Archive for May, 2009

Eric Hoffer, Public Intellectual, Powered By Learner’s Journals

May 20, 2009
Eric Hoffer Kept Learner's Journals During his Whole Life as a Public Intellectual

Eric Hoffer Kept Learner's Journals During his Whole Life as a Public Intellectual

Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman aphorist, seemed to have sprung up from the bare ground able to write penetrating psychological and sociological commentary.

Hoffer was the author of nine books, most of them critically well-received. His first book, the 1951 classic called The True Believer is probably still in 90 percent of all public libraries in the United States.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely public intellectual.

Hoffer was the only child of German immigrant parents. He never attended college and spent 32 years as a migrant worker and longshoreman. Before that he was an itinerant worker, mostly in California. As a young child he was blind from age five until age 15 following an accident wherein he fell down the stairs in the arms of his mother. She died two years later from the resulting injuries. By 1942 when Hoffer registered for the draft, counting the draft registration there were a grand total of two public records with his name on them; the other was his social security application. When the Army declared him 4-F during WWII, he signed up as a San Francisco longshoreman in 1943. He was 45 years old.

He was entirely self-taught, but he owned few books, and not one radio or TV. All his studies were conducted with public library books. What few possessions he owned he left to Lili Osborne, who said that, on Hoffer’s death from emphysema in 1983, it took her all of two hours to clean out his apartment.

So how to explain the uncluttered Eric Hoffer?

After the veil of his blindness parted when he was 15, Hoffer began reading voraciously to sate “a terrific hunger for the printed word.”

More than just a reader, Hoffer was also a punctilious note taker. He copied onto file cards quotations from the books he was reading. He kept file cabinets full of them. And, most notably, he kept record of his thoughts in learner’s journals or notebooks, which he always kept at hand. From 1949 to 1977 he filled 131 notebooks.

He wrote his first manuscript for the immigrant’s magazine Common Ground in 1938. It was not published, but the editor’s assistant, Margaret Anderson, kept encouraging Hoffer over the course of a decades-long correspondence. The True Believer was dedicated to Anderson.

Hoffer wrote, he said, “in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck,” dockside, on busses, and park benches.

Tom Bethell of the Hoover Institution, where Hoffer’s notebooks are archived, writes: “When not on the waterfront, Hoffer would take a regular three-mile walk in Golden Gate Park toward the Pacific Ocean, working out ideas in his head and writing down the completed thoughts in his notebooks. For perhaps 30 years, Hoffer took the same walk, returning to the center of the city by bus. ‘The words, the ideas, come to me in the park,’ he said in a 1967 interview. ‘I shape them in my head there, and I write them in my notebook. Blind people [his sight had returned in adolescence] write full sentences in their head. Sentences they can see. I still do.’ But 10 years later, when he was approaching 80, he wrote: ‘In the past I could carry a train of thought in my head for days, formulating and revising, without writing down a word until the thinking was done. At present I cannot write without pen in hand. . . . The old must break with the past and learn anew.’”

As a result of Hoffer’s thinking in advance, the journal entries “in his workingman’s hand, are polished, with few erasures or corrections, even when written on a park bench,” writes Bethell.

So now to a few of Hoffer’s aphorisms:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

“An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

“You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.”

And for all you Freudians out there, Hoffer was distinctly anti-Freud:

“The individual on his own is stable only so long as he is possessed of self-esteem. The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual’s powers and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day. When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride — the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of individual self-esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride.”

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Mr. Spock Can’t Forget the Theme to Gilligan’s Island Either

May 5, 2009

album-cover-mr-spock-presents-music-from-outer-space1In Newsweek magazine’s recent ‘cover package’ on the new Star Trek movie, one of the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation named Leonard Mlodinow leads his article titled “Vulcans, Never Ever Smile” with a startling confession.

There he was at a chi-chi Hollywood party filled with actors and models and an attorney whose “outfit would have been a fair trade for my car,” Mlodinow writes.

The attorney and a model… both Trekkies, as it turns out… begin to talk about various Star Trek arcana. For a long time he feels out of his depth as the attorney tries to impress the model with his knowledge of Vulcan ‘history’ when like a shot he realizes the attorney is quoting lines from a script Mlodinow himself had written!

“The situation felt surreal,” Mlodinow writes. “Not just because I’d forgotten my own dialogue—you’d be surprised how easy it is to blank on entire scenes—but that they had remembered it and in such detail.”

Mlodinow, let me be clear, wasn’t just another professional Hollywood scribe. He was, in fact, a physics professor at Caltech when he got the call to join the writing staff at Star Trek: The Next Generation and he came aboard thinking that he was there to inject some real science into the show.

What do you make of someone who can write something so unforgettable that another man commits it to memory while the writer himself can only just recall it?

I chalk it up to the ‘Gilligan’s Island Effect.’

You know what I mean. Along with a whole generation of my peers I can remember both versions of the theme to Gilligan’s Island. But for many years every April I’d have to look up my mother’s birthday to ensure I got a card to her on time. I knew her birthday was in April, I just couldn’t remember the exact date.

That is to say, part of the answer is repetition. Unless Mlodinow is a narcissist, I’d bet that he’s seen the episode in question many fewer times than the attorney. And while I’d certainly heard the Gilligan’s Island them hundreds of times, I had only celebrated 30 of my mother’s birthdays.

But part of it has to do with what learning you take pleasure in. There are adults who can recall sports statistics for the athlete-idols of their youth with perfect clarity decades after they committed them to memory. And yet if asked to memorize something they found joyless… the thread-count of the sheets their spouse preferred, say… they would tell you that they were incapable of keeping numbers in their head.

Human memory is so friable. Unless you work at it by keeping a learner’s journal and frequently reviewing it, or using a repetition spacing software like SuperMemo, it crumbles like dust.