My Favourite Cynics

I have long been described (or should that be accused?) of being a fully-paid up member of the cynic’s club. I see this as a largely positive thing, since I subscribe to the view I’ve seen bandied about elsewhere that a cynic is merely a disgruntled idealist and I guess that sums me up.

And, since I’ve already done lists of books, records and films I figured a list of my favourite cynics was long overdue. My idea of a great cynic is one who is well-aware of the flaws and foibles of human nature but nevertheless retains something of a heart of gold, even if it is buried underneath quick-drying cement somewhere.

I could not let pass a huge thanks to the prime influence on the making of this list, Rick Bayan, whose superb ‘Cynic’s Sanctuary’ has kept me entertained and amused for many years. Thanks to him and all the real-life cynics, disgruntled curmudgeons and frustrated idealists I’ve come across. You make the world a better place and this list is my affectionate tribute to you all.

So here it is – my Top 100 Cynics (in alphabetical order)

 

Adams, Scott (1957 – )

  • American cartoonist and creator of ‘Dilbert.’ the perennially put-upon office drudge. With his curling stripey tie and glasses, horrendous pointy-haired boss and insane co-workers, he’s a sure-fire Everyman for corporate America. ‘The Dilbert Principle’ is as good a collection of his strips as I’ve come across. 

Aesop (c.620-564BC)

  • Greek fabulist, or story-teller best known for his fables. Whether he wrote them all or not, the stories attributed to him take the fairy tale staple of talking animals and use them to skewer human vanity, stupidity and other vices. Some of them are a bit samey, but the best still have enough of a bite to make them worth a re-read.

Allen, Woody (1935-)

  • American film director, comic and jazz aficionado. Probably best-known for his public image as the neurotic little Jewish guy who somehow always manages to get the girl despite spending most of his time in therapy. His best work includes critical favourites ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ his love-letter to New York.

Antisthenes (c.445-365BC)

  • Greek philosopher and pupil of Socrates, regarded as the father of Cynicism, guaranteeing his place in any list of cynics. Adopting the teachings of Socrates, he advised living a simple, ascetic life guided by ethics, making him of eternal relevance to mankind.

Aristophanes (c.446-386BC)

  • Greek dramatist known for his bitingly witty comic plays which include ‘The Clouds’, an hilarious send-up of the silliness of philosophy and ‘Lysistrata’ a madcap feminist farce where the ladies of a town try to stop a war by withholding their – er – favours

Bayan, Rick (1950-)

  • American writer, author of The Cynic’s Dictionary and Extremely Dark Chocolates as well as his online presence with the Cynic’s Sanctuary and The New Moderate blog. A self-described ‘kinder gentler cynic’ and I’d have to agree. 

Beckett, Samuel (1906-1989)

  • Irish playwright who wrote in both English and French. His best-known work includes ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Endgame’ reflecting a profoundly bleak and pessimistic view of humanity as individuals struggle to retain meaning in an absurd and surreal world. Some of his more experimental work takes a similar tack including ‘Not I.’ 

Bierce, Ambrose (1842 – c. 1914)

  • American writer and journalist best-known for his ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ whose sardonic wit and dictum ‘Nothing matters’ earned him the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce.’ A trenchant writer with no time for vice, folly or humbug and a willingness to skewer it wherever it could be found. 

‘Blackadder, Edmund’ (1485-1917)

  • One of only two fictional characters to make the list, Blackadder is of course the titular character from the great British sitcom. If you haven’t come across him already, I suggest a trip to youtube and watch as Edmund, Baldrick and the rest of them rampage their way across the pages of history. Better still, buy the DVD box-set, it’s not that expensive these days and it’s money well spent, believe me. 

Breugel, Pietr (c. 1525-1569)

  • Netherlandish painter and key figure of the Northern Renaissance. Like Bosch before him, this old master’s work frequently lampoons the stupidity of people with a whimsical palette of coded references, visual puns and allusions to folklore and proverbs. Other work reflects the bleakness of human survival in the face of the elements such as ‘Hunters in the Snow.’

