Mirror of a mapless world

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Jun 23 2013, 09:51am hrs
He had a ringside view of the past and present like few others. Born in Alexandria in 1917 and educated in Austria, Germany and England, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observed the era of great social and artistic

upheaval up close and studied its impact on the later

half of the 20th century and into the next.

This collection of essays, Fractured Times, Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, which was published posthumously, is on one level a book about what happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society after that society vanished with the generation after 1914, never to return as Hobsbawm writes in the preface. But, it also is a book 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... guideless and mapless, to an unrecognisable future.

In Where are the Arts Going for example, Hobsbawm observes that the old bourgeoise society was the age of separatism in the arts and high culture, that as religion was once, art was something higher, or a step towards something higher. Thats not the case anymore, of course. Now, the wall between culture and life, between reverence and consumption, between work and leisure, between body and spirit is being knocked down.

As a mass culture buoyed by unique technological revolutions and democratisation overthrows old traditional, conservative ways, Hobsbawm gives examples from a survey of rock music fans and experts that showed that almost all of the 100 best rock records of all time came from the 1960s and practically none from the last two decades; or that of the 60 or so operas performed by the Vienna State Opera in 1996/97 only one was by a composer born in the 20th century.

But though Hobsbawmthe pieces, many of them lectures from the Salzburg Festival, and hence, eclectictalks about the passing of an era in culture, music, art, he doesnt elaborate on the collision between his communist ideals and the fall of communism and the Soviet Union. Hobsbawm, famously and perhaps controversially, let his communist party membership lapse (coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall), but till the end believed that communism was an emancipating force and touched the masses. His three-volume history of the rise of industrial capitalism from 1789-1914 (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire) is still a popular read. In this collection of essays, we have him

deliberating on a gamut of subjects from the Jews and Germany, science, art and revolution, heritage, to the American cowboy.

Hobsbawm argues that though high culture is dead, there are at least two art forms, the printed book and architecture, which is doing well. ...despite all pessimistic prognoses,... the printed book will hold its own without great difficulty..., he writes. As for architecture, since humanity cannot live without buildings, ...the architect, particularly, the architect of great public buildings, has become the ruler of the world of fine arts. But he sings a dirge for classical musicby 1960 classical music provided barely 2% of the recording outputopera and sculpture.

One essay deals with the prospect of public religion, which is chillingly relevant in these difficult times. What has happened to religion in the past 50 years is striking, he writes. For most of recorded history it has provided the language, often the only language, for discourse about the relations of human beings to each other, to the wider world and to our dealings with the uncontrollable forces outside our everyday lives. Certainly, this has been so for the masses, as evidently it still is in India and the Islamic region. The rise of religious fundamentalism, he argues, calls for a need to recover lost certainties. And yet at the end of the essay he poses the question: Who can tell on what terms reason and revived anti-reason will coexist in the ongoing earthquakes and tsunamis of the 21st century Who can tell

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer