09 October 2008

Eric Hoffer: An Authentic Life For a Change

Eric Hoffer was an intelligent man who worked with his hands as a California migratory farm worker, as a Forest Service worker, as a longshoreman. Temporarily blinded as an infant, he recovered his sight at age 15, learned to read, and was a voracious devourer of human knowledge from that point on. He began his adult life with $300 from his late father's craftsman's guild. After retiring from a life of hard labour, Hoffer was appointed an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley, as probably one of the few authentic and personally competent social science professors on the faculty.

At age 53, publication of "The True Believer" thrust Hoffer into the public eye. Over the years, several other books followed. But most of Hoffer's works remain in unpublished notebooks in the Hoover Archives.
"Absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep." _Hoffer

A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past.

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, 1954 _QuotationPage
Authenticity is the difference between a person who is true to himself and others, and a person whose chameleon-like changeability allows him to be all things to all people--temporarily. There are actually persons in the world where "what you see is what you get." Hoffer was a good example of such a person. He was a stark contrast to the "Mr. Changeables" who populate American politics, media, and popular culture. Hoffer was all grit and no flash. Certainly he was not a person today's child-journalists could relate to.
In a 1941 letter to Anderson, Hoffer had written: “My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch. Towns are too distracting.” In 1949, he wrote to Anderson that, “by working [as a longshoreman] only Saturday and Sunday (18 hours at pay and a half) I earn 40–50 dollars a week. This to me is rolling in dough. I have no expensive tastes in food, clothing or pleasure. Above all, I have no taste for property.”....

When not on the waterfront, Hoffer would take a regular three-mile walk in Golden Gate Park toward the Pacific Ocean, working out ideas in his head and writing down the completed thoughts in his notebooks. For perhaps 30 years, Hoffer took the same walk, returning to the center of the city by bus. “The words, the ideas, come to me in the park,” he said in a 1967 interview. “I shape them in my head there, and I write them in my notebook. Blind people [his sight had returned in adolescence] write full sentences in their head. Sentences they can see. I still do.” But 10 years later, when he was approaching 80, he wrote: “In the past I could carry a train of thought in my head for days, formulating and revising, without writing down a word until the thinking was done. At present I cannot write without pen in hand. . . . The old must break with the past and learn anew.”

About Eric Hoffer there is an element of mystery that the material in the Hoover Archives never dispels. He appears, with his talent fully developed, in his first work. Nothing is really explained. The roots from which his genius grew remain concealed. Some scraps of information seem more mythical than real (“My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck”) and suggest a budding Jack Kerouac more than an Eric Hoffer—two writers who could not have been more different. Perhaps in his index cards more than anywhere else we see traces of the struggle, labor, and self-discipline that went into his writing.

Hoffer was always identified with the honorific “philosopher,” and he was one; but he more resembles the philosophers and prophets of old, especially in the high valuation that he always placed on his own independence. He saw himself as one who was free to tell the truth without fear of patron, publisher, department head, or tenure committee. _Hoover
Hoffer spent most of his adult life in San Francisco. But he was far too authentic and sincere to be accepted by the San Francisco elite and intelligentsia. The city on the peninsula remained oddly ashamed of its longshoreman-philosopher until his death. Were Hoffer alive and writing today, fashionable San Franciscans would probably stone the man--with the first stones cast by Pelosi and Gavin Newsom.

The news media of today would never fall for someone as authentic as Hoffer, naturally. Instead, today's media feels "leg tingles" from political tap dancers with radical pasts and mob ties. For such a changeable modern day political Bojangles, the media would do almost anything. You would think that at least a few investigative reporters would want to pore through BO's background, sift through the dust of his past?

Certainly if B.O. were an authentic and hard-working governor of a backwoods state, seeking to challenge the dominance of an inauthentic elite and media to control the destiny of America, the investigative reporters would be on the case. But since B.O. is perceived as one of the gang--just as inauthentic as the rest--he is protected from any and all meaningful inquiries.

It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable.

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, 1954
Yes, and very dangerous. A narcissist such as BO, is full of fear. Fear of discovery. Whether such a person can ever become integrated is a moot question, since all motivation presses relentlessly in the opposite direction. As long as the narcissist is adored, pampered, protected, his experience is pleasant enough. It is those who fall under the narcissist's spell who suffer. And those who fall under his policies.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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