s “Prattle” column
in The Wasp, October 7, 1881. Also cited in Blume, Ambrose
Civilians and Soldiers in Context, 215.
22. “The Chair of Little Ease,” in The Collected
Works of Ambrose Bierce XI, 365-66. See also Bierce’s “The
Death Penalty,” in Collected Works XI, 210-224, and his entry
for “Hangman” in The Devil’s Dictionary. Cf.
Bierce’s discussion on the act of dying in his short story, “Parker
Adderson, Philosopher.” F. J. Logan (108-9) and M. E. Grenander,
Ambrose Bierce (139, 176) also discuss this point.
23. For example, waiting one hour in the pediatrician’s examining
room feels like a boring hour to me, but to my one-year-old, it
feels like a boring five hours. This is a claim for which I see
no need to argue. As Bierce himself puts it, “From childhood
to youth is eternity; from youth to manhood, a season. Age comes
in a night, and is incredible.” Cited in O’Connor,
24. On this point, see the early rabbinic Midrash Mechilta, commentary
to Exodus, Chapter 20:1. There are discussions in several Midrashim
on the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai preparing
to receive the Torah. Because it was not humanly possible to learn
the entirety of Torah in such a short amount of time, there are
interesting accounts of the distended time experienced by Moses.
25. James W. Kalat, Biological Psychology, 4th ed. (Belmont,
CA: Wadsworth, 1992), 365.
26. Subjective experiences are difficult to prove scientifically;
however, my claim does have theoretical justification. In contrast
to the far lengthier non-REM periods, activated sleep is characterized
by brain waves of high frequency and low amplitude, and irregularities
of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. The frontal lobe
of the brain, which carries out the "executive function" of
planning, organizing, and linking actions together in logical sequences
slows down during REM sleep.
If I may offer an example: In a six minute REM cycle I dream three
sequences lasting two minutes each. I ran four miles, I ate breakfast
at home, I worked in my office. When recalling my dream (which
lasted six minutes), my reconstructive memory was such that I believed
I experienced three hours of activity. Whereas in the dream itself
there were no gaps between the sequences, a "cognitive fill-in"
occurred so that I recounted the dream to include my drive from
to my home, and after breakfast, my shower, dressing, and drive
to work. Reconstructive memory led me to make the dream conform
to my waking state reality.
27. See Bierce’s letter to Samuel Loveman, May 28, 1911.
He writes: “I’ve been pleasuring for weeks in New York,
and there’s always a reaction. New York is cocaine, opium,
hashish.” Quoted in Twenty-one Letters of Ambrose Bierce,
edited with a note by Samuel Loveman (Cleveland: George Kirk, 1922),
Letters on the subject of Bierce’s use of the aforementioned
drugs and alcohol are found in the Special Collections department
of the Young Research Library, UCLA. See Collection of material
about Ambrose Bierce, Collection 277, Box 1, folder V. I refer
specifically to letters to Carey McWilliams from David Starr Jordan
(March 14, 1929), from Hugh Hume (April 27, 1929), and Thomas H.
Keene and Maurice Frink (1928).
28. On the influence of pragmatists William James and Charles Sanders
Peirce, see Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of
Ambrose Bierce, esp. chapter one (8ff) and 63-64.
29. William James, “The Perception of Time,” The
Journal of Speculative Philosophy, XX, 374-407. It was reprinted as Chapter
XV in the first volume of The Principles of Psychology (1890).
30. Principles of Psychology. The quote is found on page 603 of
the 1981 Harvard University Press edition. A relevant quote from
Bierce is found in his “Epigrams.” He writes: “The
present is the frontier between the desert of the past and the
garden of the future. It is redrawn every moment.” Collected
Works VIII, 369.
31. Essai sur les donnés immédiates de la conscience (Paris: F. Alcan, 1889), translated by F.L. Pogson as Time
and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (New
York: Harper & Row, 1910).
32. Here I quote from T.A. Goudge, “Henri Bergson,” in
Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan,
1967), vol. I, 288. Goudge cites Bergson’s Matière
et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l’esprit (Paris: F. Alcan, 1896), trans. by Nancy Margaret Paul and
W. Scott Palmer, Matter and Memory (New York: Macmillan, 1911).
For readers interested in the influence of Bergson’s philosophy
on film theory as well as his critical attitude toward film, see
Heike Klippel, “Bergson und der Film,” in Frauen
und Film, 56/57 (February, 1995), 79-97.
