“I derive a subtle pleasure from the conviction that the world does not owe me anything. I need little to be contented: two good meals, tobacco, books that hold my interest, and a little writing every day. This to me is a full life.”
The Robinson Crusoe myth, like Thoreau’s, embodies a primal fantasy of solitude, self-reliance, simplicity and values reevaluated. For me it replaced fantasies of flying and invisibility when I hit puberty, and ever since I’ve kept an unspoken inventory of what I need and what is superfluous. What I want doesn’t figure into it. I’m not preachy about such things and don’t care if others drive SUVs, nor am I by nature an ascetic, but life has a way of getting unaccountably messy even without me contributing additional clutter – mental, material or otherwise.
The passage quoted above is from Eric Hoffer’s Working and Thinking on the Waterfront (1969), a journal he kept in 1958-59 while working as a longshoreman in San Francisco. The time and place are significant – the epicenter of the Beats and the nascent counterculture -- yet Hoffer makes no mention of their shenanigans. He was too busy working on the docks (not slumming – he retired after 25 years at age 65), writing, reading and caring for friends.
When I first read Hoffer’s newspaper column late in the nineteen-sixties and soon moved on to his books – The True Believer, The Passionate State of Mind, The Ordeal of Change – I was attracted by his working-class roots, enthusiasm for self-education, common sense and the obvious pleasure he took in his outspokenness. My father was an ironworker, my mother a tax clerk, no one in my family had ever set foot on a college campus, and I had already commenced my own self-education. With Hoffer I shared a distrust of self-important “intellectuals” – a word he always used with contempt. For me he remains the model of an independent writer and perpetual learner, humble but pugnacious. He was pleased to know that “the world does not owe me anything” – about as alien a notion as one can imagine today in our age of aggrieved entitlement.
Hoffer’s words, after half a century or more, have grown in acuity. Unblinkered by ideology he saw where things were headed, the coming of a dreary gray world engineered by meddlers, do-gooders and would-be utopians. Reading Trotsky’s Diary in Exile he writes in his journal:
“It does not occur to him that you can invent a machine or write a fine poem playfully.
“He is convinced that people cannot be decent unless they have a great idea which raises them `above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.’ To a Trotsky, the mass of people who do the world’s work without fuss and feathers are morally debased.”
A few pages later he notes:
“Seven hours discharging frozen fish at Pier 17. During the day I put together a few more paragraphs on freedom.”