Bukowsky, Charles (1920-1994)

  • German-American writer whose novels, short stories and poems charted low-life America with a cast of bums, losers and petty criminals but with a sympathetic eye for the human condition. His work also reflects the misery of poverty and the drudgery of routine work especially in his debut novel ‘Post Office.’

Burgess, Anthony (1917-1993)

  • English author and composer best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange in which protagonist Alex and his ‘droogs’ enjoy a bit of the old ‘ultraviolence’ in a dystopian world. Alex’s love of classical music (Beethoven) is a deliberate poke in the eye for anyone who thinks great art will automatically ‘civilise’ the young. 

Byron, (Lord) George Gordon (1788-1824)

  • English Romantic poet and nobleman. Dubbed ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ by one contemporary, Byron’s sardonic view of the world is shown in epic works such as ‘Don Juan’ – an appropriate legacy for one who delighted in shocking polite society in his day.

Camus, Albert (1913-1960)

  • French philosopher and writer, often dubbed an existentialist although he rejected the label. His brilliant novellas ‘The Outsider’ and ‘The Fall’ perfectly show the frailty of the bonds which bind humanity together and the self-serving motives which often underlie them.

Carlin, George (1937-2008)

  • American comedian and actor. A cantankerous curmudgeon who gleefully skewered a raft of worthy targets with his inventive and foul-mouthed tirades. An institution whose famed sketch ‘Religion is Bullshi*t’ is the definitive take on the subject. 

Chaplin, Charlie (1889-1977)

  • American film actor, director and comic legend. While best-known for his on-screen persona ‘The Little Tramp’, this left-wing icon had plenty to say about the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, the war and Fascism, to name but three. Best work includes ‘Modern Times’, and ‘The Great Dictator.’

Churchill, Winston (1874-1965)

  • Great Britain’s most famous 20th Century Prime Minister, journalist, historian, artist – and of course, cynic. Renowned for his sharp-tongue, ready wit and legendary drinking habits he was a complex character with no shortage of both admirers and detractors.

Cioran, Emil (1911-1995)

  • Romanian philosopher best-known for works such as A Brief History of Decay. After dabbling with fascism in his youth, his writing came to reflect a profound pessimism in which existence itself is meaningless. Similar in some ways to Camus and Sartre, his work is far more vinegary – and, at times very funny. 

Cohen, Leonard (1934 – )

  • Canadian poet and songwriter whose work exudes a dry, sardonic wit even at its most despairing. Well-known songs include ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Suzanne’ among many others.

Cook, Peter (1937-1995) and Moore, Dudley (1935-2002)

  • English satirists and comedians, closely associated with the anti-establishment comedy movement of the 1950s. They found fame in shows such as ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and their material became darker as the years went on. Their ‘Derek and Clive’ recordings show them at their sozzled, black-comic best. 

Costello, Elvis (1954 – )

  • English musician who first found fame in the 1970s with the Attractions. A musician’s musician, his beautifully-crafted cynical songs include ‘Alison’, ‘Oliver’s Army’ and the melancholic ‘Shipbuilding.’ A wonderful compilation released in 1994 covers his prime 1977-1986 years. 

Coward, Noel (1899-1973)

  • English playwright and songwriter whose plummy tones and sardonic lyrics made his name as a cultural critic and raconteur. Songs include ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ and ‘The Stately Homes of England’ while his dramatic works include ‘Blythe Spirit’ and the haunting ‘Brief Encounter.’ In spirit, a sort of 20th Century answer to Oscar Wilde.

Cruikshank, George (1792-1878)

  • English caricaturist and the premier visual satirist of his day, in the grand tradition of Hogarth. His work mercilessly lampooned the follies of the rich and powerful and he was once even offered £100 not to ridicule George IV. His work was also used in several of Dickens’ novels.

Diogenes (c. 412-323BC)

  • Greek philosopher and one of the founders of cynicism, who supposedly lived in a barrel. Like some of his fellows, he advocated simple, good living, guided by virtue. Often referred to as ‘the dog’ he claimed to ‘set his teeth’ on ‘rascals’ while his inventive wit readily supplied the means.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1821-1881)

  • Russian writer, one of the towering figures of 19th Century literature. Like Shakespeare, his work is great in scope but often explores human frailty against a backdrop of turbulent times. For a brilliant snapshot, read ‘Christ and the Inquisitor’ from his ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and prepare to be amazed.

