Hobsbawm speaks from the grave


Oct 28, 2006
In orbit
The Age of Hobsbawm

‘Fractured Times,’ by Eric Hobsbawm

SEPT. 5, 2014

A 1980 television film written by the British director Stephen Poliakoff depicted an interminable train journey through Europe, in which a young Englishman is trapped in a cramped compartment with a pompous Viennese matron, played by Peggy Ashcroft. The woman is rude and vain, but the film, “Caught on a Train,” refuses to despise her: Instead it recognizes that she is an elderly ambassador for a world that is about to pass away, the lost civilization of prewar Europe.

In ways both deliberate and not, “Fractured Times,” a posthumously published collection of essays on “culture and society in the 20th century” by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, performs a similar elegiac function. Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, could not be more different from the Ashcroft character: A Marxist scholar with a restless, voracious curiosity, he makes a compelling companion. And yet in this volume he too, like her, is bidding farewell to a culture that has vanished over the course of his lifetime.

In these lectures and reviews, he argues that the high culture that was once the basic diet of the European bourgeoisie is shriveling fast — either unknown to new generations or else swamped by today’s deluge of permanent, round-the-clock electronic entertainment, “the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, color, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience.” Addressing the Salzburg Festival, he cites as an example “the crisis in classical music, whose fossilized repertoire and aging public” mean that a once vital form is now reduced to a handful of great works repeated as if on a loop, performed in lavish but subsidized opera houses to a rich but diminishing audience. With a knack for the telling fact, he reports that the core public for live classical music in New York is estimated “at no more than some 20,000 people.”

Again and again, he mourns those features of the European cultural landscape that have been erased. One chapter is devoted to the disappearance of Mitteleuropa, its once ethnically mixed, plural cities now rendered monochromatically “mononational”; another laments the destruction of the place Jews made for themselves within German culture. The grief of that observation is personal. For Hobsbawm — though born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917 — grew up in Austria and Germany. He was a schoolboy witness in Berlin the day Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. And yet, departure from Germany was not solely a relief. It was also a loss. “Only those who have experienced the force, the grandeur and the beauty” of German culture, “which made the Bulgarian Jew Elias Canetti write in the middle of the Second World War that the ‘language of my intellect will remain German,’ can fully realize what its loss meant.”

Later he reflects fondly on the Hapsburg era, “the old monarchy of Franz Joseph, which treated all its nations with the same gentle skepticism. And that, as everyone knew, had gone for good.”

And yet this elegiac quality is sharpest between the lines. For it is Hobsbawm himself, and the manner of his writing, that remind the reader of what has passed, never to return. On display is a kind of intellect now so rare as to be endangered, if not extinct. He was not the last polyglot scholar, of course; there remain others who can read and lecture comfortably in several European languages. But how many refer casually to the work of “Otto Weininger, Karl Kraus, Möbius, Lombroso, Strindberg,” taking for granted the reader’s familiarity with Hermann Bahr, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the second Viennese avant-garde?

Few of today’s intellectuals would risk a sentence like this one: “The links between Jugend and culture, or more specifically between it and die Moderne, are too obvious to require comment.” They would fear being inaccessible, if not outrageously elitist. Yet it’s clear Hobsbawm believes there is a body of knowledge that is the common inheritance, the patrimony, of all educated citizens — and that should be assumed. It’s in this, as much as through any argument he spells out, that the author shows how much has changed — and reveals himself as an emissary from a vanished world.

None of this is to suggest that Hobsbawm is a stuffy presence on the page. On the contrary, his prose is regularly enlivened with choice facts — “The first American productions of Ibsen were in Yiddish” — and elegant metaphor: “Operatic production, like Shakespearean play production, consists of attempts to freshen up eminent graves by putting different sets of flowers on them.”

What’s more, his range of reference is dazzlingly wide. Even in his 90s, he was able to comment on heavy metal, rave culture, football, Disneyland, social media, the movie “Man on Wire” and the Occupy movement against the “1 percent.” He makes some playfully unlikely connections. Noting that the decade after 1965 saw a decline in vocations for the Roman Catholic priesthood, he adds, “Indeed, 1965 was the year in which the French fashion industry for the first time produced more trousers than skirts.”

Unexpectedly, perhaps, for a Marxist, he is, in Isaiah Berlin’s well-worn formulation, more of a fox than a hedgehog, a knower of many things rather than the advocate of a single big idea. Indeed, Hobsbawm’s Marxism is lightly worn and anything but dogmatic. True, he remains a theoretical materialist, regularly tying developments in culture to changing economic circumstances, but those looking for Communist polemic will need to look elsewhere. In an essay on manifestoes, he describes the “Workers of the World Unite” slogan as “well past its sell-by date.” Elsewhere he calls the Enlightenment, not Communism, “the most admirable of all human movements.”

Yet Hobsbawm remains controversial. After his death, London’s Daily Mail ran a piece under the heading “He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide. But was . . . Eric Hobsbawm a traitor too?” Earlier, and more respectably, Tony Judt had written that his fellow left-leaning historian “refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works.” Plausibly, Judt wondered if Hobsbawm’s failure to denounce Stalinism was an act of loyalty to his “adolescent self,” the boy who had witnessed the ascent of Hitler and remembered the Communists as the Nazis’ most strident opponents. The Reds had stood against the brownshirts and so Hobsbawm would forever stand with them. There is nothing in this collection to suggest that Judt got that wrong.

The book has its flaws. If anything, it is too foxlike, ranging so widely that it ends up spread too thin: A chapter on religion is a global tour d’horizon that can’t help being superficial. Like many anthologies, it can feel disjointed rather than a coherent whole: Its title, “Fractured Times,” is unintentionally apposite. Some may dislike the curmudgeonly asides: He brands Tex-Mex food “a barbaric mutation” of Mexican cuisine.

But these are minor. To read this book is to travel through what Hobsbawm called the “short 20th century,” accompanied by one of its sharpest minds — waving much of that era goodbye.


Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century

By Eric Hobsbawm

319 pp. The New Press. $27.95.

Jonathan Freedland is The Guardian’s executive editor for opinion.

(From http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/b...=edit_bk_20140905&nl=books&nlid=61820453&_r=0)
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