Monday, May 21, 2012


Michael Dirda:

Eric Hoffer was, if anything, even more remarkable than his book. When “The True Believer” was published in 1951, he was a largely self-educated longshoremen, aged 50 or thereabouts (there is doubt about his actual birth date), a barrel-chested guy who earned his living by loading and unloading ships on the docks of San Francisco.

...In the museum world, there is a category called “outsider art,” that is, painting and sculpture created by untrained “folk” artists. Hoffer practiced what one might call “outsider philosophy.” He simply followed his own lights, his own intelligence. ...Still, this “longshoreman philosopher” was primarily a reactive thinker, usually developing his own train of thought by building on, or contradicting, observations from earlier writers.

...Whatever his origins, by the 1930s Hoffer was a migrant farm worker in California. When exempted from the World War II draft (because of a hernia), he learned that the longshoremen needed men on the waterfront, and there he found his ideal job — one in which he could work just three or four days a week, leaving the rest of the time for reading, thinking and writing.

Ideal, indeed; be still, my beating heart! Surely you won't be surprised to hear that Hoffer was, in fact, a bit of a role model for me. I first heard of him by virtue of his mention in Ted Kaczynski's manifesto, read The True Believer, and was deeply impressed by the actualization of what I had thought was a near-mythical possibility in our modern world, that of the non-academic philosopher who makes up with diligence and native smarts what he lacks in specialized training.

A reactive thinker? Technically true, but I can't help but notice that the manner in which that's phrased indicates criticism, points being deducted. But I wholeheartedly agree with Maria Popova's recurring theme on the combinatorial nature of creativity, further suspecting that much academic writing is impenetrable and jargon-laden by design rather than necessity, and that "originality" consists just as much of skillful branding, marketing and self-promotion as it does actual content.