Dylan, Bob (1941 – )

  • American songwriter whose inventive wordplay made him a central – if unwilling – figure of the 1960s counter-culture, but more importantly, an artist with a peerless power to capture humanity in all its guises. An enigmatic and mercurial talent whose work is best sampled (initially) with 1967’s ‘Greatest Hits’ and his best album ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975).

Eliot, TS (1888-1965)

  • American-born British poet and playwright, one of the leading figures of modernism. His jazz-like rhythms and striking word play conjure up bleak, sardonic views of humanity. For his humorous best, try ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ and for his bleaker stuff, dive into ‘The Wasteland’, ‘The Hollow Men’ and the ‘Four quartets.’

Fagen, Donald (1948 – ) and Becker, Walter (1950 – )

  • American musicians best known for their work in Steely Dan in which they are the sole constant members. Their jazz-rock leanings were allied to a razor-sharp lyrical content frequently expressing cynical themes and sarcastic sentiments. Their most critically-praised work is ‘Aja’ from 1977.

Fields, WC (1880-1946)

  • American comedian, actor and juggler whose public persona of a lovable curmudgeon earns him a spot on this life. Fields cultivated an image of a hard-drinking misanthrope who especially disliked animals and small children, but nonetheless remained a sympathetic figure in his many screen outings. Work includes ‘It’s a Gift.’

Fitzgerald, F Scott (1896-1940)

  • American writer, best known for novels such as ‘The Great Gatsby’ depicting the world of the vacuous, self-involved (and ultimately doomed) party set of the Roaring 1920s. For his punchiest work, see ‘The Crack Up.’

Flanders, Michael (1922-1975) and Swann, Donald (1923-1998)

  • English singer-songwriter duo who together wrote more than 100 comic songs best-sampled in their review albums At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat. Cynics in the best tradition of exasperated, middle-class Englishness with stiff upper lips concealing a wry grin underneath. 

Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939)

  • Austrian neurologist, the father of psychoanalysis. As one of the most influential figures in modern psychiatry, Freud had a thing or two to say about the modern world. He famously described America as a ‘vast mistake’ and religion as a an delusion based on man’s need for a supernatural father figure to curb his violent impulses. When his work fell victim to the Nazis’ book-burning, he sardonically remarked ‘What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me – now they are content with burning my books.’ 

Goya, Francisco (1746-1828)

  • Spanish painter who combined a public life capturing the rich and famous with a darker, private vision showing a world populated by witches, inquisitors and the insane. As the title of one of his most famous works reminds us, ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’ 

Groening, Matt (1954 -)

  • American cartoonist and creator of the Simpsons – an American institution which has spent the better part of 30 years being hugely popular and hugely cynical all at the same time.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1804-1864)

  • American writer and key figure in dark romanticism. His work includes ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and the short story ‘Young Goodman Brown’ both of which focus on the hypocrisy which lies behind everyday life during the time of the Puritan era and its social / sexual repression. 

Heine, Heinrich (1797-1856)

  • German poet, essayist and literary critic whose lyrical poems were made into songs by the likes of Schubert and Schumann. His work is notable for its mournful cynicism and his work fell foul of the Nazi book-burnings in the 1930s (he was Jewish). Ironically he himself had been well aware of the likelihood of such things. A famous quote reads: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” His fellow cynic Freud’s work suffered a similar fate. 

Heller, Joseph (1923-1999)

  • American writer, best known for his novel ‘Catch 22’ – an epic deconstruction of the horrors of war and the mindlessness of the high command’s bureaucratic intrigues. The titular phrase has long since entered our popular culture as a cypher for an paradoxically inescapable fate. 

