Reviewed: Fractured Times - Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century by Eric Hobsbawm

Looking for Eric.

Eric Hobsbawm in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century
Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 336pp, £25

Reviewing a book by his fellow historian Raphael Samuel about the “lost world of British communism”, Eric Hobsbawm praised Samuel for his “melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past”. Fractured Times, Hobsbawm’s final work, published after his death in October last year, displays a similar quality – though it evinces melancholy empathy not for the milieu of the British Communist Party, which he joined when he arrived in England from Berlin as a 15-year-old in 1933, but for the art and culture of the “bourgeois society” that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War.

The essays collected here, which were written between 1964 and 2012, are not focused exclusively on the “lost world” of European bourgeois civilisation. There are several pieces on the situation of the arts in the early 21st century – reflections on the consequences of technological progress and the “democratisation of aesthetic consumption” – but Hobsbawm’s analysis of our postmodern cultural condition nevertheless presupposes, as he acknowlegdes, a“plunge” back into the final years of what he terms the “long 19th century”, stretching, roughly, from 1789 to 1914. Without that look back, the current scene cannot be understood. The seven chapters devoted to the “culture of the bourgeois world” therefore form the centre piece of the book.

Much of this will be familiar to readers of Hobsbawm’s earlier work. His point of departure here is the claim made in The Age of Empire (1987), the third volume of his great trilogy on the long 19th century, that August 1914 marked a definitive “natural break” in the history of Europe. That moment was regarded, he argued there, as announcing “the end of the world made by and for the bourgeoisie”. And intimations of imminent death were felt especially keenly in the cultural productions of the period, especially in literature and painting, to which The Age of Empire devotes a substantial chapter.

The first part of Fractured Times picks up where that chapter left off and serves as a useful reminder of just what kind of Marxist historian Hobsbawm was. His interest in the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues in the Communist Party Historians Group of the early 1950s – men such as Samuel, Christopher Hill and E P Thompson. As he wrote in his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), his Marxism had developed out of the attempt to understand the arts:

What filled my mind [in the mid-1930s] was not the classic macro-historical problems of Marxist debate about historical development – the succession of “modes of production”. It was the place and nature of the artist and the arts (in fact,  literature) in society or, in Marxist terms, “How is the superstructure connected to the base?”

Hobsbawm’s indifference to the main problems of Marxist historiography, not to mention his mellifluous prose style, ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries did (something attested to by the voluminous media coverage of his death).

As Perry Anderson has put it, in Hobsbawm, Communist “militant and historian . . . remained separate identities”. One might add as a corollary that the identities of historian and writer were jumbled up in him. The “Overture” to The Age of Empire shows this well. The book begins not as grand narrative but as autobiography. Hobsbawm tells the story of how his mother, scion of a Viennese Jewish family of some standing, met her future husband (and Eric’s father) in Alexandria, where her uncle did business.

There was a serious point to this anecdote, Hobsbawm insisted. “For all of us,” he wrote, “there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalised record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” The Age of Empire fell into that twilight zone. Fractured Times – or the central section of it at any rate – does too. And this is what gives much of it the kind of melancholy air that Hobsbawm found so attractive in Samuel.

He confesses to having chosen examples from his own “cultural background – geographically central Europe, linguistically German”. And, he might have added, Jewish. In Interesting Times, Hobsbawm evoked the prosperous, largely secular milieu of Jewish Vienna from which his mother’s side of the family had sprung and which had mostly disappeared (or persisted only in the most attenuated fashion) by the time he was born in 1917. The finest piece in the new volume, on the “emancipation of Jewish talent” in central Europe, is a paean to the German language, the “gateway to modernity”for Mittel European Jews in the second half of the 19th century – and, of course, the native tongue of young Eric Hobsbaum himself.