Remembering Bill Hoffer

October 24, 2006 by  
Filed under Latest

I woke up early one morning recently with one of those flashes one sometimes gets from the tailwind of an unpleasant but barely-remembered dream. It was an insight about brilliant, irascible people, of whom I’ve encountered several over the years, and about the corrosive turbulence with which they conduct their lives, and the effect this has on the people who like and sometimes love them.

The insight was this: contact with such people creates, in me at least, a kind of a neural acridity that, for a few hours—or sometimes days and even weeks—interferes with thought. My preconditions for anything deeper than reactive cognition are very similar to my preconditions for social or intellectual exchange: that we agree to operate in a realm of reasonable discourse and good will—and that we must act as reasonable beings and not as a troop of dominance-crazed baboons. If that reasonableness isn’t there, then all bets are off, and thought turns into chaos, sociality to violence.

By nature, I awaken each day with the possibility that any thought is possible to think, and that, since no one is trying to hit me in the face with a rifle butt, life is a pretty sunny affair. At the end of most days this sanguinity has generally been kicked to death by incoming information and events, but that’s the price we all pay for consciousness in an unjust world that is accelerating out of easy understanding. Never mind. The next morning, I’ll start anew, with my batteries mysteriously and mercifully recharged by sleep or by some piece of light-seeking software I’m barely aware of. There’s nothing heroic here, and it has no moral component. It’s just the physical equipment I work with to get beneath the brassy surfaces of daily life.

What provoked all this deep thinking was a day-long e-mail catfight with Montreal poet David Solway over my lengthy review on this website of his monograph On Being a Jew. My review clearly sent Mr. Solway into a towering rage, and he undertook, in his e-mails, to correct my faulty understanding with a barrage of supercilious sarcasms, most of which thankfully sailed over my head or landed harmlessly short of target. But there was something familiar about the venom with which this was delivered, and I soon enough found myself thinking about my old friend and enemy Bill Hoffer for the first time in years, and about the extended set of scuffles I had with him at the end of the 1980s. On the surface both Solway and Hoffer, it seemed to me, possessed parallel strengths, similar intellectual dysfunctions, and quite possibly similar bats in their respective belfries.

In the e-mail exchange, David Solway employed Hoffer’s annoying trick of letting you know that he’s only deigning to talk to you because you’ve temporarily passed his acceptability test—the standards for which he doesn’t reveal or tell you how or why you passed. You are informed that you are “promising” or some similarly condescending designation that leaves you perpetually at risk of revealing your deeper barbarity, thus reversing your passing grade and making further conversation as worthless as you are.

What made me draw the parallel between the two men was the peculiar anxiety that provoked in me. With Hoffer , I seemed to have sufficient cultural confidence (or obliviousness) that I was able to shrug off most of the anxiety contact with him invariably induced. Or at least I could until around 1989 when I did or said something unrecoverable or his acceptability test made a radical and permanent shift in its standards. At that point I received a permanent failing grade and was sent to join the barbarian hordes. After that, things became openly hostile between us. (Anyone interested in my version of the blow-by-blow details and the issues involved can find it in Unusual Circumstances/Interesting Times (New Star, 1991), and I’m sure Hoffer’s diatribes against me remain in various archives, too. I note that I didn’t have much appetite to go back and re-experience any of it again for the sake of this writing, and I won’t fault you if you don’t.)

Bill Hoffer, by the way, was formally known as William Hoffer: Bookseller, the brilliant, unbalanced man who was the star of Vancouver’s antiquarian and cultural book trades until he turned on both—and on nearly everyone who knew him—in the late 1980s. He was the son of Abraham Hoffer, the charismatic Saskatchewan-based psychiatrist who, in 1952, posited the notion that schizophrenia was the result of the body producing its own toxic compound similar to mescaline and that niacin was effective in its treatment. Hoffer the elder then forged a career for himself along the margins of conventional and holistic medicine based broadly on the general theory that mental illness is caused by dietary factors, and can often be cured by the same means. His science was unconventional but frequently sound, but its messianic delivery earned him the not-really-deserved reputation as a crackpot.

Bill Hoffer’s personality was similarly extreme. In conversation he always insisted on setting the terms, and there were no categorical shades of grey in his discourse, no provisional intellectual or civil agreements, particularly not toward the end of his life. He was, by temperament, a shouter and a gloomy rabbinical monologist. In the early days, he was often witty and entertaining, even when he dived into the murky end of the pool. The extreme incidents could have been (and often were) blamed on his diabetes, which, given his liking for good scotch, was a fairly frequent generator of strange behaviour—he’d forget to stop drinking, or forget to take his insulin, or he’d forget to eat. Diabetics live by regularity and solid habits, and both were alien to him.

No one ever questioned Hoffer’s intelligence, or, for that matter, his sincerity. That said, he was simply not a reasonable being, and he rarely tried to pretend he was. If you could live with that, you could stand among his small circle of intimates, towards whom he was often extremely generous.

