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Revisiting ‘Fractured Times’, Hobsbawm’s posthumous book of essays

Anjan Basu

When the time is out of joint, it takes an Eric Hobsbawm to hold up the mirror to our broken culture Revisiting ‘Fractured Times’, Hobsbawm’s posthumous book of essays on culture at the cross-roads, which tells us a great deal about where we are headed

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Eric Hobsbawm (9 June, 1917 – 1 October, 2012)

Right now, two popular movements are sweeping across one of the world’s most prosperous industrial nations. In Arizona and Louisiana, Ohio and Alabama, iron-clad anti-abortion legislation is riding on the back of one of these movements, and US states are cheerfully signing into law draconian penal provisions for medics who happen to facilitate abortions.  The only authorised abortion clinic in the entire state of Missouri recently announced they were shutting shop, because law enforcement was making sure the clinic could not function. Parallelly, the anti-vaccine campaign is gathering momentum across Idaho and Utah, Maine and Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas and Arkansas. Increasingly, the hands of public health care authorities in these states are being forced to permit non-medical exemptions from vaccination on the ground of ‘philosophical beliefs’. Measles cases (quite a few of them fatal) are surging even in cities like Seattle, Houston and New York – but whole communities are yet determined to resist universal immunisation at all costs, because vaccines are culturally repugnant to them.

Let’s turn to Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a country with robust democratic institutions. Recently, the government commissioner on anti-Semitism issued an advisory against the wearing of the Jewish kappah in public, citing a spike in violent attacks on the Jews across Germany. (He later withdrew the notification in the face of strong Israeli denunciation, but that is not relevant here.) So, three-quarters-of-a-century after Nazism was exorcised, Hitler’s spirit hovers over his Reich yet, never mind the many Holocaust memorials that dot the German landscape today.

Moving on to the Third World, we encounter, in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s president from January this year. An unabashed far-right ex-army officer, he stands for everything that liberals thought had been banished from Brazil during her long years under a left-liberal government:  homophobia; anti-abortion, anti-immigration and anti-gay rights world-views. Bolsonaro is all for legalising torture, circumscribing social security, banning affirmative action and scrapping gun-control laws. His electorate consisted primarily of young, college-educated people and the working middle-to-upper classes – in other words, of the constituency which is supposedly the preserve of liberalism.

Back home, in the just-concluded Indian general elections, militant Hindu nationalism swept everything before it to once again win power, putting the liberal weltanschaung to the rout. Obscurantism, religious fundamentalism and anti-scientism are all highlights of the victorious Bharatiya Janata Party’s cultural universe. Their triumph, therefore, meant a stinging defeat for the spirit of liberalism.

What does the rising tide of irrationality and illiberalism mean to us in the 21st century? What does it say about culture in the new millennium? Why do the values and conventions that governed human behaviour for many generations seem suddenly to have frayed so visibly, so surely? Questions such as these exercised one of the most powerful intellects of modern times – the celebrated historian Eric Hobsbawm. As a Marxist historian, he assiduously examined the multiple linkages between politics, society and culture that operated throughout history in fascinatingly different ways. On his own testimony, Hobsbawm’s engagement with history was at its most foundational level: his interest lay in tracing “how humanity got from the cavemen to modern industrialism or post-industrialism, and what changes in society were associated with this progress...” Everything he wrote – whether it was his magisterial The Age of.. tetralogy on the 19th and 20th centuries, or his seminal work on ‘social banditry’, or his brilliant conceptualisation of the ‘invented tradition’ – was an attempt in constructing this broad, civilisational history.  But nowhere else did he engage with questions of culture in post-industrial society as full-frontally as in the essays collected in his posthumously-published book, Fractured Times (2013).  The book shines a light on the many dramatic changes in our cultural landscape in the past several decades, and places these changes in the broad perspective of our evolving political history.

And that perspective is unsettling, indeed, deeply troubling. In the preface to the bookhe wrote just days before his death, Hobsbawm put his future reader on notice that it was going to be “a book about an era of history that has lost its bearings”.  This era, he went on to add,
(I)n the early years of the new millennium looks forward with more troubled perplexity than I recall in a long lifetime, guideless and maples, to an unrecognisable future.

FT comprises twenty-one essays divided into four segments (titled, variously, The Predicament of ‘High Culture’ Today; The Culture of the Bourgeois World; Uncertainties, Science, Religion: and From Art to Myth) and a stand-alone piece headed Manifestos. The essays evolved out of lectures delivered by the historian at the annual Salzburg Festival between 1964 and 2012 (the year he died), but many are extensively revised, updated and expanded versions of those talks. The subjects range from art nouveau, heritage, and the future of the arts through ‘public religion’, the Jews in Germany and ‘mitteleuropean destinies’, to Karl Kraus, Joseph Needham, and the cultural institution created around the American Cowboy. The common thread that runs through these essays is how “bourgeois fin de siècle culture was forcefully confronted (after the Great War) by myriad new movements and ideologies, from communism and extreme nationalism to Dadaism to the emergence of information technology.    

