Archive for October, 2012

Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton” and Bob Dylan: Rushdie as ‘Dylan worshipper’?

(NOTE: I will be posting a full review of Joseph Anton as such here, soon)

Some years back, in an article still available at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/RushdieGFupdated.pdf, I outlined the (quite considerable) impact of Bob Dylan on the work of Salman Rushdie. The key work here is ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, Rushdie’s novel of 1999 about the rock music world, but Bob Dylan also has the distinction of having his ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ featured in no less a work of literature than ‘The Satanic Verses’. As I showed in my essay, Dylan references are scattered right across Rushdie’s œuvre (indeed, I subsequently looked at the novelist’s post-‘Ground’ allusions in an appendix covering his later work up to 2006). His two novels since 2006, ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ (2008) and ‘Luka and the Fire of Life’ (2010), do not to my knowledge contain any Dylan allusions (other than that the first points up Rushdie’s and Dylan’s common interest in Machiavelli), but now Rushdie’s latest work, the autobiographical ‘Joseph Anton’ (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012, 636 pp), makes up for that omission with a fair sprinkling of Dylaniana.

‘Joseph Anton’, named after the pseudonym Rushdie adopted in hiding, is primarily about his experiences under Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and under constant police protection from 1989 to 2002, but it also ranges back and forth across Rushdie’s personal and writerly life as a whole. Here and there, gleaming amid the book’s dense mosaic of cultural allusion, are significant nuggets namechecking or quoting Bob Dylan, In his confessed enthusiasm for the songs of the former Robert Allen Zimmerman, Salman Rushdie shows himself to be as much a representative figure of his generation as his friend the late Christopher Hitchens, who (as I have also pointed out, at: http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc/christopher-hitchens-bob-dylan-fan), in his own memoir of 2010, ‘Hitch-22’, staked a claim to Dylan fandom in rather similar terms.

In ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie tells how he was introduced to Dylan’s work as an adolescent, by a friend at Rugby School – becoming ‘an enthusiastic Dylan worshipper’ after hearing ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (30). Two pages later, he draws on that album to include ‘hard rain’ among the emblematic phrases of ‘the golden age of rock music’ (32). Elsewhere, Rushdie recalls how ‘A folk singer plugged his guitar into an amp and a voice in the crowd shouted “Judas !”’ (343), conflating two well-known Dylan episodes (the Newport Folk Festival and the Manchester Free Trade Hall incident) to offer one response among several to the question: ‘How does newness enter the world?’ – which, Rushdie says, was exercising him when he wrote ‘The Satanic Verses’. Later, Bono (the U2 frontman is a friend of Rushdie’s and a part of the intertextual nexus around ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’) is cited as telling the novelist that ‘in a rock group the writer just became a sort of conduit for the feelings in the air, the words didn’t drive the work, the music did, unless you came from a folk tradition like Dylan’ (388); and, finally, evoking the endless climate of uncertainty over the fatwa (will-they-won’t-they drop it?), Rushdie muses of his third-person alias, quoting (or actually slightly misquoting) Bob Dylan’s most famous song of all: ‘If there was an answer blowing [sic] in that wind, he had no idea what it was’ (459).

The evidence from ‘Joseph Anton’ is that for Rushdie, ‘Bob Dylan’ is above all the Bob Dylan of the first half of the 60s, the acoustic protest singer who, of course, Dylan hasn’t been for over four-and-a-half decades. Even as rock artist, he is mentioned in the context of his mutation from folk performer. This is the 60s-icon « Bob Dylan » to be found too in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir. Rushdie has, though, shown, in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ and elsewhere, that he does have some familiarity with the later Dylan; and surely he of all writers should be aware of how limiting it can be for an artist to be stuck forever in the metonymic groove of being famous for a statistically small but ever-retrodden segment of an œuvre that is in reality varied and abundant.

So in Rushdie’s pages, it’s the ‘60s Dylan’ once again – once more, the Dylan who wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ half a century ago, yet, believe it or not, is still a living (and touring) artist today. At least those who reduce Dylan to half-a-dozen protest songs do usually have some kind of first-hand acquaintance, however superficial, with the works they cite, which cannot be said of too many of those who have opined over the years about ‘The Satanic Verses’. Meanwhile and at all events, ‘Joseph Anton’, among its many other merits, usefully reminds the world that Salman Rushdie has things to say about Bob Dylan; though to the inverse question as to what, if anything, Bob Dylan might have to say about Salman Rushdie – well, to the best of my knowledge: the answer is still .. dare I say it? – blowin’ in  the wind …

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Details of my article on ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ are as follows:

