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Sparks: Eric Hoffer and the art of the

From: Harper's Magazine | Date: July 1, 2005 |
by Tom Bethell

When he published his first book, in 1951, Eric Hoffer had been a long-shoreman for eight
years and had toiled another twenty years before that as a migratory worker. The book, an
abstract and lucid analysis of mass movements called The True Believer, was a critical
success and is now considered a classic. Hoffer nonetheless spent another seventeen years
on the San Francisco docks. Longshoremen could choose how many days they worked,
and Hoffer enjoyed the companionship. He went on to write nine more books and became
known as the longshoreman philosopher. He lived in a single room without radio,
television, or telephone. He owned few books--his research was done in public libraries--
and he methodically discarded everything superfluous. Lili Osborne, who first met Hoffer
the year he published The True Believer, carefully preserved his papers, notebooks, and
correspondence. She says that when he died it took only an hour or two to clean out his
Hoffer's papers, previously unpublished and now available to researchers at the Hoover
Institution at Stanford University, do little to dispel the mystery of the man. His parents
left few traces. He had no brothers or sisters, and he attended no school. His birth
certificate was never found, and as far as anyone knows he never left the country, except
briefly at the Mexican border. Born in 1898, he claimed to be four years younger, perhaps
to extend his working life beyond the union's mandatory retirement age. It may well be
that he was born in Europe and came here as a child. For a while he went blind, or
partially so. He recovered his sight at the age of fifteen and experienced "a terrific hunger
for the printed word." He ended up in California, somewhere around 1920. The highways
were lined with orange trees, he had heard.
The True Believer was subtitled Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. At its heart
was an ad hominem argument. True believers were disappointed men. "Faith in a holy
cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves," Hoffer wrote.
He sought the key to history in the psyches of human types: the man of action, the man of
words, the fanatic, the misfit. He hoped to write a companion volume to The True
Believer, but he saw that man was too complex to allow history to be deduced from
psychology. The book was never written. "My metier is to speculate, guess, and spin
trains of thought as the spirit moves me," Hoffer concluded. "This means that my writings
are bound to be as sparks--short and intermittent."
In the sixties and seventies, Hoffer wrote about the news of his day--rebellious students,
the position of blacks, the woes of the cities, "the return to nature"--and he achieved a
small measure of fame. He was profiled by Life magazine, invited to the White House,
appointed to a presidential commission (on the causes of violence). He could be seen on
television, speaking vehemently about many topics. His voice was rough-hewn, his accent
vaguely German. He was mostly unrecognized on the streets, and content to remain so.
Hoffer always carried a notebook with him. There are 131 of them in the archives, still
creased from being carried about in his capacious pockets. Many people carry notebooks,
but Hoffer's are unusual. He was more disciplined than some imagine. He once said his
writing was done "in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting
for a truck," conjuring up Jack Kerouac more than Eric Hoffer--two very different writers.
His entries, in his workingman's hand, are polished, with few erasures or corrections, even
when written on a park bench. His thoughts are always original, and one reads them with
an abiding sense that some new revelation may be at hand.
Hoffer thought the literati of San Francisco never much cared for him. When he died, in
1983, the San Francisco Chronicle duly noted the demise of the "primitive philosopher"
who "denied that he was an intellectual and said he didn't much like deep thinkers." Little
was heard about him or his ideas for the next twenty years. Interest in The True Believer
revived soon after 9/11, though. At about that time, his papers were opened to
researchers. In his lifetime, Hoffer insisted that working people are "lumpy with talent" but
few of them know how to realize it. These excerpts from his notebooks offer some hints
and clues.
To think out a problem is not unlike drawing a caricature. You have to exaggerate the
salient point and leave out that which is not typical. "To illustrate a principle," says
Bagehot, "you must exaggerate much and you must omit much." As to the quantity of
absolute truth in a thought: it seems to me the more comprehensive and unobjectionable a
thought becomes, the more clumsy and unexciting it gets. I like half-truths of a certain
kind--they are interesting and they stimulate. 1950
There is no reason why the profoundest thoughts should not make easy and exciting
reading. A profound thought is an exciting thing--as exciting as a detective's deductions or
hunches. The simpler the words in which a thought is expressed the more stimulating its
effect. 1950
What merit there is in my thinking is derived from two peculiarities: (1) My inability to be
familiar with anything. I simply can't take things for granted. (2) My endless patience. I
assume that the only way to find an answer is to hang on long enough and keep groping.
Perhaps people throw themselves into heated polemics to give content to their lives, to
warm their hearts. What Luther said of hatred is true of all quarreling. There is nothing
like a feud to make life seem full and interesting. 1950
It is not good for our efforts at self-realization to know the opinions other people have of
us. It is difficult or perhaps impossible to be ourselves if we are known. 1951
It is fearfully simple: The incomplete individual cannot stand on his own, cannot make
sense by himself. He is a part and not a self-sufficient whole. He can make sense, have a
purpose, and seem useful when he becomes a part of a functioning whole. 1951
I am more and more convinced that taking life overseriously is a frivolous thing. There is
an affected self-dramatizing in the brooding over one's prospects and destiny. The trifling
attitude of an Ecclesiastes is essentially sober and serious. It is in closer touch with the so-
called eternal truths than are the most penetrating metaphysical probing and the most
sensitive poetic insights. 1952
This food-and-shelter theory concerning man's efforts is without insight. Our most
persistent and spectacular efforts are concerned not with the preservation of what we are
but with the building up of an imaginary conception of ourselves in the opinion of others.