The cultural experience, Hobsbawm says, is ‘disintegrating’ in the early 21st century. He sees many art forms as facing what is best described as an existential crisis – notably classical music, the opera and much of the visual arts. . “Classical music”, he pithily observes, “basically lives on a dead repertoire”. The basic stock of classical music – on which all the world’s great philharmonic and other orchestras expend their considerable interpretative talents -- that attracts the broad public consists of no more than between one hundred and two hundred pieces, covering the past two and a half centuries. And the potential concert audience which, even in a city as large as New York comprises no more perhaps than twenty thousand elderly ladies and gentlemen, is hardly replenishing itself. The opera which used to play to rapturous assemblies of the sophisticate all over Europe and the Americas in the 19th and early 20th centuries, finds itself in even direr straits. Indeed, none of the operas in the regular repertoire of well-known producers is much younger than one hundred years old and ‘virtually none was written by a composer born after 1914’. Hobsbawm goes on to add, wryly, that
(n)obody lives by writing operas any more, as people did in the 19th century, and as professional playwrights still do. Overwhelmingly, operatic productions, like Shakespearean play productions, consist of attempts to freshen up eminent  graves by putting different sets of flowers on them.

As for the visual arts, things looked hardly more inspiring. In painting in significant measure, lively creative imagination has been giving way to inward-looking contemplation and deliberation, to things like ‘Conceptual’ art a la Marcel Duchamp, whose “ground-breaking exhibition of a public urinal as ‘ready-made art’ ...(aimed not to) extend the field of fine art, but to destroy it”. As for sculpture,
(It) is scraping a miserable existence at the edge of culture, for it has been abandoned in the course of this (the 20th) century by both public and private life as a means of recording reality or human-shaped symbolism.

In comparison, the literary arts are holding up in large measure, though the advent of the internet and the digital has the effect of often turning publishers’ business models upside down Besides, certain kinds of printed books – encyclopaedias, dictionaries and the great reference books in different subjects– are steadily, and inevitably, yielding ground to electronic resources.

What has been steadily undermining the traditional social architecture of the arts is the issue of how they are to be funded. From the time when royal or aristocratic (also sometimes ecclesiastical) patronage supported them almost exclusively, the arts have now had to fall back nearly fully on politics (or political power) and the market, ‘the two players in the game of culture’, in Hobsbawm’s words. “They decide how cultural goods and services are to be financed—essentially by the market, or by subsidy”. Now
... the market in principle decides only what makes or fails to make money, not what ought to or ought not to sell.....From the point of view of the market, the only interesting culture is the product or service that makes money...... (And) in the cultural fields the contemporary concept of ‘the market’ – an undiscriminating, globalising search for maximum profit – is quite novel. Until a few decades ago the arts, even for those who made profits from them as investors or entrepreneurs, were not like other products.

But today, they are like any other product in the globalised free market: art dealing or book publishing is no longer essentially different from say, the hardware business, or that of selling women’s lingerie. So, public subsidy to the arts – and this is where politics comes in – is an important funding source, indeed in most countries far more important than private subsidy of the kind offered by charities and non-profits, whose corpuses, even when they are bountiful, are necessarily widely distributed. And it is the abrupt turning off of the public subsidy tap that so seriously threatened most fine arts institutions in East Europe and the former Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the dismantling of the socialist block. Prosperous states of Western Europe, on the other hand, have the wherewithal to generously subsidise culture; but, increasingly, demands from other sectors, and the urge to cut taxes to please the super-rich, are coming in the way of states’ munificence. 

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The dynamics, volatility and sheer capriciousness of the marketplace, coupled with the spectacular expansion of formal education (or at least of mass literacy) in most parts of the world in the late 20th century have given rise to, in Hobsbawm’s words, “the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, colour, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience”. How much of this experience will survive as a preservable heritage, and not as “changing sets of memories occasionally revived as retro fashions”, is hard to tell. What is incontrovertible, though, is the irreversibility of this cultural experience. And herein lies the great paradox of the explosion of a mass culture that erupted out of the breakdown of traditional bourgeois society and the values that held it together. Hobsbawm argues that
(T)he logic of both capitalist development and the bourgeois civilisation itself  were bound to destroy its foundations, a society and institutions run by a progressive elite minority, tolerated, perhaps even approved of, by the majority, at least so as the system guaranteed stability, peace and public order and the modest expectations of the poor. It could not resist the combined triple blow of the twentieth century revolution in science and technology....., of the mass consumer society generated by the explosion in the potential of the Western economies, and the decisive entry of the masses on the political scene as both consumers and voters.

Put differently, while bourgeois civilisation was based on an all-destroying mode of production, its institutions, political and cultural value systems were designed for a minority elite, making it an essentially meritocratic – and not egalitarian or democratic – social order. The danger to this system had to come from the great majority outside the elites. When more effective majority participation began impacting the elite-centric institutions and value-systems, the intellectual and counter-intellectual reactions to change were stunning in their complexity. Perhaps the great Austrian writer Karl Kraus – a memorable tribute to whose life and work finds a place in part 2 of FT --anticipated this phenomenon in his bitterly satirical play The Last Days of Mankind which was  set in the twilight years of Habsburg Austria, a big, bumbling, once-mighty empire now  staggering to disaster and disintegration.

 In the end, FT is a priceless addition to the literature on the culture of the new millennium. But its enduring appeal also lies in its splendid readability. The enormous fertility of Hobsbawm’s historical imagination is matched by the extraordinary wit, grace and power of his writing. The most celebrated historian of the 20th century was also one of its most outstanding prose writers, and this posthumous collection of essays is a testimony to his virtuosity.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com

Frontier
Jun 1, 2019


Anjan Basu basuanjan52@gmail.com

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