‘THE HOBBIT’, PETER JACKSON’S FILM(S) AND J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S BOOK: WHO DOES THE TALE BELONG TO? / ‘EL HOBBIT’, LA(S) PELÍCULA(S) DE PETER JACKSON Y EL LIBRO DE J.R.R. TOLKIEN: ¿A QUIÉN PERTENECE EL RELATO?

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, released in December 2012, is the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s three-part film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-loved work of fantasy ‘The Hobbit’. I at least found the film riveting from beginning to end, but it also raises complex questions concerning narrative authenticity and the whole issue of who it is that a story, literary or cinematic, belongs to.

Hobbitlibroportada

Belvalcine

 

 The first edition of the book appeared in 1937, but Tolkien revised the narrative in later versions published in 1951 and 1966, to bring it into line with the trilogy which he had subsequently completed, ‘The Lord of the Rings’. What was originally a self-contained narrative relating Bilbo the hobbit’s journey and return home thus changed its nature by becoming a prelude to the longer work: ‘The Hobbit’ was no longer purely a story in its own right.

 The new film can so far only be judged provisionally: its content is not fully autonomous but is also determined by the second and third parts which the public has not yet seen, though hints and rumours are circulating. ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ will be released in December 2013, to be followed in summer 2014 by ‘The Hobbit: There And Back Again’. It is of course controversial that a relatively short novel (389 pages in my edition) should be expanded like this into three films. There is perhaps a precedent in the case of the Harry Potter book/film series, where the seventh and last novel was split into two for the cinema, making eight films in all. There, however, the outcome was to keep a maximum of detail from the book. With ‘The Hobbit’, by contrast, the expansion is achieved by means of additions to the original story – reversing the more usual film adaptor’s practice of leaving material out.

 The additional matter appears to have been taken mostly from the author’s appendices to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, published at the end of its third part, and also, possibly, from other, unspecified and apparently unpublished, writings by Tolkien. Some of the new elements, however, look as if they have been invented by the director. The sequences involving the magician Radagast – only mentioned once in the novel – appear to have come from nowhere, and for part two we are promised a brand new female character, an elf-guardian called Tauriel.

 Here as with Harry Potter, the director has to deal with a highly informed and articulate fan community. Unlike J.K. Rowling, Tolkien is no longer with us to intervene personally in the filming, but his fan community is everywhere and even antedates the internet. Some fans have made it clear on-line that they would have preferred a film version free of interpolations, and are already calling for a shorter alternate version, without the additional matter and reflecting only the book they know and love.

 The evidence of part one, though, suggests the extra material is an improvement. Modern sensibilities over the absence of female characters are allayed by the importation of the elf-woman of power Galadriel from ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Thorin Oakenshield and Elrond both appear as more complex characters than in the book, and in particular the deepened relationship between Thorin and Bilbo helps underscore the themes of the hobbit’s mission and personal evolution.

 It does seem that the new material is in Tolkien’s spirit and has been introduced with all due care. Thus far, the changes deepen a story which has in any case been changed before, evolving in interaction with later stories. Ultimately, the tale of the ‘The Hobbit’, book and film(s), is a shared treasure which belongs to everyone – the author who wrote it, the director who transposes it, the fan community, and its readers/spectators in general. All are free to accept, reject or interpret Bilbo’s story in its latest form, a dynamic narrative taking on new life as a collective property in the internet age. As Bilbo himself says, ‘roads go ever ever on’, and so does the road of ‘The Hobbit’!

 **

La película ‘El Hobbit: un Viaje Inesperado’ (‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’), estrenada en diciembre de 2012, constituye la primera parte de la trilogía del realizador Peter Jackson basada en la muy querida novela de fantasía de J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘El Hobbit’ (‘The Hobbit’). De parte mía, fui fascinado por la película del inicio al final, pero no cabe duda de que a la vez esta cinta plantea unas preguntas más bien complejas relativas a la autenticidad narrativa y a la cuestión de pertenencia (¿a quién, a fin de cuentas, pertenece un relato, literario o cinemático?).

Hobbitrevistaportada

 La primera edición del libro apareció en 1937, pero Tolkien revisó la narrativa en versiones posteriores publicadas en 1951 y 1966, para alinearla con la trilogía que había completado entretanto, ‘El Señor de los Anillos’ (‘The Lord of the Rings’). Así, una narrativa que inicialmente fue totalmente autónoma, relatando el viaje y el regreso a casa del hobbit Bilbo, cambió de naturaleza, convirtiéndose en un preludio a otra obra más extensa.