The desire for praise is more imperative than the desire for food and shelter. 1952
If writing gives us satisfaction, we are likely to end up writing for definite periods each
day even when we have little to say. The hanging on to an empty form is almost natural
since it is the form only that we can control and stage. There is, of course, also the
unconscious assumption that once you stage the form, the content will come to nest in it
of itself. All ritual is perhaps based on this assumption: you stage the gesture and words
that go with fervor and faith and you assume that the latter will somehow materialize.
The chief difference between me and others is that I have plenty of time--not only because
I am without a multitude of responsibilities and without daily tasks, which demand
attention: But also because I am basically without ambition. Neither the present nor the
future has claims on me. 1952
The sense of worth derived from creative work depends upon "recognition" by others,
which is never automatic. As a result, the path of self-realization, even when it is the only
open one, is taken with reluctance. Men of talent have to be goaded to engage in creative
work. The groans and laments of even the most gifted and prolific echo through the ages.
To think for oneself is not only, as Gide said, counterrevolutionary but also apostasy and,
at certain times, treason. 1953
To think of one's self the first thing in the morning and last thing before falling asleep
constitutes a most dejecting routine. There is a feeling of lowness about it all. Our
preoccupation with thought and with problems, of whatever nature, is a climb up a steep
incline. When we slip and hit bottom we are left with the sole preoccupation with the self.
Thinking with me is like looking for a person whose address I don't know. I stand on a
street corner all day long waiting for him to pass by. Certainly there are more efficient
ways of locating a person whose address you don't know. But if you have a whole lifetime
to wait and enjoy watching things go by, then waiting on street corners is as good a
method as any. If you don't find the person you are looking for, you might meet someone
else. 1953
What was it in books, persons, observation, or experiences, etc., that stirred the mind?
You give the date, describe the object, happening, or situation ... What a rich year it could
be if every day precipitated even a mere crumb's worth of keeping. 1953
By circumstance and perhaps also by inclination, I think in complete intellectual isolation.
To expect others to help me think seems to me almost like expecting them to help me
digest my food. 1954
The most important point is--and remains--not to take oneself seriously. There is no past,
and, certainly, no future. There are but a few years--ten at the most. You pass your days
as best you can, doing as little harm as possible. Let the desires be few and treat
expectations as weeds. You read, scribble as the spirit moves you, hear some new music,
see every week the few people you are attached to. Again: guard yourself, above all,
against self-dramatization, a feeling of importance, and the sprouting of expectations.
It is precisely because we can never really know ourselves, but only guess, that we are so
vehement about the good and the evil ascribed to us by others. In maintaining ourselves
against all comers, we are maintaining something that is unknown, uncertain, and never
wholly provable. We need a chorus of consent, and we are engaged in an unceasing
proselytizing campaign in our own behalf. 1954
How terribly hard and almost impossible it is to tell the truth. More than anything else, the
artist in us prevents us from telling aught as it really happened. We deal with the truth as
the cook deals with meat and vegetables. 1954
In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while
complexity marks a primitive stage. Michelangelo's definition of art as the purgation of
superfluities suggests that the creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that
which complicates and confuses a pattern. 1954
A multitude of words is probably the most formidable means of blurring and obscuring
thought. There is no thought, however momentous, that cannot be expressed lucidly in
200 words. 1954
It is the Frenchman's readiness to exaggerate that is at the root of his intellectual lucidity
and also of his capacity for acknowledging merit. The English were not afraid to
exaggerate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they were then not far behind
the French in the lucidity of their thinking.... There is hardly a single instance of cultural
vigor marked by moderation in expression. 1955
It has been my experience that there is no substitute for time where thinking is concerned.
Why is it so? The answer seems to be that in many cases to think means to be able to
allow the mind to stray from the task at hand. The mind must be able to be "elsewhere."