33. I am not suggesting that the liminal, distended time flashforward
cannot accommodate a materialist conception of the brain and
consciousness. As I will explain in the text (in my discussion
of Pincer Martin and postmortem consciousness), the
narrative device can work with both dualist and materialist accounts
the mind/body problem.
It is unclear precisely where Bierce stood on the related issues
of disembodied minds and souls, life after death, etc. (It is
also beyond the scope of this
investigation.) It is interesting to note that he defines “mind” in
The Devil’s Dictionary as: “A mysterious form of matter secreted
by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own
nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing
but itself to know itself with.” It is also worth noting the final sentence
in his letter to Mrs. Josephine Clifford McCrackin (September 13, 1913). He writes: “May
you live as long as you want to, and then pass smilingly into the darkness—the
good, good darkness.” The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, op. cit., 196.
34. See Kazantzakis’s letter to Börje Knös (Oct. 4, 1946), in
Helen Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography Based on His Letters (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1968), 459. On Borges, see Martin S. Stabb, Jorge Luis
Borges (New York: Twayne, 1970), 72. For the interested reader, cf. “’. . . Merely
A Man of Letters,’ An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges,” in Philosophy
and Literature 1:3 (Fall, 1997), 337-41. Borges mentions Schopenhauer, Berkeley,
and Hume as his main philosophical influences.
35. Thomas Votteler, ed., “Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914?” in Short
Criticism (Detroit and London: Gale Research Inc., 1992), vol. 9, 49. See also
H. E. Bates, The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey, op. cit., 53.
36. Quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, George Birkbeck Hill,
ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), vol. III, 167 (entry for Friday, 19 September
Another relevant quote from Johnson that differs from Bierce is: “It matters
not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance,
it lasts so short a time,” vol. II, 107 (entry for Friday, 27 October,
For a brief discussion on the focused state of mind of the condemned, see Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context, 223.
37. See above, endnote 2, esp. Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity,
115-16 and Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in
Context, chapter 14.
38. Ibid. Also see Bierce’s comments on the electric chair, quoted in the
text above and cited in endnote 22.
39. Blume, 211-12.
40. The heavy, angled blade of the guillotine slices the neck so fast that blood
remains in the head and brain for perhaps one or two minutes—enough time
for consciousness to continue. An interesting story on this is the execution
of Charlotte Corday on July 17, 1793 . (Marie Anne Charlotte Corday d'Armont
assassinated French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat, while he was in the bathtub.)
Immediately after the guillotine did its work, the assistant executioner, Francois
le Gros, picked up her head and slapped her face. According to witnesses in the
crowd, her eyes opened, both cheeks reddened, and her face registered a look
of anger and insult before her eyes closed and her face was stilled. On this
point, see Alister Kershaw, A History of the Guillotine (New York: Barnes & Noble,
1993), 81, and Daniel Gerould, Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore (New York: Blast
Books, 1992), 54, cf. 119. According to Kershaw (chapter 9) and Gerould (chapter
4), some experiments performed by French physicians support the thesis that victims
of the guillotine could maintain signs of consciousness after beheading.
41. Bruce Greyson, “Near-Death Experiences,” in Raymond J. Corsini,
ed., Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994),
vol. II, 460, 461. See also Raymond A. Moody, Jr., Life after Life (Harrisburg,
PA: Stackpole Books, 1976).
42. A difference between the flashback and flashforward is that we can’t
be as confident in the veracity of the premonitory flashforward. (Of course,
flashbacks can be inaccurate or false.) In “Owl Creek Bridge ” as
well as Pincher Martin, “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Night
Face Up,” and Jacob’s Ladder, it turns out to be a dying man’s
Quixotic hallucination (although interpretations of meaningfulness are also plausible).
In “The Night Face Up,” the flashforward is a fantastically credible
projection hundreds of years in the future. In “The Secret Miracle” the
miracle is supposedly true; but, it is only as real as the hero’s subjective
experience. (Cf. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose
127.) In “Indian Life,” Hesse describes a spiritual experience. In Last
Temptation, the alternative future is Satan’s grand deception.
43. In a confused article, John Kenny Crane uses the term “post-mortem
consciousness” to describe Bierce’s technique, because this is what
other scholars have called it. He does not cite any of these scholars. (I have
seen this term mainly applied to Golding rather than Bierce.) Crane acknowledges
that the term is a misnomer, however. See “Crossing the Bar Twice: Post-Mortem
Consciousness in Bierce, Hemingway, and Golding,” Studies in Short
Fiction 6 (1968), 361.
