In his last book, Hobsbawm shows how arts walk the tightrope between individual and collective creations
There is an irresistible immediacy to Eric Hobsbawm as a historian and thinker. While he wrote extensively on the triumphant European bourgeoisie of the 19th century, launched as they were into the centre-stage of history by the revolutions of the 18th century, he would compulsively land himself into ‘the short 20th century’ of decline and increasing entropy, which he variously described as The Age of Extremes, The New Century, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, and Interesting Times, besides visiting it in his many other works. No wonder, his last book does an encore. A collection of his essays and speeches, Fractured Times is about “what happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society after that society had vanished with the generation after 1914, never to return.” It is about “an era of history that has lost its bearings, and which in the early years of the new millennium looks forward with more troubled perplexity than I recall in a long lifetime, guideless and mapless, to an unrecognisable future.”
Diagnosing the ills that spelled the doom of European bourgeois civilisation, Hobsbawm writes that while it was based on an all-destroying, all-transforming mode of production, its actual operations, institutions, political and value systems were designed by and for a minority. It was meritocratic, and therefore neither egalitarian nor democratic. It could not resist the combined triple blow of the 20th century revolution in science and technology, the mass consumer society and the decisive entry of the masses on the political scene as customers as well as voters. A techno-industrialised economy has “drenched our lives in universal, constant and omnipresent experiences of information and cultural production — of sound, image, word, memory and symbols… It has totally transformed our ways of apprehending reality and art production, especially by ending the traditional privileged status of ‘the arts’ in the old bourgeois society…”
As Hobsbawm sees it, the arts walk the tightrope between souls and market, between individual and collective creation. Late capitalism has provided a good living for creative people more than ever before, but has fortunately not made them either satisfied with their situation or with society. Such a world offers many paradoxes, particularly in the domain of arts. While illiteracy is being progressively conquered there has been a retreat of the printed in the face of the spoken and illustrated news. Architecture has been doing fine, but its monumentality is less in evidence in buildings like cathedrals or opera houses than in large sport and performance arena, international hotels or in shopping and entertainment centres. Music too flourishes in a different mode and mood. We live in a world saturated with music, as “the consumer society seems to consider silence a crime.” But the classical music lives on “a dead repertoire”, and the technological innovations have moved it out of the concert halls. “The wall between culture and life, between reverence and consumption, between work and leisure, between body and spirit, is being knocked down.” Culture in the critically evaluative sense is giving way to culture in the purely descriptive anthropological sense. As an adjunct, Hobsbawm tries to situate cultural festivals in Europe in the larger context of globalisation and worldwide migration.
State and culture
The book also takes up several historical issues and developments that have a bearing on our ‘fractured times’like the emancipation of Jewish talent or their place in Germany, locating the destinies of central Europe, culture and gender in European bourgeois society between 1870 and 1914 and the fortunes of Art Nouveau. Hobsbawm draws on Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind written during, and against, the First World War. In another essay Hobsbawm shows how the state poses a major danger to culture by imposing its version and by interfering with the pursuit of historical truth by power and law. But he is also aware that the state coexists in uncomfortable stability with the independent force of a globalised capitalist economy.
Hobsbawm rightly observes that studies of historical memory are not essentially about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present. His review of Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age fits into this framework. He also has an engagement with J.D. Bernal while analysing Andrew Brown’s book on that unique scientist-activist. So does he on Joseph Needham, a ‘Mandarin in Phrygian Cap’, whose work, Science and Civilisation in China was hailed as the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man.
However, Hobsbawm is acutely aware that in our society of ‘unceasing mass entertainment’, the intellectual is on retreat as the chief face of political opposition or public conscience, particularly in the face of a new era of political irrationality. He also sees the waning power of public religion in the West and the revived religious fundamentalism elsewhere, which too rest on techno-scientific foundations. This is one of the rare instances where he contrasts Europe with the non-European world. Hobsbawm brings out the connection between art and power and how art had to pander to the needs of power. Similarly, arts too have been transformed by the power of technology and consumerism. Individual creativity is replaced by mechanised mass and efficient production, by printing, by photography, artificial sound and many others that give an industrial, impersonal character to art.
Fractured Times is a diagnostic and reflective study of the author’s times. It is a mood which had overtaken many a historian before him. But without conjuring up any grand theory to state it, he has merely shown sensitivity to the alienation in culture and society in the 20th century Europe. And Hobsbawm’s prose has a dignity and scholarly restraint that shuns needless denunciations and threnodies. However, he is rooted in Europe, and though globalised, his ‘fractured times’ do not address the rest of the world. That does not, however, make the book any less compelling.
(B. Surendra Rao was formerly Professor of History, Mangalore University)
Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century: Eric Hobsbawm
Little Brown, London.
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