While reading this article about the trendy socialism among New York City’s “creative underclass,” I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. Then I realized it wasn’t that I’d read the article before; it was that Eric Hoffer had already summed it up much more succinctly in his book The Ordeal of Change: “Nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status.”
To me there is an aura of grandeur about the dull routine of maintenance: I see it as a defiance of the teeth of time. It is easier to build than to maintain. Even a lethargic or debilitated population can be galvanized for a while to achieve something impressive, but the energy which goes into maintaining things in good repair day in, day out is the energy of true vigor.
— Eric Hoffer, Maintenance: A Trait of the East
Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele used to work for the NYC Parks and Rec department before the band became popular. He often spoke fondly of his days there, saying that he only gave the job up because the rest of the band wanted the full-time life of rock musicians; he would have been content to keep music as a hobby. His amused bandmates would recount stories of how Steele, when feeling stressed while on tour, would grab a broom and start sweeping the floor of the venue where they were playing. It was his way of making order out of chaos, and, to some extent, reminding himself of simpler, happier times.
I also practice Steele’s method of stress reduction. When angry or anxious, I instinctively channel that energy into household chores. It doesn’t take depth psychology to see this as a means of coping with a breach in the defenses of my psychological city-state. When the tendrils of chaos start creeping in somewhere, I immediately go on patrol around the perimeter, looking to reinforce any other weak spots. I realize this may be a bit odd, but as far as quirks go, at least this one is constructive. If character is fate, perhaps my overall fastidiousness marked me as temperamentally conservative from the start — I start from the assumption that all valuable things are fragile and the threat of entropy and disaster requires constant vigilance. It’s not even that I think this way; it’s more like it’s in my marrow. For many people, it may seem overly gloomy or pessimistic to assume the glass is half-empty, but honestly, I feel conscious all the time of how wonderful it is that the glass is even half-full when it could easily be, and has so often been, empty. Ritual maintenance, whether physical or spiritual, personal or cultural, is the practice of honoring that.
It’s not all grim stoicism and emergency preparedness drills, though. In her essay “Marrying Libraries,” Anne Fadiman quipped about her husband being closely allied with the forces of entropy. I, too, know what it is to share living space with one of the enemy’s agents. We have a running joke that I’m the robot butler who repeatedly insists on removing Donald Duck’s hat in “Modern Inventions,” except in my case, it’s coffee cups and clothing which need to be picked up and put where they belong despite vociferous protest. I don’t mind these homeopathic doses of chaos, though. Like Hoffer said a few times throughout his writings, it’s the pull of opposite poles that stretches souls, and only stretched souls make music.
Every now and then, I go on Amazon and search for books about Montaigne. I’m not exactly sure why I do this.
What I mean is, reading about Montaigne is no substitute for just reading the man himself. Aside from a few minor points which may have gotten lost in translation over the centuries and require an explanatory footnote, the Essays themselves are pretty straightforward. No tour guide necessary. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, said he never had the urge to write until after reading Montaigne. He related a story of being snowbound in a mining camp with a copy of the Essays for company, where he read it three times and knew it almost by heart. When he returned to migratory work in the San Joaquin Valley, he quoted the book so often that his fellow workers would ask him, “What does Montaigne say?” to settle various arguments. One bunkmate borrowed the book for an hour and said upon returning it, “Anyone can write a book like this.”
Well — not exactly, but it’s easy to see how he (and many others) could get that impression. Montaigne is very approachable and conversational. But it’s not easy to write about your own thoughts and impressions without falling into “Dear Diary” self-absorption; the trick is in using those thoughts and impressions to make interesting connections with the wider world that strangers will find relevant enough to read and care about. And let’s not forget that a well-turned phrase isn’t something that most people can toss off effortlessly. For most of us, including Montaigne, it takes a lot of practice and a fair amount of revising and rewriting. As the popular meme might put it, “One does not simply step into Montaigne’s shoes.”
