Friday, July 27, 2018

'They Cultivate Illusions Out of Idealism'

An old online acquaintance, Douglas Dalrymple of Idlings, remembered my interest in Eric Hoffer and passed along a link to the televised interview Hoffer gave Eric Sevareid in 1967. What a novel idea: two men sitting in a bare room, one of them smoking a cigarette, talking. Sevareid has done his homework. He has read Hoffer and thought about The True Believer (1951) and the subsequent books. He likes the recently retired longshoreman. Hoffer is animated, charming and commonsensical: “I can’t think of anything more exciting than going to bed with a half-finished paragraph.”

I discovered Hoffer when I was fifteen or sixteen, by way of his "Reflections" column syndicated in U.S. newspapers, including The Cleveland Press, from January 1968 to April 1970 – my high-school years. I read the columns, clipped them and pasted them in a scrapbook. Like my family, Hoffer was working-class. He even looked a little like my father and most of the fathers I knew. I had never met anyone, except doctors and teachers, who had gone to college. Hoffer showed no kneejerk respect for academics and intellectuals. He admired Montaigne above all writers, and is one of the reasons I became a newspaper reporter.

In an essay he published in the New York Times in November 1970, when I was a freshman in a state university, Hoffer dismisses trendy intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, a hateful Marxist who had a following in those years. Hoffer writes: “Scratch an intellectual and you find a wouldbe aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk.” Little has changed. I’m reading again in The Hall of Uselessness (2013), Simon Leys’ collected essays. In "The Curse of the Man Who Could See the Little Fish at the Bottom of the Ocean," written in 1989 after the Tian’anmen Square massacre, Leys takes on the Western intellectuals who had championed Mao despite the evidence documenting his murderousness. He doesn’t forgive them but tries to understand them:

“What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism. They follow their own visions because doing so satisfies their religious cravings, and also because it is expedient. They seek beliefs that can exalt their souls, and that can fill their bellies. They believe out of generosity, and also because it serves their interests. They believe because they are stupid, and also because they are clever. Simply, they believe in order to survive. And because they need to survive, sometimes they could gladly kill whoever has the insensitivity, cruelty, and inhumanity to deny them their life-supporting lies.”

In a mediocre age, it’s a good time to be a reader of essays. Along with Leys, who died in 2014, we have Joseph Epstein and Theodore Dalrymple, sane, thoughtful, honest men who can write – rare qualities. Each is university-educated and more polished than Hoffer, but like him they see through the collective smokescreen. All would be embarrassed to be called "intellectuals."

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

I've watched the Sevareid interview with Eric Hoffer. I,too,read Hoffer's newspaper columns in the late sixties. A collection of them is available as a book: "The Syndicated Columns" (Hopewell Publications, 2011).

Hoffer was spikey with prejudices, but he got most things right, especially when he wrote about human nature. I used to talk him up to my shipmates when I served aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer. In 1985, the City of San Francisco commissioned a sculpture on the waterfront in honor of Eric Hoffer.