Hicks, Bill (1961-1994)

  • American comedian and satirist who found fame in the alternative-comic boom of the 1980s as a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed dissector of America’s foibles. His ‘Rant in E Minor’ album is a representative slice of his unique style, attacking targets including (but not limited to) stupidity, consumerism and religious nuttiness.

Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)

  • English film director. Dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’ his large body of work often features an everyman protagonist battling human evil, icy blonde femme fatales and the hunt for an elusive ‘MacGuffin.’ His work, which includes ‘Rear Window’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’ often forces the viewer into the position of voyeur, presenting a distinctly unsettling view of the world.

Hitchens, Christopher (1949-2011)

  • English journalist and writer. Hitchens more accurately fits the role of cultural gadfly than pure cynic, although many of his writings show an acute awareness of the folly and vices of humanity. His punchy autobiography ‘Hitch 22’ is a good introduction for his powerful intellect and mastery of vinegary prose.

Hogarth, William (1697-1764)

  • English painter and print-maker whose work includes the Rake’s Progress and the Harlot’s Progress and lampoons the rotten nature of 18th Century society, populated by low-lives, hypocrites, corrupt politicians and drunkards. Underneath it all, there is warmth and humanity which prevents the satire becoming too strident.

Horace (c.65-8BC)

  • Roman poet, known for his Odes and Satires. A writer during a pivotal time in Rome’s history (the transition from republic to empire), he was for some the ‘master of the sidestep’ able to keep up the role of the cheerful insider while still giving reign to his satirical tendencies. His work shows a man well aware of the frailty of life, notably his sardonic ode in which he claims to have built ‘A monument of bronze, more lasting than the royal heights of the pyramids.’

Hughes, Robert (1938-2012)

  • Australian art critic and writer best-known for the seminal ‘Shock of the New’ series, the definitive exploration of modern art. Spent much of his life aiming his eloquent invective against the empty-headed postmodern slush which dominates the post-war art market.

Huxley, Aldous (1894-1963)

  • English writer and intellectual, who died on the same day as CS Lewis and JFK. Best known for his seminal dystopian novel ‘A Brave New World’ and ‘The Doors of Perception’, a whirlwind account of his experiments with mescalin. Like Lewis Carol before him, he was beloved of the counter-culture, but his work if anything, is a plea for sanity in an often insane world, making him essential reading for all cynics.

Jackson, Shirley (1916-1965)

  • American writer, best known for her work exploring the American Gothic idiom with the novel ‘The Haunting of Hell House’ and the brilliant short story ‘The Lottery’ – the latter among the greatest explorations of viciousness within a sleepy community ever set down.

Johnson, Samuel (1709-1784)

  • English lexicographer, writer and man of letters. An endlessly-quotable curmudgeon, Johnson was an imposing figure in a literal as well as literary sense. But behind the grumpiness there lay a kindly soul, beloved by his friends and one of the 18th Century’s most colourful characters. Any good quotations book will usually furnish plenty of his pithy sayings.

Juvenal (c. late first-early second century AD)

  • Roman satirist best known for his satires. While we know relatively of his personal life, his pungent attack on Rome’s foibles and vices earns him his place on any list of good satirists and by extension, cynics. He also coined the memorable phrase ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ – a question with which humanity still wrestles. 

Kafka, Franz (1883-1924)

  • German-language writer whose work including The Trial and The Castle as well as short-stories such as the Metamorphosis capture a nightmarish world in which individuals find themselves controlled or menaced by mysterious forces beyond their comprehension.

Kane, Sarah (1971-1999)

  • English playwright and a key player from the ‘In Yer Face Theatre’ style. Her work such as ‘Blasted’ and the TV play ‘Skin’ provide an unsettling view of the world which proved controversial in her all-too-brief lifetime. Her most powerfully personal work is perhaps ‘4.48 Psychosis’ which dispenses with character altogether and draws on her own experience of mental illness. 

Kierkegaard, Søren (1813-1855)

  • Danish philosopher, theologian and social critic, regarded by some as the first existentialist. A complex thinker whose cynical status is affirmed by his sustained attacks on organised religion which he viewed as a manipulative sham, urging instead readers make a ‘leap of faith’ to find their own personal relationship with God. Works include ‘Either / Or’ and ‘The Sickness Unto Death.’ 

Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)

  • American film director whose masterly technique gave a distinctly cold and sardonic view of the world. Best seen in masterpieces such as Lolita, Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and others.

Larkin, Philip (1922-1985)

  • English poet, critic and jazz aficionado. His writings spanned several decades while he worked as a librarian at the University of Hull. His best work, collected in volumes such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘The Less Deceived’ are erudite dissections of the disappointments of life including the bitterness of unfulfilled ambition and parochial life. Refused the Poet Laureateship, confirming his status as perpetual outsider. 

Lehrer, Tom (1928 – )

  • American mathematician and songwriter best known for such sardonic ditties as ‘Poisoning Pigeons and the Park’ and ‘We Will All Go Together When we Go.’ Less prominent since the 1960s, but a talent well worth (re)-discovering.

Lynch, David (1946 – )

  • American film director whose surrealist work presents a grotesque view of small-town Americana. Best-known for such nightmarish fare as ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘The Lost Highway’ and the equally weird cult TV classic ‘Twin Peaks.’

Machiavelli, Nicolo (1469-1527)

  • Italian statesman, philosopher and writer. While best remembered for ‘The Prince’, a text instructing Renaissance rulers on how to control the masses, there is more to him than meets the eye. Later philosophers, among them Spinoza, argue he was, at heart, a Humanist republican whose ideas influenced the development of the 18th Century Enlightenment. Whatever the truth, he was clearly a man well aware of the dangers of the world in which he lived and was unafraid to paint a picture of the Renaissance prince ideal – warts and all.

Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD)

  • Roman emperor, stoic philosopher. Marcus was a stoic, not a cynic, so he may seem a slightly odd choice for this list. Nonetheless, he advocated a simple, virtuous life despite its petty vexations and disappointments in his book ‘Meditations.# As a rare example of a man in power who tried his best to keep his moral compass despite the murkiness of politics, Marcus deserves his place as an honorary cynic in the best tradition of the term. 

Marx, Groucho (1890-1977)

  • American comedian, actor and Marx brother. Famed for his glasses and greasepaint moustache (he later grew a real one), Groucho cultivated the character of a cigar-chomping wiseguy, always ready with a cheeky jibe or a flippant remark. One of the greatest comedians of the last century, he and his brothers can best be appreciated in films including ‘Duck Soup’, ‘Animal Crackers’ and ‘A Night at the Opera.’

Maupassant, Guy de (1850-1893)

  • French writer and a master of the short story form. His cynical tales often revolve around the cunning Norman peasants of 19th Century France and lay bare the deceit, treachery and pettiness which often lie at the centre of the human heart. His collected short stories are always worth a read.

Mencken, HL (1880-1956)

  • German-American satirist, writer and journalist. The ‘Sage of Baltimore’ followed a similar jaundiced path as the earlier Ambrose Bierce, attacking vice, folly and humbug wherever he found them. Among his favourite targets were populism, religion and even representative democracy, a system in which he believed lesser men dominated their intellectual betters.

Milligan, Spike (1918-2002)

  • Anglo-Irish comedian and writer who first found fame on the Goon Show and was a national treasure ever after. A master of surreal humour whose madcap antics reflected the crazy world around him, ‘The Essential Spike Milligan’ admirably shows off his versatile talent. 

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis (1689-1755)

  • French philosopher and writer, advocate of the separation of powers in political theory. A man of letters who, like Voltaire, used his formidable intellect to dissect the wrongs of the world. Best known for various aphorisms and his ‘Persian Letters.’ As he noted, ‘Men should be bewailed at their births, not their deaths.’ 

Moore, Alan (1953 – )

  • English writer and graphic novelist. Best known for his imaginative work such as ‘Watchmen’, ‘V for Vendetta’, and ‘From Hell’, his stories are a beguiling mixture of alternate-history mixed with psychological depth and dark, humour. The perfect example of comic books ‘doing’ serious social issues and succeeding through sheer verve and imagination. 