So what am I hoping to find with a book like Michael Perry’s Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy? Do I expect, mutatis mutandis, a modern version of the original? I don’t think so, and not just because there are some mighty trees which cast too wide of a shadow for anything else to grow in close proximity. Ben Schott, for example, has recently published an homage to P.G. Wodehouse, in which he puts Jeeves and Wooster through some new adventures. Now, as someone who would love to hear that some medium had started channeling a steady supply of new stories through the restless shade of Wodehouse, am I going to read Schott’s version? Not on your life. The slightest difference in character or dialogue would feel to me as the pea did to the princess. It’s unfair to expect someone to improve upon perfection, and it’s hubristic to try. Besides, what would it even mean to say that someone is “like” Montaigne? One of the most irritating low-wattage bulbs of comparative illumination I’ve ever seen flickers on the jacket of several of Theodore Dalrymple’s books, where it is claimed that he is “the Orwell of our time.” All I can think about when I see that is how many ways the two men are absolutely nothing alike, which I’m sure was not the intention. How would one transport the quiddity of a writer like Montaigne across five centuries and have it arrive in a recognizable condition?
Is it novelty, then? Am I hoping to learn something new that I didn’t already know? Possibly, but deep down, at least, I know better. Damon Linker once offered a suggestion why political conservatives are underrepresented in the humanities — he thought it was because the research model of the modern university incentivizes “progress” in knowledge, which is ill-suited for the study of classic writers and thinkers who can’t be improved upon. The only way to make Shakespeare, Montaigne, etc. “relevant” today is to study them in the context of our current ephemeral fixations — race, gender, oppression, and sundry other grievances. Likewise, it’s very doubtful there’s anything left to be excavated from the literature on Montaigne, just dust and bone fragments of interest only to narrow specialists. Philippe Desan recently published a new “mythbusting” biography of Montaigne which, I am reliably informed, was a dully-written academic hatchet job aiming to reduce its subject to an opportunistic hypocrite. If that’s what scholarship is typically producing, I’m not interested.
The Lady of the House read Perry’s book immediately after I did. As she comes from genuinely rural, cow-centric origins, she was skeptical at first, thinking that the whole concept seemed a bit too gimmicky, like a printed-page reality show designed by a New York publisher: “Hey, let’s take a 16th-century French nobleman and make him roommates with a modern-day Wisconsin roughneck! Imagine the wacky hijinks!” (Perry does relate one amusing anecdote of a former, yes, New York-based publicist who wanted to throw a book release party for him and his neighbors and asked where she might go about renting gingham tablecloths and genuine straw bales. “I guess she assumed I’d supply my own overalls and banjo,” he said.) There was one passage in particular early on in the book:
Among all the chickens randomly ravaging the slop on any given morning, there is always one who locates a prize hunk of glop, nabs it, then darts into the weeds, hoping to choke it down before the other chickens catch on. The tactic is rarely successful, as there are always two or three other birds in hot pursuit, trying to rip the morsel from the first chicken’s beak or snatch it should it fall to the ground. But now and then one lucky bird scores and makes a clean escape. And then, safely out of sight, the bird discovers the treasured goodie is too big to swallow. And so it is you will sometimes return to the pen an hour later to find the same chicken trying to gag down a knob of gristle thrice the caliber of its gullet. Unwilling to turn it loose, the bird stands there blinking in perplexity.
I am that chicken. I read the experts’ erudite, multi-layered, cross-referential deconstructions and am left blinking, uncertain how to proceed, but unwilling to give up, hoping if nothing else to absorb some mental nutrition via proximity and osmosis.
She thought this almost seemed to pander to the expectation of, say, the quintessential NPR listener who happened to be reading. Aw, isn’t that just so folksy! But as a fellow under-educated fowl — nobody here but us chickens! — I appreciated what he was saying here. I, too, have had to make up in graft what I lack in formal education. And to be fair, how else is he supposed to put it? Take the particular and make it universal. If his “particular” is a Midwestern farm, so be it. It only seems jarring because of the background assumption that people “like him” don’t read Montaigne, and why should that be? If Montaigne is surrendered to the academics, well, we’ve already seen how that will turn out.