44. This is a major theme in Jacob’s Ladder. As the screenwriter puts it:
"Learning to let go of life is, in biblical terms, the key to infinite life.
wanted to dramatize what Louis [the chiropractor] tells Jacob when discussing
the teachings of Meister Eckert, the German mystic and theologian. Heaven and
hell are the same place. If you are afraid of dying, you experience demons tearing
your life away. If you embrace it, you will see angels freeing you from your
flesh.” See Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob’s Ladder (New York: Applause
45. Charles E. May, “Pincher Martin,” in Frank N. Magill, ed., Masterplots
II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1987),
vol. III, 1328.
46. Walter Neale, Life of Ambrose Bierce (New York: AMS Press, 1929), 158. See
also Daniel Aaron, “Ambrose Bierce and the American Civil War,” in
Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, 171. Bierce grasped the wastefulness of a
vicious war pitting brother against brother. On too many occasions, he witnessed
hundreds, even thousands of wounded soldiers, screaming and suffering as they
died slow agonizing deaths. He watched helplessly as the bodies of his dead and
dying friends were stampeded and torn apart by a drift of wild pigs. He saw corpses
piled like cordwood, loaded unceremoniously onto carts and processed for quick
burial. He was struck by the randomness of who survives, who suffers, and who
dies. He believed that the finality of death rendered life practically meaningless.
47. Thomas Votteler, ed., “Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914?” in Short
Criticism, op. cit., vol. 9, 49.
48. O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, chapter ten, esp. 174
and 187. In chapter two, O’Connor provides a fascinating account of Bierce’s
49. See William C. Dement, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1976), chapter seven.
50. As Davidson puts it: “[The] reader necessarily participates
in the creation of the fiction. But as we have also seen . . . the reader’s
participation (being duly “tricked” by the ending) is intended at
least partly to make the reader aware of his or her own limitations and, by extension,
the limitations of human understanding. In short, Bierce more than any other
nineteenth-century American writer anticipates the revolutions in ideas of art
and life that characterize the innovative and experimental fictions of the present
era.” The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, 122-23. Cf.
Nick Zangwill, “Art
and Audience,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 57:3
51. Another example is the subjective narrator’s account that Farquhar “noted
the prismatic colors in all the dew drops upon a million blades of grass.”
52. Logan, “The Wry Seriousness of ‘Owl Creek Bridge,’” 102. In her “Introduction” to an anthology on Bierce,
Cathy N. Davidson writes: “Bierce delights in strewing red herrings in the
path of the careless and the careful reader.” See Critical Essays on
Bierce, 9. See also Harriet Kramer Linkin, “Narrative Technique in ‘An
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’” The Journal of Narrative Technique,
18:2 (Spring, 1988), 137-52.
53. Cortázar uses this term in his well-known, influential work Rayela (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1963). “Rayela” is
a common Spanish word for “hopscotch,” and the organization of the
novel leaves many gaps for the reader to fill. For discussions on the term lector
cómplice, see Steven Boldy, The Novels of Julio Cortázar (Cambridge
University Press, 1980), 6, 70, 87, and Davidson, The Experimental
Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, 128.
54. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, 55.
55. On this point see Aaron, “Ambrose Bierce and the American Civil
War,” 171-72. Aaron points
out that “[t]he
Bierce clan was antislavery,” led by Ambrose’s revered Uncle Lucius,
who was an accomplice of John Brown. See also Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce:
A Biography (Albert and Charles Boni, Inc., 1929), 28ff. McWilliams points
that General Lucius V. Bierce was a principle supplier of arms and ammunition
for John Brown. Cf. Bierce’s poem, “The Hesitating Veteran.”
56. Golding’s Pincher Martin is a horribly selfish person. He is arrogant,
greedy, faithless, and a cruel rapist. Hemingway’s Harry is a false-hearted,
materialistic, shallow sell-out. Hesse’s Dasa is portrayed very sympathetically,
but is an insanely jealous murderer and fugitive.
57. One illustration of this is made by David D. Perlmutter, who argues that
the most powerful visual images capture the moment just before death. See Photojournalism
and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises (Westport, CT: Praeger,
58. Logan, “The Wry Seriousness of ‘Owl Creek Bridge,’” 108.