THE GRAND OLD MAN OF HIS­TORY

SHAHID AMIN

Tehelka - - GODMAN’S LEGACY -

ERIC HOB­S­BAWM was per­haps the finest guide to the his­tory of mod­ern times. He re­mained a Marx­ist and a Com­mu­nist for the greater part of his 95 years and wore his in­tel­lec­tual ori­en­ta­tion on his sleeve. His dozen books and six score es­says on the world we in­habit com­bined jaw-drop­ping schol­ar­ship with low-key fe­lic­ity and a sure­ness of touch. He helped shape the com­mon sense of a gen­er­a­tion in Europe, the Americas and In­dia.

Born in Egypt, to Jewish par­ents, Hob­s­bawm left Hitler’s Ger­many and moved to Eng­land, where he im­bibed the spirit of ‘Red Cam­bridge’ of the 1930s. The aca­demic year 1939, as he wrote in his mem­oirs with mod­est pride, “was pretty good”. He got a first class in all his his­tory pa­pers. He edited Granta, still a by­word for lit­er­ary writ­ing, and was ad­mit­ted to the se­lect club of the Apos­tles that counted philoso­phers Wittgen­stein and Ber­trand Rus­sell, econ­o­mist Keynes and nov­el­ist EM Forster among its mem­bers. Hob­s­bawm was known among his peers for his amaz­ing knowl­edge and com­mand over the ob­scurest sub­jects. ‘Usual Ru­mours’ a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous piece in Granta noted , “there is a fresh­man in King’s Col­lege who knows about ev­ery­thing.”

Hob­s­bawm, the poly­math-Marx­ist- stylist, brought all these to his anal­y­sis of the by­lanes of his­tory. He pro­vided as much in­sight to the ‘in­tel­li­gent man and woman’ on ru­ral rebels, ban­dits and work­ers as on im­pe­ri­al­ism, cap­i­tal­ism and na­tion­al­ism. If he pro­duced path-break­ing es­says on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cul­tural and eco­nomic his­tory, he also an­a­lysed jazz and its de­vel­op­ment in Amer­ica. His last­ing achieve­ment is, how­ever, the three vol­ume His­tory of Europe that had ma­jor con­se­quence for the non-Euro­pean world as well. In his later years, he wrote a more per­son­alised his­tory, start­ing with the time of his birth in the year of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion and the break-up of the Soviet Union

His books fo­cussed more on in­ter­pre­ta­tion rather than on pro­vid­ing a de­tailed (dull) nar­ra­tive, which over the cen­turies had given his­tory books a bad name. The ideal reader for Hob­s­bawm is “the in­tel­li­gent and ed­u­cated ci­ti­zen, who is not merely cu­ri­ous about the past, but wishes to un­der­stand how and why the world has come to be what it is and whither it is go­ing”. The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion, 1789-1848, pub­lished in 1962, was the first of his grand sur­veys of mod­ern times. “Words are wit­nesses which of­ten speak louder than doc­u­ments,” he wrote with char­ac­ter­is­tic élan, and egged his read­ers to con­sider not only words like in­dus­try, mid­dle class, cap­i­tal­ism, so­cial­ism, but also aris­toc­racy, rail­ways, lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive, na­tion­al­ity as well as sta­tis­tics — all of which de­fine the mod­ern world and the “things and con­cepts for which they pro­vide names.”

In In­dia where pop­u­lar his­tory-writ­ing of the ‘Rapid English Reader’ va­ri­ety has cor­nered the mar­ket, and ma­jori­tar­ian and sec­tar­ian-na­tional and iden­tity-hurts are clos­ing the space for an in­formed di­a­logue about the past and the present, the voice of the grand old man of his­tory needs am­pli­fi­ca­tion. For Hob­s­bawm , the swad­harma of the his­to­rian was not to bury the past un­der the weight of non­fic­tional facts, but to make it in­tel­li­gi­ble with­out anachro­nism. Above all to write to make the reader sit up. If there was one labour that the en­cy­clo­pe­dic Hob­s­bawm did not un­der­take, it was an en­gage­ment with the fraught re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bri­tain and its prize colony. This cu­ri­ous omis­sion on the part of most Left-lean­ing his­to­ri­ans of post-War Bri­tain, left the field of ‘colo­nial his­tory’ largely to the ‘Im­pe­rial his­to­ri­ans’ from the British Isles.

Hob­s­bawm was a mas­ter of a fe­lic­i­tous turn of phrase: ‘What a con­tem­po­rary ob­server sees is not nec­es­sar­ily the truth, but the his­to­rian ne­glects it at his own peril’. (1962) ‘New coun­tries, new states, re­quire two things. They re­quire his­tory and they re­quire a flag — with­out these two things they don’t even ex­ist. And the peo­ple who es­tab­lish them are not re­ally in­ter­ested in his­tory… They are in­ter­ested in some­thing which will make peo­ple feel good’ (con­ver­sa­tion with In­dian his­to­ri­ans, Delhi, 2004). Two years ear­lier, he wrote with imp­ish de­light in his mem­oirs: “This book is not writ­ten in the now very saleable con­fes­sional mode… I am nei­ther a St. Au­gus­tine nor a Rousseau. In any case… his­to­ri­ans are not gos­sip colum­nists. The mil­i­tary mer­its of gen­er­als are not to be judged by what they do, or fail to do, in bed… Be­sides, I sus­pect that read­ers with a taste for bi­ogra­phies which lift bed­clothes would find my own life dis­ap­point­ing’. Eric Hob­s­bawm will be known not only for his wide sweep of his­tory. His word­smith­ery will get the reader’s nod (and a smile) for a long time to come.

Amin is a well-known his­to­rian

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