The book is very colloquial and conversational; I breezed through it over two bedtime reading sessions. I wouldn’t say it was profound, but I still felt kindly disposed toward it. I winced a bit to see him approach the concept of intersectionality in his musings, but I had to admit that Montaigne himself would have probably been just as sanguine and interested in the topic were he to visit us (Perry even managed to find an impressively reasonable quotation from Roxane Gay, which must have taken no small amount of effort and open-mindedness). Thankfully, the book wasn’t overly weighed down by the trendy and topical. I suppose I just like the idea of sitting around having an informal discussion about Montaigne, even one conducted through the temporal and spatial distance of the written word. The aforementioned chicken image also made me realize that whenever I feel like I’ve truly understood something, it’s been through a skillful metaphor. In my own writing, the moments I’m proudest of are those when I’ve vividly — and accurately — said, “A is B,” or better yet, I suppose, for being more counterintuitive, “A is Z.” I’m not one for laboriously accumulating details; I generally feel like I get something when I can deftly compare it to something else. Perhaps I just tend to think more in pictures. Or maybe it’s the playful nature of metaphors that appeals to me, the inherent humor of comparing unlike things.
In fact, that’s probably the closest I’ll get to an answer to my original question. I don’t expect to find a modern clone of Montaigne, and I don’t expect to learn anything new about him. I just enjoy seeing other people kick around the ball that he put into play on the field to begin with. I like seeing other people inspired by his example to play with the instruments and techniques that he introduced. Some of the efforts may be decidedly amateur, but there are far worse ways to spend a few hours than thinking or conversing about Montaigne with others, even if only in spirit.
• Frank Brownlow, “Thank You, Auden!”
• Troy Senik, “Civilization, If You Can Keep It” and related, John Davidson, “The West Isn’t Committing Suicide, It’s Dying of Natural Causes”
• David French, “Critics Miss the Point of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’”
• Pedro Blas González, “Hoffer and the True Believers”
• Allen Guelzo, “Nuanced Patriotism”
• Christian Gonzalez, “Inequality and the Intellectual Dark Web”
• Jonah Cohen, “The Shameful, Unethical Smearing of Jordan Peterson”
I cannot understand why so many modern people like to be regarded as slaves. I mean the most dismal and degraded sort of slaves; moral and spiritual slaves. Popular preachers and fashionable novelists can safely repeat that men are only what their destiny makes them; and that there is no choice or challenge in the lot of man. Dean Inge declares, with a sort of gloomy glee, that some absurd American statistics or experiments show that heredity is an incurable disease and that education is no cure for it. Mr. Arnold Bennett says that many of his friends drink too much; but that it cannot be helped, because they cannot help it. I am not Puritanic about drink; I have drunk all sorts of things; and in my youth, often more than was good for me. But in any conceivable condition, drunk or sober, I should be furious at the suggestion that I could not help it. I should have wanted to punch the head of the consoling fatalist who told me so. Yet nobody seems to punch the heads of consoling fatalists.
— G. K. Chesterton, “On a Humiliating Heresy“
Good point. Let’s ask an expert.
There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement.
— Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind: And Other Aphorisms
In biblical terms, a prophet is someone both on the margins of society and yet passionately engaged in it. The prophet is both gadfly and lover of the community. By reminding human beings of the fundamental order of the universe that exists prior to the exercise of will and power, the prophet calls his people back to reverence and humility. And while the prophet is traditionally seen as thoroughly wayward — think hair shirts, locusts, scraggly beards, and bulging eyes — he is, in fact, the castigator of waywardness in others.
Capitalism’s greatest predicament is that several paradoxes of the human condition combine to turn capitalist successes into failures… Take mass education: it was the capitalists and not the intellectuals who initiated and promoted mass education. In capitalist America every mother’s son can go to college. Most capitalist societies are being swamped with educated people who disdain the triviality and hustle of the marketplace and pray for a new social order that will enable them to live meaningful, weighty lives. The education explosion is now a more immediate threat to capitalist societies than a population explosion.
I have set out a dish of bird seed and a basin of water on the balcony. I no longer have any illusion about birdlike innocence. One bully gets into the dish and drives off all other birds. The bullies seem demented and malicious. They skip about pecking at other birds rather than eat the seed. Why don’t the birds gang up on the bully? Is it because of a lack of language? Birds are capable of united action: they flock together and organize themselves into flights to the end of the earth.
It wearies me to think that the senseless pecking is part of the energy that fueled the ascent of life — the manifestation of a tireless, blind drive that will go on forever.
— Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath
Very Schopenhauerian of him. Of course, the avian belligerence he describes is indeed often the case. I’m convinced that hummingbirds, for example, use at least three-quarters of their caloric intake merely for driving other hummingbirds away from the feeder. But we recently saw a male cardinal take a bite of suet and flutter over to give it to his sweetheart perched nearby, a courting behavior which is apparently common among cardinals, who also mate for life. Perhaps even birds validate life’s struggles through tiny acts of affection and self-sacrifice which, however briefly, point toward the possibility of something meaningful beyond the senseless pecking.
It may be true that work on the assembly line dulls the faculties and empties the mind, the cure only being fewer hours of work at higher pay. But during fifty years as a workingman, I have found dull routine compatible with an active mind. I can still savor the joy I used to derive from the fact that while doing dull, repetitive work on the waterfront, I could talk with my partners and compose sentences in the back of my mind, all at the same time. Life seemed glorious. Chances are that had my work been of absorbing interest I could not have done any thinking and composing on the company’s time or even on my own time after returning from work.
People who find dull jobs unendurable are often dull people who do not know what to do with themselves when at leisure. Children and mature people thrive on dull routine, while the adolescent, who has lost the child’s capacity for concentration and is without the inner resources of the mature, needs excitement and novelty to stave off boredom.
— Eric Hoffer, In Our Time
Close your eyes and place your finger down just about anywhere on the web, and you’ll find some entitled dullard whining about the oppressiveness of work. In truth, it’s all projection, like the man said. I used to compose poems and posts in my head while driving down lonely highways in the middle of the night; now I do it while cutting the grass or processing and shipping merchandise for clients. All the money and free time in the world won’t help people who are fundamentally empty and lazy.
Have I missed much by spending my life with barely literate people? I need intellectual isolation to work out my ideas. I get my stimulation from both the world of books and the book of the world. I cannot see how living with educated, articulate people, skilled in argument, would have helped me develop my ideas.
— Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront
A friend of my stepson’s once came by the house to visit him while I was out. He knew me from a job where we briefly worked together, but only as an acquaintance. I laughed to hear that he was gobsmacked upon seeing all my books, especially as he’s a fairly serious reader himself. He told my stepson that I was an enigma. “What’s he doing here?” he asked, meaning, here in a small town, living a nondescript life. Apparently I should be someone important in a big city if I read this much. I recently heard that he’d taken to calling me the “Wizard” and the “Pagemaster,” in reference to some ’90s movie starring Macaulay Culkin, and telling people that I live in a library (I haven’t seen the film, but still, I think that might just be my favorite compliment of all time).
That’s the benefit of low expectations, of course. If people don’t see you as much more than a truck driver or a janitor, they’re overly impressed by any ways in which you defy the stereotype. The flipside to that, though, is wondering why you should be content to exist below your potential. It’s a reflexive assumption that any talents or interests one might have should be maximized and monetized. I, in turn, have said repeatedly, ever since I started writing, that this is just another one of the many ways in which we surrender our agency and let the conventional wisdom do our thinking for us. Had I taken the path of least resistance and “risen” to my potential as defined by parents, teachers, and aptitude tests, I would have probably been just another unhappy face in the crowd of failed writers, like a couple academic friends of mine. By remaining undeveloped, unpolished and unfinished, I’ve preserved the freedom and space to grow at my own pace for my own reasons, and that has been far more satisfying than reaching for the stars would have been.
No man is an intellectual island, obviously. I’ve benefitted greatly from having a few highly-educated friends and pen pals, and the Internet provides constant exposure to smarter thinkers and better writers. Still, there is something about living an ordinary life among regular folks that serves as the necessary ballast to keep from floating off into the cerebral clouds where so many ambitious, educated people get lost.
I derive a subtle pleasure from the conviction that the world does not owe me anything. I need little to be contented: two good meals, tobacco, books that hold my interest, and a little writing every day. This to me is a full life.
— Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront
Though I was never in danger of dying last year during my gallbladder adventures, a couple weeks spent in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV does have a way of making the big questions about life come into sharp focus. Statistically, what do I have left, thirty or forty years? Suddenly, that’s not an abstract number; it’s a known quantity. I know from experience how fast that time can seem to go. Before I know it, the doctor’s visits won’t be quick and perfunctory; the hospital stays will become more serious. What do I want out of my remaining time? Fortunately, a lifelong philosophical temperament has prepared me well, enough that I, too, feel that another four decades of reading, writing, and ordinary life would still be a cup that runneth over.