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Restless Eric

John Mulqueen

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, by Eric Hobsbawm, Little, Brown, 319 pp, £25, ISBN: 9781408704288

“The thing about Eric,” a Birkbeck colleague once said to Roy Foster, “is that he’s interested in everything.” In Fractured Times, the last of the Marxist historian’s many books, Eric Hobsbawm attempts to answer a question: what went wrong during the twentieth century for the art and culture of bourgeois society? The techno-industrialised economy has created a global flood of images, sounds and words which, he observes, we are unable to control. The classical bourgeois high culture of music, opera, ballet and drama, the author writes, has been reduced to “a niche for the elderly, the snobbish or the prestige-hunting rich”. The basic, Marxist, argument of the papers in this collection is that the logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilisation “were bound to destroy its foundation, a society and institutions run by a progressive elite minority”.

Hobsbawm examines the state of the arts at the beginning of the twenty-first century in chapters 2-5. These are based on addresses he gave to music festival audiences, mainly in Salzburg, in which he argued that classical music lives on a dead repertoire. Of the sixty or so operas performed by the Vienna State Opera in 1996/97, for example, only one was by a twentieth century composer. Even fifty years ago classical music comprised two per cent of the recording output, mainly pre-twentieth-century works. Therefore, he observes, the role of classical music in cultural life will almost certainly change.

Will our new multidimensional world lead to human fraternity in a time of widespread xenophobia? The author finds reason for cheer in the millionaire mercenaries who ply their trade in the major football stadiums. Winning is everything and ethnic origin is nothing. Having won the World Cup, the French declared a Muslim son of Algerian parents, Zinedine Zidane, to be the “greatest Frenchman”. And this, he told a Salzburg audience, would not meet with the approval of a then Austrian provincial governor – Jörg Haider.

Hobsbawm was brought up in the “lost” European bourgeois civilisation he studies here. The year of his birth, 1917, witnessed the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which would inspire one of the greatest challenges to the bourgeois world during the twentieth century. He famously, or infamously, remained a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, unlike so many of his friends; he had been converted to communism as a teenager in the dying Weimar republic, and the hope inspired for his generation by the October Revolution was something he could never give up. Chapters 6-12 deal with this bourgeois world that was shaped in the nineteenth century, and his examples are mainly drawn from the region that shaped his own cultural background, German-speaking central Europe. Here his writing is at its most beautiful and powerful.

Hobsbawm deals with the impact of the Jews on the rest of humanity, rather than the other way around. Though they represented less than 1 per cent of the world’s population at their demographic peak before the Holocaust, they had, he writes, an explosive transformation on European culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This cultural explosion was made possible by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Germany’s Jews were at ease with Germany until Hitler came to power. But the survivors suffered tragedy as well in losing their German roots. Hobsbawm writes: “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.” Their German culture is no longer a world culture, he writes, but a regional, if not, provincial one.

What of Mitteleuropa, the central belt of Europe corresponding with the old Habsburg Empire where German was the primary international language of culture and whose cultural capital was Vienna? This conglomeration used to be described by its nationalists as “the prison of nations” and is now divided into twelve states. Its history following 1918 proved traumatic and it is probably the only empire, Hobsbawm wryly notes, that is recalled with nostalgia in all its former territories. Since the end of the Second World War and the demise of what he terms the European “socialist” regimes, it is argued here, this central European culture has been pulverised by three developments: mass ethnic expulsion or massacre; commercialised worldwide mass culture; and the arrival of the English language as the idiom of global communication, German being no longer the lingua franca of the educated from the Baltic to Albania.

Chapters 13-20, the third section of the book, are where Hobsbawm makes his case on the breakdown of traditional bourgeois society and its values. Art has been used to strengthen the power of rulers and states since the Pharaohs, and has often found it difficult or even impossible to escape the demands and control of totalitarian state authority. All states and their arts were in public confrontation at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, which was dominated by the German and Soviet pavilions, but the exhibition’s most enduring memorial is Picasso’sGuernica, exhibited by the embattled Spanish republic. And the totalitarian states of the twentieth century did not endure: “States that realised themselves as show-politics demonstrated their and its impertinence. If the theatre state is to live, the show must go on. In the end it did not.”

The assumption behind the avant garde movements in the arts during the past century had been that relations between art and society had changed fundamentally: new ways of looking at the world had to be found. Hobsbawm agrees with this assumption, but contends that avant garde projects in the visual arts failed. In 1950 Jackson Pollock said that art had to express feelings since making pictures was done by cameras. Almost half a century later the president of the Pompidou Centre admitted: “The twentieth century belongs to photography, not painting.” However, on an optimistic note, the invention of the book in the fifteenth century gave it “the universally portable and multipliable form” which fended off all the challenges of twentieth century technology.

Hobsbawm’s final section is concerned with art and myth. In “The American Cowboy: An International Myth?” he explores how the myth generated by “a socially and economically marginal group of proletarian drifters” came to have such an extraordinary global impact. Why couldn’t this have happened to the Bedouin, Huns or Mongols? This, the final chapter, is scintillating.

Hobsbawm’s interests were global, and it is apt that his last book should engage with the challenges of our globalised culture: Fractured Times illustrates how wide-ranging his critical perspective could be. If he raises more questions than he provides answers here, he is always thought-provoking and brilliant. This collection is a tour de force.

John Mulqueen is a tutor in history at Dublin City University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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