‘Morgendorffer, Daria’

  • The only other fictional character to make this list. Academically, a genius, socially – er – troubled, Ms Morgendorffer brought cynicism to the slacker generation in the late 1990s with her almost-as-cynical friend Jane ever by her side. And to think she began life as a spin-off from Beavis and Butthead… 

Morrissey (1959 – ) 

  • English singer, songwriter. One of rock’s more literate figures who first found fame in the Smiths and later as a solo artist. His latter-day work has veered at times into self-parody but at his best, his lyrics are among the more striking the genre has thrown up in the past 30-something years. ‘The Queen is Dead’ remains the definitive Smiths album although ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ is a personal favourite. 

Munch, Edvard (1863-1944)

  • Norwegian painter, perhaps best known for The Scream. His work, which straddles expressionism and symbolism presents a terrifyingly warped view of the world with more than a touch of madness.

Newman, Randy (1943 – )

  • American singer-songwriter whose work includes perhaps his strongest album ‘Sail Away’ which targets, among others, the slave trade, religious hypocrisy and the folly of nuclear war. A perennial favourite of musicians and critics alike.

Nietzsche, Friederich (1844 – 1900)

  • German philosopher best known for works such as ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ and ‘Beyond Good and Evil.’ His work attacks the ‘slave morality’ of Christianity and exhorts people to transcend all limitations by becoming a ‘superman’ through the ‘will to power.’ His aphorisms give a suitable pithy flavour of his varied, fascinating and highly idiosyncratic thought.

Orwell, George (1903-1950)

  • English writer and one of the greatest essayists of all time. His best-known novels are ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ both familiar as terrifyingly vivid depictions of totalitarianism. For his most intimate voice however, his essays have no equal, taking on topics as diverse as colonialism, books, cigarettes, the viciousness of the English public school system and how to make a good cup of tea.

Parker, Dorothy (1893-1967)

  • American writer, satirist and social critic. Well-known for her punchy turn of phrase, she was dismissive of her own talents and deplored her reputation as a ‘wise-cracker.’ Her witty remarks are well-represented in most good books of quotations and her Complete Short Stories (1995) is a good introduction to her work. 

Peake, Mervyn (1911-1968)

  • English writer and artist best-known for his Gormenghast series, in which anti-hero Steerpike schemes and plots his way to the top of the ancient Groan family set against the backdrop of a decaying castle, cut off from the rest of the world. There has seldom been so piquant a picture painted of the eccentric madness that is English society.

Pinter, Harold (1930-2008)

  • English playwright, director and actor. His best-known work includes the plays ‘The Birthday Party’, and ‘The Caretaker’, which take seemingly-ordinary setting and imbue them with an atmosphere of menace lurking just underneath the surface.

Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849)

  • American author, poet, critic and journalist. A master of gothic fiction, his dark short stories such as ‘The Premature Burial’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ hold up a jagged mirror to the real world, showing horror lurking around every corner while his best poem ‘The Raven’ is one of the finest in the English language, showing the unraveling sanity of its narrator.

Pope, Alexander (1688-1744)

  • English poet, the second most widely quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare. Well-known for his vicious satires including ‘The Dunciad’ and others. Was snubbed for the Poet Laureateship, no doubt for having tweaked too many noses in his lifetime. 

Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)

  • English dramatist, screenwriter and journalist. His work including ‘The Singing Detective’ and ‘Pennies From Heaven’ mix social commentary with surrealism complete with trademark song and dance routines. His characters often find themselves struggling against a world which disgusts them while his later work is preoccupied with the baleful influence of the mass media and the Murdoch press. 

Rabelais, Francois (d.1553)

  • French Renaissance writer, Humanist and physician. Less a pure cynic and more an irrepressible wit, Rabelais still earns his place on the list through the shocking effect his words had on 16th Century France. His ribald humour shines through in his most famous work ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel.’ 

Rouchefocauld, Francois de la (1613-1680)

  • French nobleman, intellectual and writer. Author of numerous maxims and whose clear-sighted dissection of humanity earns him a place on any list of great cynics. 

