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From the Waterfront

The working wisdom of Eric Hoffer.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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One popular agent of change straddled this line more deceptively than any other: “To attach people to words,” Hoffer noticed, “is to detach them most effectively from life and possessions.” While he examined this detachment at its most extreme in The True Believer, Hoffer knew that a complete surrender to verbal voodoo wasn’t possible in his homeland. “The American is much better than his words,” he wrote in one of his private notepads, archived at the Hoover Institution. “Their acts are more sensitive and original than their professed opinions.” 

But then everything changed: The Russians launched a toy into space, and we reacted by going to school. Long before anyone else Hoffer saw what the resulting cult of college meant for the American character. “After October 1957,” he mourned, “many young people who would normally have gone into business ended up climbing academic ladders and throwing their weight around literary and artistic cliques. It was these misplaced tycoons who set the tone and shaped events in the 1960s.” As ecophiles, they easily confused Mother Nature with human nature; as victim-mongers, they cultivated permanent alibis for the hard work of achievement; as youth-worshippers, they rejected the most fundamental source of change in their fear of growing up. By identifying the profound inertness of these academically transmitted movements, Eric Hoffer exposed their secret aversion to the kind of true, quietly dynamic progress of a free society. 

Though Hoffer’s commentary on such matters earned him much controversial fame, what matters most is his literary legacy. Like most good sociologists, Hoffer wasn’t really a sociologist, or even a philosopher. He was a grateful cynic—an agnostic who thanks God for original sin—who thought the well of human mystery too deep for systemic drainage. Faces, moodswings, and Ernest Renan’s History of the People of Israel were equally fruitful to his mind, and in reading through his body of work, private and public, you follow a train of thought uniquely prone to encounter truths it didn’t seek.

Here a brooding, morbid series of reflections ends up in praise of lighthearted frivolity. There a bonfire of pretensions finishes with an ode to gesture and exaggeration. Even an offhand, unpublished remark—“It’s only when the oyster keeps its mouth shut that a grain of sand within may become a pearl”feels like it was written just yesterday. The witty, assertive tone of the aphorisms only underscores their role as original questions, as deadly to the potential laziness and self-deception of their own author as to yours or mine. 

“I have Hitler in me, I have Stalin in me,” Hoffer explained in a television interview in 1967. Viewers could see his point. The presence on screen—with his huge, mangled hands, epic face, and bellowing pan-accented voice, violent one syllable and wounded the next—was what journalists would call charisma. The audience hung on every word. And once he noticed the warm, instant rapport he could form with total strangers from a lectern, Eric Hoffer did what any decent person would, and stopped talking in public for years.

Alec Mouhibian is a writer in Los Angeles.

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