Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hoffer and Index Cards

I have written about Eric Hoffer before: Hoffer on the size of Ideas. Recently, I have come across a reference to Tom Bethell's Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher which apparently contains a whole chapter on his way of note-taking. I have ordered, but not yet received it. There is a

Apparently, Hoffer would for all his life "copy onto file cards quotations from whatever he was reading. The thousands of cards that he accumulated, along with the metal cabinets in which they were stored, represent an attempt to compile the wisdom of the ages in aphoristic form, and they show remarkable energy, self-confidence, and ambition. Looking at them now, one can only marvel that the man who so painstakingly copied out these quotations also worked as a longshoreman" (see The Longshoreman Philosopher).

Perhaps the epithet "Longshoreman Philosopher" is a bit misleading, as Hoffer wrote: "by working [as a longshoreman] only Saturday and Sunday (18 hours at pay and a half) I earn 40–50 dollars a week. This to me is rolling in dough. I have no expensive tastes in food, clothing or pleasure. Above all, I have no taste for property." This means, it seems to me, that he always understood himself as something other than a longshoreman. "In a late notebook (1977) he wrote: 'Practically all artists and writers are aware of their destiny and see themselves as actors in a fateful drama. With me, nothing is momentous: obscure youth, glorious old age, fateful coincidences—nothing really matters. I have written a number of good sentences. I have kept free of delusions. I am going to die soon'" (see The Longshoreman Philosopher).

It appears that much of his life was an "act." He had a German accent, read and spoke German well, spoke Hebrew and apparently had a deep knowledge of Botany. Nothing is known about him before 1934 — or rather, the only things known about him before that time are things he related himself. One of his last manuscripts was entitled "Truth Imagined." He claims he was born in Brooklyn, but he may have entered the U.S. around 1934 by way of Mexico at the age of 32 or 36. He may also have been Jewish and thus have had good reasons to leave Germany or Austria around that time, and even better reasons to keep his "immigration" status a secret. He may also have received a solid education in German.

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