The longshoreman philosopher

Before reading this month’s Harper’s all I knew about Eric Hoffer was that he wrote The True Believer, a book I often saw at thrift stores and used bookstores but never actually read from a vague sense that it was some sort of hysterical anti-communist tract from the 1950s and that it was sociology written without the benefit of poststructural theory and therefore out of date. (I was in an English PhD program.) But if Harper’s biographical sketch is to be believed, it turns out Hoffer was a living exemplar of a specific ideal, that of the unencumbered unpretentious thinker with no ambitions for fame or wealth, someone with few possessions who lived without a radio or a television or a phone, someone who worked hard manual labor as a longshoreman without any apparent self-congratulation. One can deduce the code he must have lived by from these details: don’t get caught up in materialism and consumerism, don’t get caught up in your own reputation, let hard work be its own reward. Presumably this is a highly romanticized picture, but reassuring nonetheless that such people have existed, and tragic, too, to think that we’ll never know or have any of their insights the way we have Hoffer’s, whose notebooks are excerpted in the article. Hoffer seemed to believe in capturing discrete thoughts in simple language, arguing that no thought is so complex that it should require more than 200 words to relate. He seemed to have then an undeterred faith in the practice of isolating ideas, that thinking means taking an idea and breaking it off from its context — thereby exaggerating its significance and simplicity — and expressing it so that it may be concrete and comprehendable as its own unique thing. Thought is breaking down the web of interrelated ideas into component parts that, when well expressed, can gain clarity and explanatory potency when standing alone. To quote him (citing someone else): “Michelangelo’s definition of art as the purgation of superfluities suggests that creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that which complicates and confuses a pattern.” This certainly seems to explain how he lived his life; with a minimum of complication and static brought on by a surfeit of possessions (and perhaps, alas, friends). His notebook entries have the air of someone content to write merely for his own sake, for the pleasure of documenting the movements of his own mind, making his own sense of himself more lucid as he nailed down his thoughts in precise, elegant sentences. Reading them, you get a real sense of thinking as a pleasurable activity in its own right, which is extremely reassuring in a culture so hostile to thought. I found this one inspirational: “Our doubts about ourselves cannot be banished except by working at that which is the one and only thing we know we ought to do. Other people’s assertions cannot silence the howling dirge within us. It is our talents rusting unused within us that secrete the poison of self-doubt into our bloodstream.” As simultaneously pathetic and self-aggrandizing as it sounds, I think that’s why I find myself writing this blog.

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