This needs time. 1955
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. 1955
We are ready to die for an opinion but not for a fact: indeed, it is by our readiness to die
that we try to prove the factualness of our opinion. 1955
The impulse to think, to philosophize and spin beauty and brilliance out of mind and soul,
is somehow the offspring of resistance--of an effort to overcome an apparently
insurmountable obstacle. Hence cultural creativeness is more likely to flourish in an
atmosphere of restriction, of an imposed pattern of thought and behavior, than in one of
total freedom. 1956
One is not quite certain that creativeness in the arts, literature, and science functions best
in an environment of absolute freedom. Chances are that a relatively mild tyranny
stimulates creativeness. 1956
Actual creativeness is a matter of moments. One has to piece together the minute grains to
make a lump. And it is so easy to miss the momentary flashes, it is like sluicing in placer
mining. He who lets the flakes float by has nothing to show for his trouble. 1956
Universities are an example of organizations dominated wholly by intellectuals; yet,
outside pure science, they have not been an optimal milieu for the unfolding of creative
talents. In neither art, music, literature, technology and social theory, nor planning have
the Universities figured as originators or as seedbeds of new talents and energies. 1956
It is apparently vital that we should be in the dark about ourselves--not to be clear about
our intentions, fears, and hopes. There is a stubborn effort in us to set up a compact screen
between consciousness and the self. 1956
The man of words feels better when the man of action comes to grief. There is not the
least doubt that depressions have been good for the intellectual's soul. 1957
To overestimate the originality of one's thoughts is perhaps a less serious defect than being
unaware of their newness. There is a more pronounced lack of sensitivity in
underestimating (ourselves and others) than in overestimating. 1957
Many people do not expect anything they read to make sense. They do not demand
lucidity and relevance. There is a twofold reason for this attitude: First, the viewing of
writing as a strange art and mysterious procedure. Such a view equates reading with
listening to music. Second, the viewing of writing as something beyond our own powers--
a sort of magic. Such a view predicates incomprehension, and is not disappointed by
obscurity or lack of sense. 1957
Why is it so hard to tell the truth? Because more often than not the truth is meager and
stale. By lying we, as it were, reform the world--arrange things as we would like them to
be. And often indeed the lie is a preview of a new truth. 1957
The only key in deciphering others is our self; and considering how obscure this self is and
how dim our awareness of it, the use of it as a key in deciphering others is like using
hieroglyphs to decipher hieroglyphs. 1957
Good writing, like gold, combines lustrous lucidity with high density. What this means is
good writing is packed with hints. 1957
How quickly does anything we understand become stale. Perhaps this is a malady of a
certain season of life. 1958
I have never felt that I had a thought too profound for others to understand. On the
contrary, it always seemed to me axiomatic that what was clear to me should be clear and
easy to everyone else. This despite the fact that it often took me years to grope my way to
an idea.... I can spend days and even months on a single sentence. I do not know how to
skip. To think and write with me is like putting brick on brick. 1959
How rare it is to come across a piece of writing that is unambiguous, unqualified, and also
unblurred by understatements or subtleties, and yet at the same time urbane and tolerant.
It is a vice of the scientific method when applied to human affairs that it fosters hemming
and hawing and a scrupulousness that easily degenerates into obscurity and
meaninglessness. 1960
Flaubert and Nietzsche have emphasized the importance of standing up and walking in the
process of thinking. The peripatetics were perhaps motivated by the same awareness. Yet
purposeful walking--what we call marching--is an enemy of thought and is used as a
powerful instrument for the suppression of independent thought and the inculcation of
unquestioned obedience. 1960
Total innovation is a flight from comparison and also from imitation. Those who discover
things for themselves and express them in their own way are not overly bothered by the
fact that others have already discovered these things--have even discovered them over and
over again--and have expressed what they found in all manner of ways. 1960
What counts most is holding on. The growth of a train of thought is not a direct forward
flow. There is a succession of spurts separated by intervals of stagnation, frustration, and
discouragement. If you hold on, there is bound to come a certain clarification. The
unessential components drop off and a coherent, lucid whole begins to take shape. 1961
Originality is not something continuous but something intermittent--a flash of the briefest
duration. One must have the time and be watchful (be attuned) to catch the flash and fix it.
One must know how to catch and preserve these scant flakes of gold sluiced out of the
sand and rocks of everyday life. Originality does not come nugget-size. 1961
A good sentence is a key. It unlocks the mind of the reader. 1962
As a full-time longshoreman I am necessarily more a scribbler than a writer. But I am also
so by inclination. The writing I can enjoy is the sketching of an idea in a few dozen
words--two hundred at most. Elaboration and expansion are for me hard going. An article
of several thousand words becomes inevitably a mosaic of ideas--a series of ideas stuck
together. 1962
I have never known the hunger for immortality. Nor have I ever savored fervent faith. I
have not had even a single festering grievance.... I have yet known vehemence. When I
expound ideas and opinions, I do so with a passion. 1964
Some people have no original ideas because they do not think well enough of themselves
to consider their ideas worth noticing and developing. 1967
Disraeli felt that "nothing could compensate his obscure youth, not even a glorious old
age." Practically all writers and artists are aware of their destiny and see themselves as
actors in a fateful drama. With me, nothing is momentous: obscure youth, glorious old
age, fateful coincidences--nothing really matters. I have written a number of good
sentences. I have kept free of delusions. I know I am going to die soon. 1977
I could never figure out--or probably did not take the trouble to figure out--what the great
philosophical problems are about. The momentous statements I come across are at best a
storm in a teacup. There are quite a number of people who have a vested interest in the
stuff, make a noble living out of it, and they conspire with one another to keep it alive.
In all my life I never competed for fortune, for a woman, or for fame. I learned to write in
total isolation. My first work was also my best, and the first thing published. I never
belonged to a circle or clique. I did not know I was writing a book until it was written.
When my first book was published there was no one near me, an acquaintance let alone a
friend, to congratulate me. I have never savored triumph, never won a race. 1981
[c] Copyright to Eric Hoffer's writings retained by Lillian Fabilli Osborne. Printed with

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