Christopher Rollason, ‘Rushdie’s Un-Indian Music: “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”‘, in Studies in Indian Writing in English, vol. II, ed. Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Pier Paolo Piciucco, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2001, 122-157; republished in Salman Rushdie: New Critical Insights, vol. II, ed. Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Joel Kuortti, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2003, 89-125; updated version (2006) on-line at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/RushdieGFupdated.pdf; and http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc/rushdie.pdf

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«The last Marxist»? In memoriam: Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

  1. «The last Marxist»? In memoriam: Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

 On 1 October 2012, Eric Hobsbawm, surely the best-known and most important historian active in the English-speaking world in recent times, left us at the ripe age of 95, and the world of knowledge will be the poorer. Few historians could aspire to the erudition or the range and sweep of the author of such classic works as « Industry and Empire », « The Age of Revolution », « The Age of Capital », « The New Century » or, most recently, « How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism », his final book published only last year.

A professor at Birkbeck, University of London, Hobsbawm was not only a historian and academic. He was also an intellectual in the fullest sense of the word – incarnating, indeed, his peer the late Edward Said’s conception, as expounded in his « Representations of the Intellectual », of the public intellectual – as generalist (no narrow specialist he), as committed to a secular and rationalist reading of the world, and as a thorn in the flesh of orthodoxy. Eric Hobsbawm may be considered a leading public intellectual of the time between the second world war and the present, one who intervened both within his chosen field and outside it – the equal of such figures (not all of them always or necessarily on the left) as, in the Anglophone world and its hyphenated variants, Said himself, Harold Bloom, Christopher Hitchens or Salman Rushdie, or, outside that world, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, José Saramago or Umberto Eco.

Hobsbawm also embodied Said’s intellectual, for whom exile is the condition par excellence, by being of hybridated and deracinated status. A British citizen from the beginning, he was nonetheless born in Egypt, to parents who were both of Central European (and ultimately Russian) Jewish origins, and was brought up in Vienna and Berlin – thus with German as his first language – before his family relocated to the UK in 1933. Given this background, his Cambridge degree and doctorate and London professorship were not sufficient to constitute him as a « true Brit ». There was therefore – and not to the delectation of the more insular denizens of Britain’s groves of academe – always something « foreign » about him, though this could be seen as an enrichment: historiography à la Hobsbawm, one might argue, succeeded in achieving a unique synthesis of « Anglo-Saxon » empiricism with a more « continental », totalising approach. Eric Hobsbawm was at one and the same time a « British », « European » and « world » historian, whose work encompassed the entire period from the industrial revolution to the present. Two examples from « The Age of Capital » may serve to exemplify both his ability to combine the broader picture with telling detail, and his refreshing lack of Eurocentrism: his evocation, as instance of the workings of empire, of Britain’s deliberate and systematic destruction of the Indian textile industry; and his highlighting of the Taiping civil war in China (which left twenty million dead but is all but unknown in the West) as one of the major events in nineteenth-century world history. His fame extended, indeed, far beyond Britain and Europe: his major works were translated into multiple languages and he was, for instance, an invited lecturer at Mexico City’s Colegio de México.

Also of course, and as all who read him knew, Eric Hobsbawm was a Marxist, and remained so till the end. A lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party, he held on fast to Marx’s Enlightenment-forged principles of rational, secular inquiry – politically in the face of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and intellectually despite the siren calls of postmodernist and relativist fashion. To stick to his guns in this way into the twenty-first century was to court controversy, and Hobsbawm’s vexed status in British intellectual and political life has – how could it not be? – been reflected in the public response to his demise.

The British press reactions, across the political spectrum, included reflective and respectful tributes in The Guardian and (more surprisingly) The Times; a rather more ambivalent obituary in The Economist; and a vitriolic piece in the Daily Mail by the novelist and critic A.N. Wilson, who, to put it bluntly, saw nothing good whatever in Hobsbawm or any of his work. The Guardian published both a news report and a full-length obituary. The former quoted Ed Miliband, currently leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Opposition, as paying warm tribute to Hobsbawm’s skills as «an extraordinary historian » – without fear, curiously, of being tarred with the brush of being « soft on Marxism » (Miliband comes from a family of left-wing intellectual traditions; earlier Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair are also known to be Hobsbawm admirers). The obituary, co-written by the political journalist Martin Kettle, described Hobsbawm as « arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind, recognised if not endorsed on the right as well as the left », praising his « sweep combined with … telling anecdote and statistical grasp » and « unrivalled powers of synthesis» and declaring that « few historians have ever commanded such a wide field in such detail or with such authority ». Concerning Hobsbawm’s Communist Party membership, the obituary calls him a « licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks », pointing out that, while remaining within the party, he condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and that « not one of his books was ever published in the Soviet Union ».