During the early 1970s, I went to his store on 10th Avenue every Wednesday, brought him lunch and we’d talk for a couple of hours. I enjoyed his company even though I knew that he viewed me with a combination of patronizing affection and contempt, and I wasn’t much bothered by the steady barrage of insults because he interacted with everyone that way. During that period I also edited and printed about a dozen issues of a  literary magazine called NMFG out of the store. NMFG was an acronym for “No Money From the Government”, but all that meant was that I wasn’t prepared to wait around for a government grant to put the magazine out. Other readers did a lot of fooling around with the acronym, and so it also sometimes meant “Now My Father’s Gone”—a reference to then-recently deceased Charles Olson, who was a major influence on many of Vancouver’s young writers—and any number of other, sillier permutations. Bill and I ran it off the magazine in a single afternoon and I delivered most of it on a selected mailing list—and then took the rest to the bar for distribution on the last Friday of each month.

Then as now, I’d put up with a lot of abuse if intelligence and subversive wit went along with it, and Hoffer always had plenty of both on offer. I learned, somehow, to hold a certain reserve of self when I was around him, one that allowed me to cull the goodies from the steadily increasing flow of rhetorical and intellectually binary crap he dished out.

Things got more difficult when he moved to a downtown store on dank Powell Street , where his invective grew more shrill and his circle of acceptable allies and friends began to shrink. At first I decided this was happening because Hoffer had realized that he wasn’t going to live long enough to fully collect the prehistory of Canadian Literature, and was shortening and sharpening his focus to get the best. Even when he began to turn on the project itself I reserved judgment, and maybe I’m guilty of not taking him or it very seriously. I didn’t have to, since my genetic inheritance suggested that I was going to be standing long after he was gone, and thus could take a longer view.

What exactly sent Hoffer over the edge has never been clear to me or, I suspect, anyone else. But in 1987, he published a bizarre pamphlet by Ottawa editorial maven John Metcalf titled Freedom From Culture (partially funded by the right wing Fraser Institute), and attached to it a still more bizarre and extreme introduction. What was most bizarre of all was the alliance with Metcalf. Metcalf was, at the time, among the top two or three individual recipients of government cultural subsidies in the country. In the pamphlet, Metcalf argued rather pedantically that cultural subsidies were failing to breed first rate writing. This was fairly squirrelly because the details revealed it as really nothing but a self-advertisement for “litrachuh” edited according to Metcalf’s values, which tended to produce texts that were so Britishly tight-assed one suspected that their authors had to shit through a straw. Hoffer’s introduction, much more apocalyptic, pulled out all the stops, demanding that grants cease, subsidies to publishers be curtailed, and the guilty criminals be rounded up for re-education. It wasn’t entirely certain that he was speaking symbolically on the last part of it.

Several other publications followed under the absurd military theme of “Tanks are Mighty Fine Things”, including a listing of chief enemies. I was among them, along with Dennis Lee and others, even though at the time I’d received just a single Canada Council grant. I think I got tagged because I was local and intransigent, and because, well, when Bill demanded that I drink the Cool-Aid, I told him point blank that I thought he’d lost his marbles. There were numerous outbursts during that period, including a threat to put his entire CanLit collection in a dumpster and send it to a landfill. (It eventually ended up in Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California.) Somewhere around 1992, a near or actual nervous breakdown saw Hoffer leave the book business and move to Moscow , where he claimed intellectual entrepreneurs could roam free. (He also, during these years, taught himself Yiddish, and hooked up with a Russian widow with several children. By several accounts, this relationship changed Hoffer, and he was still devoted to her when his life ended in 1997.)

For all of its silliness, Tanks was traumatic for those Hoffer targeted, me included, and but not entirely because Hoffer was behaving unreasonably. It was traumatic because there was a possibility that, despite the overkill and blather, he might be pinpointing some essential corruptions within our national cultural project.

All through the 1970s and 1980s, Canadian governments had been subsidizing cultural production as if it was an essential if fiscally minor industrial sector. Writing grants were plentiful and book publishers were, if not exactly drooling cash, proliferating like rabbits. Most writers with even a little talent quickly learned the system and how to get their share of the watery gravy, and most published books that shouldn’t have gotten into print. Most got grants they hadn’t really deserved coming in and didn’t earn out at the far end. The system wasn’t near as lucrative or corrupt as the CanLit industry that was building within the university English Departments during those same years, but even a little money corrupts if you’re operating on the margins.

But Hoffer stood up and began shouting that it was a racket, and that a national culture created by artificial insemination and then force-fed bonbons was worthless. This carried a grain of truth, and most writers reluctantly sensed it. This was, by the way, around the same point that Pierre Trudeau was asked, at a conference of writers in New York , what the appropriate relation writers should have to the state. His answer—that writers should be ambivalent toward the state—was much reported on, but like Hoffer’s Tanks, never taken seriously. Even watery gravy is fairly tasty.

