Thursday, November 05, 2009

`A Few More Paragraphs on Freedom'

“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.”


William A. Sigler said...

I too was a big Hoffer fan back in the day--it's funny how iconoclasm and integrity so often go together. My favorite line of his, perhaps appropriate to this blog, was "every writer has two books. The first, a short one, contains everything he knows. The second, the long one, contains everything he doesn't."

The quote about Trotsky is interesting, in that Hoffer captures, I think, in that plain-spoken wit of his, some of Trotsky's own sense of moral debasement. He was, after all, a supposed man of the people who would have sat out the so-called Russian Revolution in a Nova Scotia jail if not for the intervention of some of the richest men on the planet! Hoffer was more aware than most that the move from idea to ideology disguises some very destructive human motivations.

beth said...

I enjoyed reading this post!
Finding your own happiness, or just relying on yourself for contentment (rather than "saving the world," judging others, etc) is an endlessly interesting concept - and sadly runs contrary to all the rushing-around-look-at-me insanity that we see everywhere we look.

Do you think Hoffer's disgust with "do-gooders" was absent of the type of meddling judgment that he seems to have reviled? In other words, did he have a desire to change them, and is that contradictory? What in its place? A world of solitary people?

What about actual good, aside from pretentiousness? That exists, right? People do actually "do good" for non utopian and self-congratulatory reasons.

I'm sorry to quote pop music, but your quote "the world does not owe me anything" reminded me of an ani difranco lyric (kind of funny to quote her - a person who does claim to want others to stop driving suv's, etc). but the quote is this:
"the world owes me nothing, and we owe each other the world"

Do we owe each other anything, as social creatures?