 Por ahora, cualquier juicio acerca de la nueva cinta tiene que ser provisoria: su contenido carece de autonomía, ya que no deja de ser condicionado por las segunda y tercera entregas – que el público todavía desconoce, aunque rumores y especulaciones no faltan. La película ‘El Hobbit: la Desolación de Smaug’ (‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’) saldrá en diciembre de 2013, seguida en el verano de 2014 por ‘El Hobbit: Partida y Regreso’ (‘The Hobbit: There And Back Again’). Evidentemente, ha generado polémica el que una novela relativamente corta (en mi edición en inglés, no rebasa las 389 páginas) sea así alargada para crear tres películas. Hay tal vez un precedente en el caso de la serie de libros/cintas de Harry Potter y la escisión de la séptima y última novela en dos cintas, resultando en un total de ocho películas por siete libros. Allí, no obstante, el resultado fue la salvaguarda de un máximo de elementos del libro; en cambio, con ‘El Hobbit’, la expansión se consigue por la interpolación de material adicional. Así, se invierte la costumbre, más frecuente en la adaptación cinemática, de recortar la narrativa.

 El material adicional parece derivar principalmente de los apéndices al ‘Señor de los Anillos’ que Tolkien incluyó en el tercer volumen de la trilogía, y también, posiblemente, de otros escritos del autor, no especificados y aparentemente aún sin publicar. Sin embargo, algunos de los nuevos elementos tienen pinta de ser invenciones del realizador. Las secuencias con el mago Radagast – personaje nombrado una sola vez en la novela – parecen no tener antecedentes, y para la segunda parte se nos promete un personaje totalmente inaudito de sexo femenino, una elfa guardián llamada Tauriel.

 Como en el caso potteriano, el realizador tiene que llevar en cuenta la existencia de una comunidad de fans superinformada e hipercrítica. A diferencia de la señora Rowling, Tolkien ya no está entre nosotros para intervenir en persona en la creación de las cintas, pero su comunidad de fans es omnipresente e incluso es más antigua que la Red. Algunos fans han afirmado ya en línea que hubieran preferido una versión cinemática sin interpolaciones, pidiendo ya que se haga una variante más corta, sin el material adicional y reflejando únicamente el libro que conocen y aman.

 Con todo, la evidencia de la primera parte sugiere que el material nuevo aporta una mejora global. En respuesta a las sensibilidades modernas relativas a la ausencia de personajes femeninos, se ha importado a Galadriel, la poderosa elfa del ‘Señor de los Anillos’. Tanto Thorin como Elrond son aquí personajes más complejos que en el libro, y en particular la relación más profunda entre Thorin y Bilbo tiene el efecto de subrayar los temas de la misión y evolución personal del hobbit.

 Parece, de hecho, que el material adicional es compatible con el espíritu tolkeiniano y ha sido introducido con el debido esmero. Hasta ahora, las modificaciones confieren mayor profundidad a un relato que, en todo caso, ya sufrió cambios en el pasado, evolucionando en interacción con relatos posteriores. En última instancia, la historia del Hobbit, libro y película(s), es un tesoro compartido que pertenece a todos – el autor que la escribió, el realizador que la transpone, la comunidad de fans, y sus lectores/espectadores en general. Todos disponemos de libertad entera para aceptar, rechazar o interpretar el relato de Bilbo en su última manifestación, una narrativa dinámica que retoma vida  como propiedad colectiva en la época de las redes. Para citar al propio Bilbo, ‘roads go ever ever on’ (‘los caminos siguen para siempre’). Con ‘El Hobbit’ también, ‘se hace camino al andar’ …

Ravi Shankar dies at 92

Ravi Shankar, India’s greatest musician of modern times, left us at the age of 92, on 11 December 2012. Obituaries:

*Reginald Massey, ‘Ravi Shankar obituary – Indian virtuoso who took the sitar to the world’ –
The Guardian, 12 Dec 2012 – www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/dec/12/ravi-shankar-dies
*(unsigned), ‘Pandit Ravi Shankar, sitar maestro, passes away in California’ – The Times of India, 12 Dec 2012 –
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pandit-Ravi-Shankar-sitar-maestro-passes-away-in-California/articleshow/17581097.cms?

