Monday, August 15, 2016

Eric Hoffer

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

I had an experience right out of Glass Bead Game when I was in Guatemala. I was discussing life and history with a retired man who had a colorful past and it was very similar to Knetch's discussion with the elderly historian in the monastery where he is sent for his first assignment after graduating from the academy. In his casual conversations with the historian leads them to the realization that they both had studied a little known philosopher named Johann Albrecht Bengel from hundreds of years earlier (Glass Bead Game takes place in the far future). Bengel exists, along with some of the other historical figures mentioned in the book, but some are invented to imply time has passed. Well, in my conversations with the retired man in Guatemala he mentioned making a pilgrimage to San Francisco not to smoke pot and listen to music, but to seek the counsel of a "longshoreman philosopher" who lived there in the '60s. This could only be Eric Hoffer, whom I had read about randomly in my attempts to justify labor as a means to self-enlightenment. I had not read much of what Hoffer wrote, preferring to romanticize a laboring philosopher, content with his day's work and content to write some witty aphorism on a park bench. The ideal was enough to sustain me and inspire me. Hoffer was not of the Stalinist camp of labor, represented by the horse Boxer in Orwell's Animal Farm with the quote "I will work harder." No, Hoffer reached the conclusion that work was hard enough, labor was required from someone, and he would give his fair share. He was not content with intellectualism as an end in itself, like Dr Zhivago who scoffed at the idea of earning his keep with poetry. Hoffer may have found that reflecting on the act of work was his idea of rest. One of his many quotes says, "It is not work that makes us tired, but work left undone." and even if you can contradict it, one must agree it is a witty statement. My favorite quote is, "Why are Jews expected to be the only Christians?" in reference to refugees evicted from Israel and critics asking Israel, but not countless other Christian nations, to do the Christian thing and make room for the refugees. It's witty, even if one can contradict or pick it apart because it not only questions religion, by also contradictory principles and history and the laughable idea that a Christian ideal would be imposed on the very religion that historically executed Christ. It's funny if you examine it, but the idea is quite clever and important and still relevant today decades after Hoffer wrote it.

Well, I said, "That's Eric Hoffer." and thus closed the circle set up in The Glass Bead Game. My conversation companion was never able to meet Hoffer at the time and way led on to way. Hoffer wrote, "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually kiss the boot the kicks them." He also wrote "Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves." And this quote makes me wonder if we are not also on the same page with the word "just" which is usually substituted for the word "merely" but doesn't mean the same thing. Readers will notice I use merely or simply instead of just, unless I am rushed or sloppy, and a study could be done of how Hoffer avoids that insidious word.

Hoffer was an observant and wise man. His work does fall into the realm of punditry or cultural analysis, and his aphorisms toe the line with a broad brush, but his experience earns him a position of respect. He had done the hard work of examining the world from all corners and his experience, not his political bias, served as the source of his opinion. Jack London wrote Martin Eden, which I am still trying to adapt into a screenplay, and that book also studies the dichotomy between labor and philosophy. This theme is also covered in a short story by Jack London that I can not track down right now but it involved a man who lived a dual life as a street fighting socialist and a genteel white collar professor. A literary buff has told me this story is called "South of the Slot". This story had a profound effect on me, more than even the London stories that led me to The Yukon Territory in search of gold. The romance of entering a socially antagonistic culture and learning to fit in and then returning to the bourgeois society and lording your superiority over the ignorant pale pundits appealed to me. I was unaware of the larger message London suggests about this transformation, that one's superiority would merely be used to ostracize and alienate one further, and one's bourgeois roots would always prevent inclusion in the working class society, so that one would be alienated completely from both the north and south of "The Slot", but that wisdom would come later, like Hoffer's, won the hard way.

Jack London and Eric Hoffer. Check them out in this time of idiot pundits and soft pale politicians with toothy lies and bloated egos. 

Hoffer was not a scientist and did not want to be. He wanted to reason out social puzzles while hauling rope and moving cargo and that left no time for science. He is a rhetorician and begins his book True Believer with a humble quote from Montaigne, "All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed."
Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.
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