Reed, Lou (1942-2013)

  • American singer-songwriter, initially with the Velvet Underground and then as a solo artist. A highly literate and incisive social critic, Reed was as known for his curmudgeonly persona (especially towards journalists) as he was for his work, the best of which includes the albums ‘Transformer’, ‘Berlin’ and ‘New York.’

Sade, Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de (1740-1814)

  • French aristocrat, libertine, writer and eroticist. A proponent of absolute freedom, his work combines philosophical discussion with racy pornography which saw him spend years at a time in jail. For many, the ultimate rake with scant regard for human decency, he is perhaps better seen as a first-rate satirist and who gleefully mocked the hypocrisy of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church which ran pre-revolutionary France. 

Saki (1870-1916)

  • Pen-name of British writer Hector Hugh Munro. Tragically killed in the First World War, he produced some of the best-known short stories of his age including the many ‘Reginald’ stories and ‘Sredni Vashtar’ a wonderfully sardonic tale of a sickly boy who imagines his pet pole cat to be a deity. 

Salinger, JD (1919-2010)

  • Enigmatic American author, best-known for his seminal coming-of-age novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ Published nothing after 1965 and gave no interview after 1980 – which of course, only made him all the more famous. Also wrote the short story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ among others. 

Sanders, George (1906-1972)

  • English actor, writer and musician. Well-known for playing refined gentleman villains, cads and rotters, Sanders deserves his place on the list for giving cynics everywhere one of their greatest screen icons. Best-known for appearing in films such as ‘Rebecca’, ‘Foreign Correspondent’ and ‘All About Eve.’ His suicide note made reference to the fact he was all set to leave this ‘sweet cesspool’ behind. A first-rate cynic, I’d say. 

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788-1860)

  • German philosopher with a distinctly pessimistic view of humanity who rejected the optimism which had dominated the post-Kantian world and combined Eastern thought with good old-fashioned misanthropy to produce his unusual philosophy. Best sampled through his aphorisms.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)

  • English playwright and poet. A giant of literature who needs no introduction here and while not perhaps a fully paid-up member of the cynics club, his plays produced enough first-rate cynics to demand his inclusion. Many of his characters espouse cynicism, but the finest is perhaps The Fool from ‘King Lear’ – a brilliant creation whose bitter jibes make him part cultural commentator, part Greek chorus, to haunting effect. 

Shaw, George Bernard (1856-1950) 

  • Irish playwright whose work (along with that of Wilde) revolutionised Victorian theatre with its pointed social criticisms. Also an acerbic reviewer and cultural commentator. His plays include ‘Pygmalion’, ‘Man and Superman.’ 

Smith, Mark Edward (1957 – )

  • English singer-songwriter and the only constant member of the Fall. A perpetually disgruntled outsider, his dizzying worldplay conveys his own unique view of the world, backed by an ever-changing rota of musicians. ‘Always different, always the same’, as the late, great John Peel said.

Socrates (c.470 – 399BC)

  • Greek philosopher and gadfly whose thought survives chiefly in the writings of his disciple Plato. A brilliant and original mind, never afraid to skewer vice, folly and humbug wherever he found it. His sharp tongue often landed him in bother and he was condemned to death, taking hemlock. Plato’s ‘The Last Days of Socrates’ paints a vivid picture of one of history’s great thinkers.

Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745)

  • Anglo-Irish writer and satirist best-known for Gulliver’s Travels in which his everyman protagonist encounters one topsy-turvy world after another, lampooning the follies of the everyday world including the Royal Society. Also produced many other vinegary works including a Tale of a Tub and a Modest Proposal.

Thoreau, Henry (1817-1862)

  • American writer and philosopher and one of the more lovable figures on this list. Thoreau’s best-known work is ‘Walden’ a novel which charts his attempts at a more simpler living, shedding the pretensions of modern civilisation. He was also a master essayist and his ‘Civil Disobedience’ is an unflinching view of the cruelty of authoritarianism – and an impassioned plea to resist it. 

Twain, Mark (1835-1910)

  • American writer and journalist best known for folksy tales such as the ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’ A cynic of the first-order, some of his latter-day works are among his vinegary best, including ‘The Mysterious Stranger’ and ‘Letters From Earth’ showing his biting wit to full effect.