These obituaries give a far stronger sense than I ever could of the range and influence of the great sitarist’s work, his creative energy and his dynamism.
I would point out, though, that his musical importance in both East and West goes far beyond his momentary association with the Beatles.
Meanwhile, his two musician daughters, Norah Jones in the US and Anoushka Shankar in India, shine in their respective domains, make another bridge between East and West and will remain keepers of the flame.

 

« La Chute de la maison Usher »: Edgar Allan Poe performed in Esch-sur-Alzette, 30 November 2012

“La Chute de la maison Usher”: Poe performed in Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg)

This review has been published (see entry on this blog for 20 May 2013) in:

The Edgar Allan Poe Review
Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 99-100 –

http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/edgallpoerev.14.1.0099

**

 “As the shades of the evening drew on,” nightfall on 30 November 2012 ushered in a single performance, at the Municipal Theatre in Esch-sur-Alzette, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s second city, of  “La Chute de la maison Usher,” a multimedia stage adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The event graced the theatre’s boards thanks to a visiting company, the Nouveau Théâtre from Besançon in France, the French-language script being by Sylvain Maurice, adapted from the Baudelaire translation, and the music by Alban Darche.

This is Poe modernised, with no hint in the stark, minimalist decor of any of the original’s Gothic architectural trappings. Yet it remains paradoxically faithful to Poe, reproducing all but word-for-word large portions of the original Poe-Baudelaire text, through the voice of the tale’s narrator turned main actor – including “difficult” passages like the mirror-image tarn sequence at the beginning, or the list of Usher’s esoteric books (replicated to the letter). The spectacle lasts exactly one hour with no interval – in perfect fidelity to Poe’s notion, as expounded in his theory of the short story, of the brief narrative as an aesthetic experience occupying precisely such a time without external distraction.

It also brings to the fore, within that same modern-yet-loyal dynamic, the perhaps latent but extremely powerful multimedia dimension of Poe’s text. As readers of “Usher” know, the tale’s middle section centres on the narrator’s account of how he and Roderick pursue the arts together, through painting, reading, the writing of poetry, and musical composition and performance. “La Chute de la maison Usher” concretises this multimedia element by introducing both music and on-screen visual imagery. There is a missed opportunity when the narrator faithfully describes Usher’s abstract “vault” canvas, but no illuminating image appears on screen. By contrast, however, and arch-significantly,  “The Haunted Palace,” the mise en abyme poem which Usher composes and sets to music, accompanying himself on the guitar, appears as a set-piece, performed in French and transposed into a modern arrangement.

The music is contemporary throughout, piano- and saxophone-based in an idiom somewhere between jazz and modern classical, with female vocals ascending to peaks of Mahler- or Schoenberg-like anguish. The visual imagery, too, is entirely modern, with rapid fadings and mergings. In a further distancing effect, Roderick Usher is played by a woman, while Madeline does not appear directly at all until after her death.

The story’s climax as embodied in this interpretation rises to ever-intenser heights, verging, quite as much as does the original, on the psychotic. When the narrator flees the collapsing house, no blood-red moon is seen, but the screen throws up the disturbing images of the dark waters of the tarn as they close in on the fissured mansion. Had his phantom been watching, surely Edgar Allan Poe would have approved so moving a retreading and updating of his classic exploration of the confines of mind and art. The Besançon company is to be congratulated on a theatrical achievement which, be it hoped, will if it travels further succeed in attaining the wider audience it eminently merits, in Poe circles and beyond.

See:
www.esch.lu/culture/Documents/Programme%20Theatre-Conservatoire%202012-2013.pdf
www.theatredelacommune.com/cdn/saison-2010-2011/la-chute-de-la-maison-usher

MIGUEL SÁENZ, TRADUCTOR DE KAFKA Y RUSHDIE, ELEGIDO A LA REAL ACADEMIA ESPAÑOLA / MIGUEL SÁENZ, TRANSLATOR OF KAFKA Y RUSHDIE, ELECTED SPANISH ACADEMICIAN

El 22 de noviembre de 2012, el traductor literario Miguel Sáenz fue elegido miembro de la Real Academia Española – véase: Elsa Fernández-Santos, ‘El traductor Miguel Sáenz, elegido académico de la Lengua’, El País, 23-XI-2012, edición impresa internacional, p. 46:

http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2012/11/22/actualidad/1353614625_491968.html .

