Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Birthday: "An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.'

eric hoffer.jpg

Eric Hoffer (c. 1900-1983)
Longshoreman, philosopher

He was the sort of man who could only have evolved in the pre-Cold War days in America, before the national security state. His birth date is disputed: 1898? 1902? Until he was 35, Eric Hoffer left virtually no paper trail.

Largely self-educated, he worked as a laborer his known life but ended up the author of eleven critically acclaimed books, a professor at UC-Berkeley, and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hoffer’s official biography is what he said it was: his parents came to America from Alsace, in one of its periods of German possession, and set up in The Bronx. At five, he and his mother fell down a flight of stairs. He said he lost of his sight; she was so badly injured she later died.

At fifteen, his sight returned and Hoffer became a maniacal reader. He wanted to learn all he could, lest the lights go out again.

His father died, and Eric knew he didn’t want to work in a New York factory. So he took the insurance payout on his dad’s life and a train to San Francisco. There he began to emerge from the shadows, working odd jobs, living on Skid Row, reading all the time at the library.

As the Depression bit harder, he became a migrant worker, acquiring a library card for every town on his route (he said he spent his time between the books and the brothels) , and tried his hand prospecting for gold. Snowed in for the winter, he worked through Montaigne’s essays. The Frenchman’s epigrammatic style Hoffer adopted as his own in time.

In 1940 Hoffer was rejected for military service, but found work on the labor-strapped San Francisco docks. Longshoring suited him down to the ground: he worked three days a week, made enough to live on, and met a woman, Lili Fabilli Osborne, who became his great companion.

In his free time, Hoffer started writing. He got a bad novel out of his system, then started considering the state of mankind.  As Michael Dirda told it in The Washington Post in 2012,

More than 60 years ago, a New York editor named Margaret Anderson received a manuscript entitled “Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” The second paragraph of the preface announced its theme:

“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.

“All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

Anderson thought the title would sink the book’s prospects. She suggested an alternative, and it came out as The True Believer (with the original moniker as the subtitle) in 1951.

It also sold very well. President Eisenhower read it in 1952 and starting giving copies to friends. By 1956, Look Magazine described Hoffer as “Ike’s Favorite Author”.

Hoffer continued publishing essays and books, all written on his days off. Forced to retire when he turned 65, he became a Socratic visiting professor at UC-Berkeley, giving the occasional lecture, mostly hanging out and talking with students. In the early days of public television, he was the subject of a ten-part series of interviews. Eric Sevareid, the sage of CBS News, did a special program with Hoffer that had to be repeated by popular demand. He later called it “the greatest filmed monologue I had ever had anything to do with in all my years in television.” Almost fifty years later, I can remember watching it.

President Johnson saw it, too, and invited Hoffer to the White House. He appointed Hoffer to a 1968 commission to investigate the causes of violence and protest, where Hoffer got into hot water with the political left by criticizing anti-Vietnam protesters.

Two years later, Hoffer announced his retirement from public life. He gave it all up- the public TV series, the newspaper column, the college lectures. He kept writing, though and published three more books before he died.

Hoffer was the philosophical version of an outsider artist- a man of unusual, if unschooled, talent and insight who found a way to convey his insights to the world. He was not an original thinker: he spent half a century taking notes on what he read, then synthesizing it into his own fresh insights. Michael Dirda gave some examples, from a 2004 Hoffer biography:

For instance, commenting on computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s remark, “I cannot remember a single completely happy day in my life,” Hoffer speculates about what makes us happy. “One thing I know beyond doubt. Had [Babbage] overheard someone he respected praise him highly it would have sweetened life for him for more than a day. We are starved for praise. It reconciles us with life. . . . Self-doubt is at the core of our being. We need people who by their attitude and words will convince us that we are not as bad as we think we are. Hence the vital role of judicious praise.”

Praise as the source of happiness? Most of us would have listed self-fulfillment or good works or family, but Hoffer avoids the familiar chestnuts, proffering instead a wholly unexpected insight that nonetheless rings true. It’s a gift he displays throughout his writing. In another note, he agrees with G.K. Chesterton that the artistic temperament is a disease that affects amateurs. But sometimes, he adds, even distinguished artists parrot the belief that “enthusiasm, inspiration and an eventful life are vital to the creative flow. Actually, they know better and act differently. They know that what creation needs is hard work and eventless routine.” On another page, Hoffer further stresses that “the writer creates to compensate himself for what he did not experience, for what he could not be.”

As befit a self-taught man, Hoffer disdained the traditionally-credentialled intellectuals, which has endeared him to conservatives to this day, “since they obviously yearn for status and regard, despise ordinary people, and consider it a “God-given right to tell others what to do.” Hoffer was never so presumptuous. As he said, ‘There is no greater threat to sanity than the taking of one’s life too seriously. No one will miss us long when we are gone. No one will lose his appetite because we are no more.’

Freud, then at his zenith, particularly irked Hoffer:

'Ah, don't talk to me about Freud. Freud lived in a tight little circle in Vienna and inside that tight little circle was another tight little circle and inside that tight little circle was still another tight little circle. What applies to that poor man, Freud, does not necessarily apply to me.''

The True Believer remains Hoffer's’ evergreen work. In its first fifty years, it went through twenty-three editions. It tends to be rediscovered in times of crisis: after 9/11; with the rise of the Tea Party. It is enjoying a new vogue in the Age of Trump. Part of its enduring appeal, and that of its sequel, 1961’s The Ordeal of Change, is that the reader can apply it to his or her own view of the world. One very conservative blogger, for example, found a singularly counterintuitive message in Hoffer’s work:

“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”

Hoffer explores who joins mass movements: “We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, “to be free from freedom.” Nazi and Stalinist philosophy is much on Hoffer’s mind throughout both books. Both books are full of how those who are the staunchest speakers of freedom are often in practice the most ardent supports of repression:

“Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity. The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.

“The zealous feminist, gay rights and social democrats on the left fit the model very well.”

To the end, Hoffer remained immune to the allure of things. He owned practically nothing. He went everywhere in his work clothes, a cloth cap always atop his bald head. Hoffer spent his adult life in single room apartments; his one concession to the “stuff” was the endless supply of notebooks he kept in his pocket to jot down ideas and quotes from what he was reading. When he died, at eighty, Lili Osborne left his papers- 75 linear feet of them- to the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where The Eric Hoffer Project continues to study and publish his work.

An atheist, Hoffer nevertheless felt religion could be a force for good in the world and was a passionate supporter of the State of Israel; leftward-leaning in his analysis of human nature and public affairs, he admired Ronald Reagan.

''The main thing,” he always said, “is not to take myself seriously.'' He knew his own mind.

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