The on-the-ground reality of Canada ’s cultural subsidies wasn’t quite the racket Hoffer claimed it had become. It more resembled a wilderness preserve that only academics could hunt inside, and the so-called force feeding of bonbons was a little like those bales of hay conservationists drop into game preserves when the overpopulating deer and elk begin to starve at the end of winter. Enough writers, meanwhile, were crawling out of the preserve into the mainstream that it was possible to make the argument that the system sometimes produced genuine excellence and commercial viability—and that, anyway, the total outlay of public funds over the decades was less than the price of a F-14 squadron, and had done more over those two decades to protect the country from foreign invasion than the entire armed forces had. Those arguments, abstract as they are, still hold, I think, even if they don’t exactly engender élan. But the grain of truth Hoffer had located ground away inside everyone’s gears, and it was resented.

A couple of other things were obscured by the rhetorical violence of Hoffer’s attack, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never considered them until now. One of them was that Tanks cost Hoffer more than anyone else involved. It cost him his reputation, and it cost him a large portion of his livelihood. He was, after all, the holder of the largest private CanLit collection in the country, and by questioning its legitimacy the way he did, he destroyed much of its value. There’s something else, too. At the time that he launched Tanks, Hoffer was in his late 40s, a common age for intelligent men to question what they’re doing. In retrospect, that’s likely what set Tanks off, and the questions he’d asked himself clearly hadn’t come up in his favour. So maybe he wasn’t crazy—a designation that simply identifies behaviour that doesn’t make conventional sense to others—but rather genuinely anguished at what subsequent history has demonstrated were very real issues.

Almost two decades have passed since Tanks. Most of the literature Hoffer declared fraudulent or intellectually and artistically superfluous has proven to be pretty much what he said it was. The cultural status of writers, meanwhile, has fallen to that of widget-producers within a marketplace that is largely closed—in Canada, 70 percent of books are now sold by a single chain—and the model of market relations has invaded and supplanted the traditional values of democracy and social improvement throughout Canadian polity. If Canadian cultural subsidies were supposed to protect our cultural institutions, they didn’t do much of a job.

So maybe William Hoffer was crazy and right at the same time. Maybe it was all a badly-framed and articulated warning from an anguished man that, for the wrong reasons, no one listened to.

Which gets me back to David Solway, who was the trigger for this retrospective on Hoffer. He seems to invoke similar responses—affection and loyalty in some, derision and dismissal from more, and uneasy interest from people like me—up to a point. Of the two people I’ve talked to who knew Hoffer and know Solway, one claims a close resemblance, the other says the two men are quite different. I can see at least several fundamental differences between them. One is that Bill Hoffer’s blanket condemnations often went against his personal interest, and occasionally cost him dearly, both financially and emotionally. They were, in that sense, not self-serving. More important, they were often not self-aggrandizing, unless you think that setting yourself on fire is a successful form of self-aggrandizement. Third, Hoffer never saw himself as a victim of injustice, although it’s also true that in the 1980s, defining and establishing oneself as a victim wasn’t the prime social and intellectual instrument of identity politics and social bullying it has since become. It was, rather, considered a fairly cheesy thing to be engaged in.

Since I’ve never met David Solway in person and know nothing of his private life, his social skills or his commitment to his ideas, I really can’t have a firm opinion about whether he’s a latter-day William Hoffer. But the brief e-mail exchange over my review of his pamphlet left me with the same unpleasant taste in my mouth, although it’s possible that my experiences with Hoffer have made me hypersensitive to a certain style of demagoguery.

I certainly can’t attribute to Solway any of Hoffer’s unfortunate ability to both home in on interpersonal wildernesses or create them from scratch. Hoffer characteristically took the same wild chances with his personal life that he took with his professional and intellectual life. His personal life regularly crashed and burned, and more than once he took female partners with him to cushion the landing. Even though as physical specimens go, Hoffer most resembled a live-action version of a Don Martin Mad Magazine cartoon—it was hard, watching him walk down the street, to determine the direction in which he was actually going—some women found him attractive and more than one or two attractive and intelligent women fell hard for him, maybe because his messianic tendencies carried a powerful strain of the Quixotic. Whatever else he was, Hoffer was all of a piece, and when he ran with the scissors, they ended up in his own eye as often as not.

From what I’ve seen of Solway’s writings prior to “On Being a Jew” , he has been more the sort of guy who likes to wave the scissors around in the hope that others will be impressed and/or intimidated by their flashing edges. On the other side, he does have Hoffer’s predilection for extreme and barely argued judgments, and the same with-me-or-against-me attitude toward his contemporaries and collaborators.

I’m told that an elaboration of Solway’s “On Being A Jew” is going to be published as the launch-vehicle for a new press headed by Malcolm Lester and David Mason, titled The Big Lie: Reflections on Terror, Antisemitism and Identity. I suspect that it will reveal the direction in which this one is going to proceed. He’s clearly gotten hold of large and very sharp pair of scissors with this. Let’s hope he doesn’t jam them into his own eye.

3000 words: October 24, 2006

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.