The unsigned, two-page obituary in The Times placed Hobsbawm’s key works « among the masterpieces of historical writing », lauding his « breadth of comparison » combined with « use of concrete examples » and the appeal of his writing to specialists and the general reader alike. While locating his communism in a « hard 18th-century rationalism », it took care to dissociate his Marxism from Stalin’s, and recalled that in later years his positions were identifiably « Eurocommunist » . The Economist, a newspaper not famed for touchy-feely attitudes to Marxism, rather provocatively subtitled its – also unsigned – obituary (on the contents page, though not on the obituary page itself) ‘The last Marxist’, and, while stating that Hobsbawm’s scholarship  « deserved, and won, an audience well beyond leftist circles and academe », taxed him with « kneejerk political obsessions », « naive idealism », and, effectively, a stubborn refusal to change his views in the face of the evidence (while allowing that he distanced himself over time from Stalin).

 This was, however, nothing compared to A.N. Wilson’s extraordinary diatribe in the Daily Mail. Wilson, starting out from what he claimed to be Hobsbawm‘s unequivocal support for Stalin in the 1930s, appears to be one of those on the British right who believe that if anyone has ever had a good word for Marxism or the Soviet Union at any time in their life, then they are by definition an apologist for the gulag and everything they have ever said about anything is utterly worthless and deserves to be binned. Thus, he dismisses Hobsbawm’s books as ‘lousy’ and ‘badly written’, and predicts that Hobsbawm ‘will sink without trace’ and that ‘his books will not be read in the future’.

 Such a vituperative attack on a respected intellectual cannot simply be passed over. The detail of Hobsbawm’s attitude to Stalinism and its evolution over time is something to be argued over by experts on his work from both sides, though it may be noted that Wilson’s worst strictures apply to a time before Hobsbawm had written his major works. It may be affirmed in Hobsbawm’s defence that it is no defect in a public intellectual to refuse to change one’s mind, certainly not on things one believes in passionately. Intellectuals, after all, are in a stronger position than most when it comes to explaining, justifying and documenting their standpoints. Hobsbawm did not budge on Marxism – and nor did Saramago, another lifelong member of his country’s communist party. Nor did Said on Palestine; nor did Hitchens on religion. Nor has Bloom on the literary canon; nor has Rushdie on freedom of speech. Hobsbawm’s fidelity to Marxism, of which his final book is an eloquent distillation, may be set against the rejection of that same doctrine in their later careers by Paz or Vargas Llosa, but debate is of the essence of intellectual life, and whether one agrees with Hobsbawm or not his carefully substantiated arguments merit careful examination. Meanwhile, Wilson’s egregious piece of character assassination may serve as a salutary reminder of a fact all too well known to the likes of Said or Rushdie, namely that to be a public intellectual inevitably means courting unpopularity in some quarters: if you have deep convictions and express them forthrightly, not everyone is going to like you and – to quote Bob Dylan from 1965 – « you’re gonna have to get used to it ».

 Of the figures beside whom I have set Hobsbawm, only Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Eco, Bloom and (despite some people’s best efforts) Rushdie are still with us, and it is difficult to see whose voice can replace, on the issues they knew and cared most about, Said or Hitchens, both prematurely snatched away by illness. Hobsbawm believed, and passionately reaffirmed in his valedictory book, that Marxism is still valid today as a tool for the rational understanding of the world (he also argued in that book that the latest financial crisis has strengthened, not weakened that position). Time will prove him right or wrong, but meanwhile it is hard to imagine who among living historians could now debate Marxism so informedly, or offer a global analysis of modern times and be able to draw on the wealth of specialist knowledge combined with breadth of perspective that was Eric Hobsbawm’s. In our confused and unpredictable times, his was a voice that will be sorely missed.

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References:

Esther Addley. « Eric Hobsbawm dies, aged 95 ». The Guardian, 1 Oct 2012. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm-died-aged-95

Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn. « Historian in the Marxist tradition with a global reach ». The Guardian, 1 Oct 2012. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm?intcmp=239

(unsigned) « Eric Hobsbawm ». The Times, 2 Oct 2012, pp. 46-47.

(unsigned) « Eric Hobsbawm ». The Economist, 6 Oct 2012, p. 102.

A.N. Wilson « He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide ». Daily Mail, 2 Oct 2012. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2211961/Eric-Hobsbawm-He-hated-Britain-excused-Stalins-genocide-But-traitor-too.html.

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My own review of « How to Change the World », shortly to be published in a Spanish journal, is at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/Hobsbawm.pdf and also on this blog (entry for 9 July 2011) at: //rollason.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/is-marxism-alive-and-well-review-of-eric-hobsbawm-how-to-change-the-world/