Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bob Miller and Eric Hoffer

A blog I read often had a recent entry about Jane Smiley's novella, "Good Will". The novella is about a man called Bob Miller who got tired of the rat race and city life, with all its complexity and all its falsity.

Bob abandoned the the city for the woods, taking his wife, Liz, and son, Tommy, with him. From now on, Bob and his little family would live off the land and embrace simplicity. There would be no more things like television and no more gadgets.

Bob was no doubt influenced by Henry David Thoreau who had gone back to nature, and had written of it in his famous "Walden". Thoreau wrote:
..... I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.......
In his embrace of the simple life, Bob was an extremist. He rejected not only television and gadgets, but also money and schools. The family would grow its own food, make its own clothes and furniture, and Tommy would be home-schooled.

Liz and Tommy were left with no alternative but to accept all this, otherwise the family would break up. It was to be Bob's way or the highway. Hence he turned into a domestic tyrant.

Liz and Timmy chafed under the new family regime. Liz badly needed her organised religion, and Tommy badly needed satellite TV. But they weren't allowed them.

Eventually Tommy rebelled, and engaged in behaviour of such destructiveness that Bob had to abandon his back-to-nature project, and go back to the city to resume the lifestyle he'd lived before he went to the woods.

Having read the blog entry, I left the following comment:
An important difference between Thoreau and Bob Miller is that Thoreau lived in the woods by himself, whereas Bob lived in them with his family. But for his family (in particular his son) Bob may have continued to live in the woods for as long as he wanted.

As for Thoreau, would he have been the same domestic tyrant as Bob, had he had a family with him in the woods?

Bob seems an intellectual dogmatist. Whether his dogma is religious, political, economic or any other, the intellectual dogmatist prescribes a particular way of living. For him (and it’s almost always a him) the dogma or idea is more important than the people he has power over, whose lives must conform with, or be distorted within, the boundaries of his philosophical or dogmatic box.

You say of Bob (or is it Jane Smiley who says of Bob?) that “……he loves his wife and his son……”. But, does he really? He may well rationalise that his rejection of Liz’s need of organised religion, and of Tommy’s need of satellite TV, are for their own good. But, isn’t it truer that these needs would threaten Bob’s whole “living in the woods” project, or philosophy?

Did Bob tell Liz and Tommy that he loved them, or tell them that the hardships and sacrifices of their pristine “lifestyle” were for their own good? If so, Liz and Tommy may have felt guilt in having needs for organised religion and satellite TV. Not necessarily a bad thing, though, for do not love and guilt go together?
What I said in my comment about the intellectual dogmatist came out of my reading of the works of the San Francisco longshoreman and autodidact, Eric Hoffer, in the early 1970s. I had gone on an Eric Hoffer binge so to speak.

Among many other things, Hoffer wrote about the dangers of intellectuals getting political power. He had found that throughout history, whenever intellectuals attained power, they turned, if unchecked, the governments they were at the head of, into autocratic or totalitarian regimes. All the bloody and murderous tyrannies of history had been ruled by intellectuals.

Hoffer said that the intellectual has always, deep down, despised the common man, because the common man has no time for the abstract world of the intellect that is the raison d'etre of the intellectual.

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