Saturday, 9 March 2019

Twenty 20th Century intellectual heroes, Part 2: from Eric Hoffer to Colin Wilson

You can find the first part of this post - "Twenty 20th Century intellectual heroes, Part 1: from Jung to C.S. Lewis" - here.

11. Eric Hoffer
A self-taught San Francisco longshoreman who wrote The True Believer (1951), an astonishingly insightful book about why some (mostly young) people become fanatical members of violent cults, sects and political organisations - and why they become more fanatical and violent over time. I wrote about Eric Hoffer here.

12. Simone Weil
I've recently been re-reading the American modernist poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). I tend to dip in...

...every few years, and I'm not sure why, because - besides his philosophical obsession with our inability to experience things as they are in themselves, rather than as they appear to us - it's often hard to make sense of his work. Nevertheless - apart from appreciating the sheer beauty of much of his verse - some of his poems seem to make some sort of sense to me at a subconscious level. I feel much the same way about the epigrammatic writings of the French, Jewish, Christian, left-wing activist, thinker and mystic, Simone Weil, who essentially starved herself to death while in exile in London in 1943, working for the Free French cause. According to taste, contemporaries thought she was either a saint or a lunatic (her boss, Charles de Gaulle, thought she was mad). Similarly, her books - of which my favourite is Gravity and Grace - are by turns infuriating and intellectually and spiritually exhilarating.  One brief example of her style will have to serve as an illustration: “The capacity to drive a thought away once and for all is the gateway to eternity. The infinite in an instant.” That's twaddle, of course - but it's also one of the truest things I've ever read.

13. Thomas Merton
Merton was an American Trappist monk whose spiritual autobiographical, The Seven-Storey Mountain, caused a flood of applications to monasteries from the writer's young countrymen. It didn't have quite as strong an effect on me when I first read it a quarter of a century ago - but his experiences as a Cambridge undergraduate somehow made sense of my own. Apart from the New Testament itself, when in need of spiritual sustenance, I've turned to Merton's books more than to those of any other writer (despite his penchant for social activism and his distressing habit of using the word "interiorly" instead of "inside").

14.  F. R. Leavis
Yes, he could be humourless, dogmatic, personally vicious and puritanical, and one often wishes he could have loosened his corsets occasionally to enjoy some light reading (finally deciding that Dickens was acceptable was about as far as he went in that direction), but, when I made an effort in my twenties to get to grips with "serious" literature, The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit proved superb guides.

15. Whittaker Chambers
Chambers was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th Century - a committed communist for much of the '30s, he spied for the Soviets against America, saw the light, went into hiding after refusing an order to visit Moscow (where he would have been executed), became a farmer, then a senior editor at Time, testified against the State Department traitor Alger Hiss, and wrote Witness, an account of his experiences which had a great influence on America's burgeoning post-war conservative movement, which eventually reached its apogee with the election of Ronald Reagan as president. I wrote about Chambers and Witness - a frightening, emotional and touching work as weighty and powerful as Old Testament prophecy - here.

16. Tom Wolfe 
The father of "gonzo" journalism whose ironic demolition of the attitudes of America's silly and dangerous left-wing cultural establishment in the late '60s and early '70s gave heart to at least one young conservative.

17. Auberon Waugh
Not an intellectual - not even a coherent political thinker - but a savagely funny and fearless opponent of Britain's left-liberal establishment in the '70s and early '80s, until Ian Hislop took over Private Eye and reduced it to "an old bitch gone in the teeth". Much as Michael Wharton (in the guise of the Daily Telegraph's Peter Simple) had done earlier, Waugh helped convince those of a conservative or right-wing disposition that we were not alone, and that the silly, pompous, self-regarding, left-liberal wankers (whose ranks in the '70s, as now, included practically the whole of the Parliamentary Conservative Party) who were squeezing the life out of the country really were as ridiculous and deserving of our contempt as we suspected. Waugh! thou shouldst be living at this hour!  

