Saturday, May 14, 2022

'A Man By Himself Is in Bad Company'

The library has a circulating first edition of Eric Hoffer’s second book, The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms (Harper & Brothers, 1955). I’ve read it before and even when I disagree with him I find Hoffer’s plain-spokenness and common sense a balm. [My spelling software asked if I meant bomb.] His syndicated newspaper column in the late 60’s was one of the reasons I decided to become a reporter. 

The copy I’m reading has been heavily annotated by someone, usually with a ballpoint pen. By “heavily” I mean on almost every page of the 151-page volume. This constitutes ambitious vandalism, graffiti on a small canvas. There’s evidence that a second annotator has commented on the first set of remarks, leaving on some pages a dense palimpsest few will ever read. Both can be commended for good, legible penmanship and the intensity of their engagement with the text. Here is Hoffer’s Aphorism 262: “A man by himself is in bad company.”


This is Hoffer being provocative, especially to twenty-first-century sensibilities. The honest among us know precisely the hellishness we’re capable of. The first annotator writes in pencil, “Speak for yourself.” The second, in ink: “He obviously speaks from bad experiences!” Thanks, fellas.


In the preceding aphorism, Hoffer writes: “Much of man’s thinking is propaganda of his appetites.” Now our guide dates himself: “At least he knows his Freud – or is it his Norman O. Brown?” There’s a name I haven’t encountered in half a century. Elsewhere, our man cites Montaigne, Socrates, Pascal, Bertrand Russell and, most often, Nietzsche, usually in opposition to Hoffer. In other words, we’re dealing with an undergraduate, probably closer to my contemporaries than today's undergrads. Here is Hoffer’s Aphorism 179:


“When a situation is so unprecedented that no amount of knowledge or experience is adequate to master it, then the ignorant and inexperienced are more fit to deal with it than the learned and experienced. The unknown and untried give as it were a special fitness to the unfit.”


Admittedly, this is dubious. Hoffer is baiting the over-educated elite. I’m not sure either group is especially competent in a crisis. Our man resorts to his old reliable snobbery:


“This is so blatantly anti-intellectual that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry."


I pick laugh.


John Dieffenbach said...

Thank you, Patrick, for "palimpsest."

Tim Guirl said...

I read Eric Hoffer's syndicated columns in the late 60s. This was a time when I discovered the joys of reading. Reading and music have helped sustain me throughout my lifetime.

Richard Zuelch said...

Tim, I agree: reading, music, and a sense of humor are all necessary to get through life sane (more or less).

Tim Guirl said...

Yes, Richard, a sense of humor is essential, and is what separates humankind from the rest of creation. And God, too, has a sense of humor. If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.