Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer

I got inspired to read Eric Hoffer’s Working and Thinking on the Waterfront after a couple of quotes from it in Jacques Barzun’s Simple & DirectWorking and Thinking is Hoffer’s journal that he kept from June 1958 to May 1959, a period that was critical in Hoffer’s thinking (according to the dust cover). One way or the other, it makes for rather interesting reading. The entries are a combination of tidbits from Hoffer’s life as a San Francisco longshoreman, his social life, and his observations and thinking about little things and large things. Mostly large things.

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric HofferHoffer thinks about a great deal of things, many related to how societies functions, now and earlier, far and near. While the journal entries naturally are fragmented and rather brief, they offer many interesting perspectives and ideas. Here are some of the better:

Eventually, national churches came into being […] in the West, and nations crystallized around these churces. This is a significant point: The compact churchly organization of Christianity promoted nation formation, while Islam, being without a churchly organization, could not supply a nucleus for national crystallization [pp. 13-14*].

While nation forming is a rather slow process that began eons ago, Hoffer’s observation still seem oddly relevant against the backdrop of the current situation in the Middle East. Now, nation forming is decidedly a large thing. Hoffer also thinks of maintenance, certainly a smaller thing, and how it plays a role over the centuries.

It is the capacity for maintenance which is the best test for the vigor and stamina of a society. Any society can be galvanized for a while to build something, but the will and the skill to keep things in good repair day in, day out are fairly rare. […] I read somewhere that in ancient Rome a man was disqualified as a candidate for office because his garden showed neglect [p. 21].

Nietzsche’s description of the idealist:

A creature who has reasons for remaining in the dark about himsellf, and who is also clever enough to remain in the dark concerning these reasons [p. 49].

On creativity, and I think he is right:

We somehow assume that inner contradictions, if severe enough, may bring about the breakdown of a society or a system [or an individual, my remark]. Actually, vigor and creative flow have their source in internal strains and tensions. It is the pull of opposite poles that streches souls. And only stretched souls make music [p. 56].

Let me add that the metaphor of stretching reaches far; something stretched is in a dynamic condition, and only when exploiting ones inherent dynamics can one reach ones full potential. Hoffer has further thoughts on creativity:

How explain the primacy of painting, music, and dancing; the primacy of the non-utilitarian and the extravagant? Here are probably the roots of the uniqueness of man. Man’s inventiveness is to be sought in his impracticalness and extravagance. All other forms of life are tremendously practical and serious. Man’s creativeness has its source in his playfulness and his penchant for the superfluous. It is significant that to both children and artists luxuries are more necessary than necessities. We dare more, and are more inventive, when striving for superfluities than for necessities. Our utilitarian devices are mostly an application of insights and skills gained in the pursuit of the non-utilitarian [p. 74].

Children and artists! I am a child! And Hoffer has more:

Our originality shows itself most strikingly not in what we wholly originate but in what we do with that which we borrow from others. If this be true it is obvious that second-rate writers or artists may stimulate our originality more than first-rate ones, since we borrow more readily from the former [p. 89].

Ultimately, Hoffer is able to connect his observations about creativity to ideas from Nietzsche and to ancient developments:

I compared the stretched soul to the stretched string of a musical instrument when I said that only a stretched soul makes music. Nietzsche likened the stretched soul to a tensely-strained bow with which one can aim at the furthest goals. The bow is said to have been a musical instrument before it became a weapon [p. 173].

Hoffer also reflect on writing:

My brevity is partly the result of a reluctance or inability to write. Delight in the act of writing breeds expansiveness. One shudders at the thought of the innumerable thick volumes which come into existence as the result of the sheer habit of writing. How many people with nothing to say keep writing so many pages a day in order that their body, particularly in old age, should perform its functions [p. 131].

Writing as (bodily) exercise! I think, by the way, that the above quote was referred by Barzun and thus convinced me that Hoffer was able to make sense.

The scribe’s role in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was not unlike that of a lawyer in present-day America. He was a multipurpose human type. He could fit into any field of human endeavor—economic, political, diplomatic, military, religious, and so on. The American lawyer is a potential recruit for corporations, universities, government, unions, banks and whatnot.

In every society there is a multipurpose type. In America it is the lawyer, in Russia the commissar, in Britain the politician, in France the writer, in Germany the professor, in Japan the Samurai [pp. 158-159].

How do Hoffer know all these things about all these different societies? Perhaps because he takes an intrinsic interest in civilization:

To be civilized is perhaps to rise above passion; to be able to observe and report without giving way to anger or enthusiasm [p. 169].

In his journal, Hoffer also reports on his reading, and he reads alot. Working and Thinking is a goldmine of great book suggestions and several of the books Hoffer reports on reading are now on my mental to-read list.

Ultimately, the book inspired me to put Hoffer’s Ordeal of Change on my to-read list because Hoffer is obviously a profound thinker. Hoffer also seem to have an uncanny ability to make deep observations that are on the verge of tautologies when they first have been suggested: ‘We die alone’ (p. 91). ‘It is […] clear how vital it is not to take oneself seriously’ (p. 95).

* Page numbers refer to the 1969-edition.

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