18. Robert Conquest
It's astonishing to reflect that when Conquest's The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s was published in 1968, many members of the left-liberal establishment refused to accept its findings - Conquest, they insisted, was nothing but a right-wing propagandist! This sceptical attitude trickled down to would-be members of that establishment - I remember fellow-undergraduates spouting the same nonsense at me as late as 1972. But then the publication of a book in 1973 by a Russian, crammed with testimony from hundreds of eyewitness accounts from other Russians, revealed Conquest - an Anglo-American academic and poet who wrote a dozen books about Russia in total - as a lone voice crying in the wilderness, acting as a sort of John the Baptist figure for the next hero on my list...

19. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Under impossible circumstance, suffering extraordinary hardship and constant danger, and displaying unimaginable courage and determination, he risked everything to reveal the horrific cruelty and sheer madness of communism as a system of government. It's interesting to speculate on the significance of the role played by The Gulag Archipelago in enabling Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to destroy the Soviet regime. (And, of course, Solzhenitsyn also wrote some of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, which are being airbrushed from our collective consciousness by the West's cultural establishment because, of course, Solzhenitsyn was both a conservative and a Christian, and therefore morally reprehensible and On The Wrong Side of History.

20. Colin Wilson
Wilson was a figure of fun to the cultural establishment for most of his life. He brought much of that on himself through a somewhat inflated view of his own significance, and some of his obsessions (alien invasion and the existence of Atlantis, for starters). But he had a lively intellect, a wide range of interests (including wine, music and murder), had an unrivalled ability to explain difficult concepts clearly (if not always strictly accurately), and wasn't part of the country's intellectual mainstream: as a thinker, he was very much his own man. No doubt he was helped in this by being an autodidact. By the simple expedient of not attending a British university, he was never taught to think the right things about the right things. He was important to me for two reasons : he introduced me to the work of many writers, thinkers and ideas I would otherwise never have been exposed to, and his outlook was essentially optimistic - despite having suffered any number of setbacks before and after a brief period of success following the publication of The Outsider when he was 24, he rejected the fashionable pessimistic view that it was the role of society and politicians to make us happy. For all his interest in weirdos and his belief that most of our life is lived robotically, Wilson believed it was our duty to wake ourselves up and move on to another, higher level of consciousness - to put it crudely, it was our personal responsibility to take charge of our lives and make ourselves more cheerful rather than to passively accept that life is a vale of tears and it's somehow society's job to sort it out. I was a somewhat miserable bleeder in my twenties and his views bucked me up tremendously. I wrote a longish tribute to Colin Wilson here.


  1. On a recent trip overseas getting access to this site was challenging to say the least, and I feared the worst. So great to read these two inciteful posts made for people like me - always in a hurry, but still desirious to get to the heart of the matter without actually bleedin' well reading the stuff. I jest of course.
    You can't cram everyone in but what about A.J.Ayer?

  2. I can see why you don't like Ayer on a G-string,and I sometimes tend to mix him up with Gilbert Ryle who was A.J's tutor.
    My introduction to philosophy was through Ryle's Concept of Mind which I thoroughly enjoyed.

  3. 17. Auberon Waugh. Perhaps you should also consider Paul Johnson from the same era. Entertaining columnist and writer of excellent books.

    I encountered both gentlemen. Waugh was standing underneath the awning of a newsagents in Praed Street dressed in an ankle-length overcoat and carrying a sort of sheperd's crook. He was soaked to the skin and looked hugely irritable. When I half-smiled at him he recoiled and started muttering at me. Perhaps he thought I was a "homosexualist" [one of his favourite expressions].

    I used to encounter Johnson stomping angrily around the Broad Walk or the Round Pond [I was with my dog, as it happens] in Kensington Gardens - his "champagne locks undulating in the breeze" [his words]. He wanted to know who was responsible for clearing up the mounds of faeces left by the Canada Geese.

    Scary guys. As Noel Coward was heard saying when coming out of a performance of "Look Back in Anger": "Wonderful! What was it they were so angry about again?"

  4. Having suffered problems with my eyesight recently, I misread Eric Hoffer for Eric Heffer and wondered whether the Blogmeister had completely lost it.