Sluice Box

Last week my old friend Jess friend sent me, as a birthday gift, a book by Eric Hoffer. I’d known about Mr. Hoffer for years, but had never read him. I wish I had done so sooner.

Eric Hoffer, for those of you who don’t know of him, was a most unusual autodidact. Born in the Bronx sometime around 1900, he lost his mother when just a boy, and his father when still a very young man. He also mysteriously lost his sight from age seven until fifteen, perhaps due to the aftereffects of the accident (a fall down the stairs, with the five-year-old Eric in her arms) that killed his mother. Upon the death of his father, he moved to Los Angeles, and spend ten years on Skid Row before taking work as a farm laborer, and ultimately as a longshoreman in San Francisco. The harbor work suited his temperament, and he worked on the waterfront until retiring at 65. He died in 1983.

Hoffer was a profoundly gifted observer and thinker, and despite his lack of formal education, became a widely admired writer of social criticism and political philosophy. He was also, as I am finding out now, an extraordinarily acute and prolific aphorist.

The book I am reading, which is called Before the Sabbath, is not one of his major works — it is a diary he began in 1974, eight years into his retirement. Hoffer wondered what effect the advancing years had had on his mental faculties, and decided that for six months he would keep a journal of thoughts and observations in order to “sluice” his mind: a metaphor that referred to time he had spent as a young man prospecting for gold.

I’ve only just begun reading, but here are a few of the nuggets the book has yielded already:

  • It is almost eight years since I retired from the waterfront, but in my dreams I still load and unload ships. I sometimes wake up in the morning aching all over from a hard night’s work. One might maintain that a pension is pay for the work we keep on doing in our dreams after we retire.
  • That which is unique and worthwhile in us makes itself felt only in flashes.
  • One of the surprising privileges of intellectuals is that they are free to be scandalously asinine without harming their reputation.
  • I cannot see myself living in a socialist society. My passion is to be left alone and only a capitalist society does so.
  • Probably what the creative spirit needs is an annoyance that irritates but does not crush.
  • Our materialist civilization is edging toward tyranny because the elimination of scarcity also eliminates the hidden hand of circumstances that keeps the wheels turning. The coming of abundance has weakened social automatism and discipline. Societies now need forceful authority to function tolerably well.
  • The fateful event of our time is not the advancement of backward countries but the leveling down of advanced countries.
  • There is a large body of educated opinion that wants to see white humanity diminished and defeated.
  • A revulsion from work is a fundamental component of human nature. It is natural to feel work to be a curse. A social order that grants only minimal necessities but asks for little effort will be a more stable system than one that offers superfluities but demands ceaseless striving.
  • The change that matters is the change of a society’s axioms. The 1960s saw a slaughter of axioms. It would be interesting to identify the new axioms. I can think of a couple: (1) The object of life is fun. (2) The world owes everyone a living.
  • Islam’s rapid and total de-Christianizing of the Middle East and North Africa contrasts with the ineffectuality of Christian proselytizing in Islamic lands. Islam contributes to basic human needs and is without inner contradictions and tensions. It legitimizes an easygoing, even indolent life. I doubt whether any Islamic country can be durably modernized.
  • The backwardness of the Arabs in most fields of endeavor makes it impossible for them to acquire the confidence necessary for genuine cooperation with the Jews.
  • We are surrounded by mysteries: the mystery of the absence of outstanding leaders anywhere on this planet; they mystery of teachers no longer able to teach children to read and write; the mystery of the blurring of differences between men and women — in San Francisco even a close look does not always tell you beyond doubt the sex of a person; the mystery of a majority incapable of getting angry with those who trample it underfoot.
  • The misanthropy of the old comes from the fading of the magic glow of desire.

That’s all from the first 16 pages.

Thanks, Jess.

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