Vidal, Gore (1925-2012)

  • American novelist, essayist, screenwriter and public intellectual. Well-known for his pithy, epigrammatic turns of phrase, Vidal was one of the best-known figures of post-war America, with an opinion on just about everything. Famously described Ronald Reagan as a ‘triumph of the embalmer’s art.’ His wit and wisdom is to be found in his many essay compilations. 

Villon, Francois (c.1431-1463)

  • French poet and outlaw who spent some of his life on the run from the authorities before vanishing from history. Best known for his scurrilous and often scatalogical verse with his ‘Grande Testament’, a bittersweet farewell to his friends standing as his masterpiece.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

  • French 18th Century man of letters and intellectual giant. Best known for Candide, a novel which skewers the silly optimism espoused by Dr Pangloss that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ Also wrote a cutting Philosophical Dictionary plus reams of other work.

Vonnegut, Kurt (1922-2007)

  • American writer, best known for darkly satirical novels such as ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, ‘Breakfast of Champions’, and ‘Cat’s Cradle.’ An insightful social critic, his work takes an acidic and sometimes detached view of the insanity perpetuated by mankind. 

Waits, Tom (1949-)

  • American singer and songwriter with inimitable tree-bark voice. Waits’ cynicism pervades his prolific work but for a quick fix, check out his album ‘Rain Dogs’ for a dose of all things Tom. Quintessential song title – ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me.’ 

Waters, Roger (1943-)

  • English singer-songwriter best known as a founder member of Pink Floyd. Led the band in the 1970s, producing albums with a distinctly jaundiced view of humanity such as ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall.’ His solo career from the 1980s on has explored similar themes. 

Watterson, Bill (1958-)

  • American cartoonist, creator of beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995). Calvin, the pint-sized philosopher and smart-ass takes on the world with his (somewhat) more sensible tiger friend Hobbes.

Weill, Kurt (1900-1950) and Brecht, Bertolt (1898-1956)

  • Inspired German partnership, the former a composer, the latter a playwright. Their combined efforts include the ‘Threepenny Opera’, a glorious satire mocking musical traditions and cliches with reckless abandon – including that of the happy ending. Closed down by the Nazis who feared their irrepressible voices, their work continues to inspire. 

West, Mae (1893-1980)

  • American actress and sex-symbol always ready with a waspish comment or a wry turn of phrase. Among others , she once claimed: “I believe in censorship – I made a fortune out of it!” 

Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)

  • Anglo-Irish writer and wit, well known for his brilliant turns of phrase, the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and satirical plays such as ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Behind the image of the debonair dilettante there lay a man of genuine compassion for the unfortunate and the downtrodden, shown in latter-day works such as ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘De Profundis’.

Wilmot, John, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)

  • Restoration-era nobleman, libertine, poet and satirist. One of a ‘mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease’, Rochester was a notable intellect of his day who died an early death from venereal disease aged just 33. His epigrams and poems are notable for their wit and willingness to take a sideswipe at many a powerful target – even the king. 

Wyndham, John (1913-1969)

  • English writer best known for terrifying sci-fi nightmares such as Day of the Triffids, The Chyrsallids and the Midwitch Cuckoos. Despite being dubbed ‘cosy catastrophe’ by some critics, his work often shows a world in which humans are the real monsters.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny (1884-1937)

  • Russian writer and one of the first dissidents produced in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. Horrified by the brutality of the new regime, he produced his masterpiece ‘We’ an intellectual ancestor of ‘1984’ and others. Not surprisingly, his work was banned in Russia but he arranged for the book to be smuggled to the West for publication. 

Zappa, Frank (1940-1993)

  • American songwriter, musician and gadfly. Spent his career taking sideswipes at many worthy targets including the self-satisfaction of the hippie movement and in later life, the censorship brigade. His work straddles many styles and his views on contemporary American life are very quotable. Choice quote: ‘Music journalism is people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for the benefit of people who can’t read.’

 

 

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