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Lead book review

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century, by Eric Hobsbawm - review

Sam Leith on Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumous lament for a vanished world

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century Eric Hobsbawm

Little Brown, pp.319, £25

Like many posthumous books from distinguished thinkers, this isn’t one. A book, I mean. Not really. The problem is that nobody seems to buy cobbled-together collections of previously published essays, talks and book reviews. The thing to do if you’re a publisher, therefore, is to give it a title that makes it sound like a book, shoehorn the content into vague, grand-sounding sections (‘Part I: The Predicament of “High Culture” Today’; ‘Part II: The Culture of the Bourgeois World’; ‘Part III: Uncertainties, Science, Religion.’; ‘Part IV: From Art to Myth’) and put it between hard covers for 25 quid.

That said, the situation’s not quite as bald as all that. Eric Hobsbawm, if his preface is to be believed, worked on turning this into a book before his death; and the preoccupations front and centre or under-lying most of these essays are the same — the relationship between culture and society as it shifted with the eclipse of the 19th-century bourgeoisie, and its current state and direction. Nevertheless, such coherence as it has is retrospective. Essays do overlap and repeat material.

I’m aware that, as a lifelong Marxist, Hobsbawn is a hard sell to a Spectator-reading constituency. This magazine’s drink correspondent, indeed, once ended up wearing his drink as a hat after heckling a meeting the historian was addressing with the refrain: ‘Free Pinochet! Jail Hobsbawm!’, and I imagine many readers will agree with the sentiment, even as they deplore his bad manners.

But here’s trying. Whatever you make of his politics, Hobsbawm is a historian of exceptional lucidity, with a staggering range and ease of reference. As a writer he’s uneven, but at his best has a vigorously aphoristic debunking turn of phrase and droll wit. His perspective — he was Jewish and grew up in Vienna and Berlin before settling in the UK — is European rather than narrowly British.

And he has a point of view — though not the totalising one that the caricature of a not-quite-repentant old Stalinist conjures. He makes precise and intelligent distinctions when considering, for instance, the relationship of various artistic avant-gardes to politics. Here are different modernisms. Here is a clear and deft explanation of the straight road between the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Bauhaus; and a thoughtful account of the relative evanescence of Art Nouveau.


Here, too, are facts and details to make you laugh or scratch your head. We learn that 1965 was the first year that the French fashion industry produced more trousers than skirts; that Lenin got in a grump when a revolutionary art happening painted the trees outside the Kremlin ‘with blue paint that was difficult to remove’; and that (contra the mythology of the Wild West) the total number of gunshot deaths in all the major US cattle towns between 1870 and 1885 was 45.

A shame, then, that in a collection that contains so many very good things the weakest section is the first one, in which the author looks at the arts of the present and (with a show of reluctance) predicts the future. It has two problems. One is that Hobsbawm, mostly, thinks the arts of the consumer age are rubbish. The other is that the things he has to say are often too general to be penetrating, or where specific are hostages to fortune. You can’t really blame him, as he entered his nineties, for not having all that much of use to say about the digital age — in fact, you applaud his having anything of use to say at all. But even between first publication and this book — in one essay he talks about the internet being ‘at most a dozen years old’ — his thoughts have gone out of date.

His basic argument about the state of the arts now is that ‘ “culture” in the critically evaluative bourgeois sense of the word is giving way to “culture” in the purely descriptive anthropological sense’. High art — the substance required for the Bildung of the European intelligentsia of which he was a representative, and something attended to consciously, separately and reverently — has given way to lifestyle or entertainment, an experience of cultural production that privileges multiple, communal, simultaneous experiences over discrete and expertly authored objects or performances. The experience of the young today at their ‘so-called raves’, he points out, ‘does not consist separately of music and dancing, drinking, drugs and sex […] but of all these together, at this and no other moment’. (I wonder how this compares with the experience of a groundling in Shakespeare’s Globe.)

This is a fancy, better theorised, version of a common complaint against ghastly pop music, idiotic conceptual art and vulgar mass-produced entertainment. You get the odd flash of this old Red’s exasperation with democracy and the moronic consumer culture that apparently correlates to it. Sallies in these early essays against ‘barbarians’, ‘so-called installations’, ‘so-called world music’ and the like slightly give him away; as does his sloppy reference to ‘split sharks in formaldehyde’ (Hirst’s shark wasn’t split, though other animals were). There are analytical rather than evaluative things to be said about classical and romantic modes of art, originary authorship and the idea of uniqueness. Hobsbawm doesn’t really say them. He does say many interesting things, but I think on the whole he’s a subtler historian than he is an aesthetic theorist.

But then, as he goes back in time, the essays catch fire. There is a great one on the idea of Mitteleuropa as a political and cultural construct, and fascinating discussions of Karl Kraus, J. D. Bernal and Joseph Needham. There’s one on ‘Red science’, a sharply deflating analysis of the vogue for those histories that tell you what contemporaries felt about events (in which Richard Overy is collateral damage), and a richly and plausibly historicised account of the rise and fall of the idea of an intelligentsia. There’s a decent short survey of the contribution of emancipated Jews to pre-war Europe and a heartbreaking one about the Jews in Germany, in which he concludes:

Only those who have experienced the force, the grandeur and the beauty of that 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 realise what its loss meant. Only those whose very surnames still record the Hessian, Swabian and Franconian villages and market towns of their ancestors, know the pain of torn roots. […] History records, with tragic irony or black humour, that one of the refugee Nobel laureates insisted on revisiting Germany after 1945, because of his ‘inextinguishable homesickness for the German language and landscape’.

The flashes of personal reminiscence can send a shiver down the spine. He recalls at one point:

After listening to the adults’ conversation as a young boy in Vienna, I remember asking an older relative, ‘What sort of names do these Ostjuden have?’ — to her patent embarrassment, since she knew that our family, the Grüns and Koritschoners, had come straight to Vienna from Austrian Poland.

At yet another he reminds us that ‘the present reviewer […] experienced 30 January 1933 as a schoolboy in Berlin.’At another he reaches down from the shelf ‘my Austrian school atlas of the 1920s’.

They remind us that Hobsbawn didn’t only have a commanding knowledge of the history of the ‘short 20th century’: he lived it, and he gave it a name. And what underlies even the apparent old-fartery of his jibes against modern culture is that note of inextinguishable homesickness. The European bourgeois civilisation of which Hobsbawm is a product as well as a critic, the belle époque to which he’s an heir, the years of the intellectual as a figure in public life, the hope that a society could be built on more than the values of consumption and exchange… all have gone to the bourn from which no traveller returns. Now so has Hobsbawm. I for one count him a slightly greater loss than Pinochet.


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