Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Hoffer's True Believer

Remembering another "short book," I see by the copyright page of my copy of Eric Hoffer's True Believer (a "Perennial" edition, heh) that it was first published in 1951.  This surprises me.  I didn't think Hoffer's real vogue occurs until the 1960s, ushered in by such luminaries as Arthur Schleisinger, Jr.  But no: apparently there is a Look Magazine profile from 1956 identifying him as "Ike's Favorite philosopher"--surely a compliment in its time, but perhaps also a devastating hint that his long-term destination was oblivion.  

As such he is part of a long tradition of (what--"thinkers"?) who have their moment and then disappear.   Gary Wills, a more durable practitioner of the same craft links Hoffer with Colin Wilson (of The Outsider and Charles Reich of (Greening of America) --this in an essay on "surface whooshiness."    Wills says  that Hoffer (who does seem to have gotten under his skin) "depends on a spoofing of the experts, on posing as the anti-intellectuals’ intellectual"--one who go "for the Big Insight ... not allowed to test, alter, or develop any line of thought. The Insights have to be thrown out, formed and disjunct, to lie there, separate pearls, almost all fake, too many new ones arriving for us to search out the few that are genuine."
This strikes me as harsh.  Rereading bits of him today, I'd say he's not as superficial as Wilson, not nearly such a stark raving loonie as Reich.  Consider, for example:
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.
You like? Maybe not. Maybe you'd want to dismiss it as the kind of stuff you'd learn in an old-fashioned liberal arts college, one where the humanities professors have never heard of Adorno or Derrida. But it's pithily put, and no matter how many people should have learned it, you'll have to concede that an amazing number of people seem not to have--recall, Hoffer thrived at a time when one hubba hubba undergraduate best seller was still the Quotations of Chairman Mao

By the end of the 60s, he had morphed from "novelty" to something dangerously close to "icon," appearing on CBS with Eric Severaid and meeting President Johnson.  But it was turning sour: he liked Johnson too much and American blacks too little; as the decade rattled to a close, he won the equivocal honor of a slashing dismissal in the New York Review of Books from another 60s icon--Edgar Z. Friedenberg, himself now almost entirely forgotten. Spoofing and whooshiness, Gary Wills said: not a combination that fosters great esteem.    

I said "disappear," but this is too facile;  I see that True Believer ranks an impressive #15,061 in the Amazon  tables --evidently it had a kind of resurgence after 9/11.  The Quotations of Chairman Mao, FWIW, weighs in at #69,163.  

Here's another snippet from True Believer.  Recall that this was published in 1951; readers are invited to consider whether we have "begun to hate foreigners wholeheartedly," and if so, whether Hoffer's prediction holds true:
It is easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad.  We cannot hate those we despise.  The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them.  They could hate us more fervently than we could hate them. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners.  An American's hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners.  It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country,.  Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.
Afterthought: I see that Tom Bethell has published a biography of Hoffer.. Remarkable: I haven't read it, but from this piece, I draw the inference that Hoffer's own romantic and dramatic account of his (pre-celebrity) life may very well have been a fairy tail--or at least, that Bethell suspects it to be so.

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