 Nacido en 1932, Miguel Saénz se ha distinguido a través de una larga carrera profesional como traductor. Ha publicado traducciones al castellano de toda una serie de grandes figuras de las literaturas de habla alemana e inglesa, como Goethe, Kafka, Brecht, Conrad, Faulkner o Rushdie. En el caso del último, destáquense sus traducciones de algunas de las obras más importantes del autor anglo-indio, como Hijos de la Medianoche, El suelo bajo sus pies o Shalimar el payaso.

 En la versión en linea del referido artículo, notemos que Miguel Sáenz declara, relativamente a sus nuevas responsabilidades: “Espero, como homenaje a mis colegas de Naciones Unidas, estudiar un campo que me interesa mucho: el español hablado en los diferentes países hispanoamericanos” – proyecto que, en manos como éstas, ya promete ser de enorme valor.

 Su nombramiento puede considerarse un gran logro para la visibilidad de la traducción. ¡Miguel Sáenz es, así, merecedor de las más sentidas felicitaciones de parte de la comunidad traductora, no sólo española sino mundial!

 **

On 22 November 2012, the literary translator Miguel Sáenz was elected a member of the Real Academia Española (RoyalSpanishAcademy), the leading such body in the Spanish-speaking world. See: Elsa Fernández-Santos, ‘El traductor Miguel Sáenz, elegido académico de la Lengua’ (‘Translator Miguel Sáenz elected language academician’), El País, 23 Nov 2012, international print edn., p. 46:

http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2012/11/22/actualidad/1353614625_491968.html .

 Born in 1932, Miguel Saénz has a remarkable range of achievements behind him as a translator. He has published translations into Spanish of works by authors from the German- and English-speaking worlds of the distinction of Goethe, Kafka, Brecht, Conrad, Faulkner or Rushdie. In the last-named case, we may note that he has translated such major works by the Anglo-Indian writer as Midnight’s Children, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Shalimar the Clown.

 In the on-line version of the El País article, Miguel Sáenz says that in his new capacity, he now plans to make a detailed study of the different Latin American varieties of Spanish – a project which, in his hands, will be of major interest.

 His membership of the Academy may be considered a major achievement for the visibility of translation. Miguel Sáenz now merits the warmest congratulations from the translator community, not only in Spain but worldwide!

Javier Marín – Escultor mexicano en Luxemburgo / a Mexican sculptor in Luxembourg

 

Las generalmente austeras plazas y calles de Luxemburgo viven en estos momentos una animación insólita, pues entre el 27 de septiembre y el 20 de noviembre de 2012, media docena de lugares de la ciudad lucen obras tipo « aire libre » del escultor mexicano Javier Marín (a quien también se dedica una exposición retrospectiva en la sede del banco BGL  BNP Paribas).

 

En la monumental obra de Marín (nacido en Uruopan, Michoacán en 1962), en piedra o en bronce, se repiten figuras como el jinete (estatuas ecuestres), el circulo o anillo, el desnudo femenino, y sobretodo el rostro humano – un rostro, típicamente, de rasgos precolombinos y cargado de sufrimiento pero a la vez de dignidad.

En particular, notemos un trio imponente de esculturas ahora ubicadas en el parque principal de la ciudad, que desde cierto ángulo parecen ser dinosaurios pero de otro se revelan como representando caras humanas invertidas.

 

Esta exposición ‘multisitios’ ya ha viajado por otras urbes europeas, como Bruselas, La Haya y Milán. El sitio personal de Javier Marín se encuentra en www.javiermarin.com.mx.

La presencia de estas obras en Luxemburgo se debe a una iniciativa de la Embajada mexicana en Bruselas. Notemos que la misma embajada también impulsó recientemente, el 2 de octubre de 2012, una actuación, también en Luxemburgo y de muy alta calidad, del Coro Universitario Estudiantil de la UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) (www.difusioncultural.unam.mx/saladeprensa/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1210:172-presentacion-del-coro-universitario-estudiantil-en-la-unam&catid=3:direccion-de-musica&Itemid=10). ¡Felicitemos a quien se esfuerza así por divulgar, en Europa, lo mejor de la cultura mexicana!

**

The usually austere streets and squares of Luxembourg are at this moment enlivened by the presence, from 27 September to 20 November 2013, at half-a-dozen locations in the city, of a series of open-air exhibits by the Mexican sculptor Javier Marín (there is also a retrospective exhibition of his work at the main branch of the BGL BNP Paribas bank).

The monumental work of Javier Marín (born in Uruopan, Michoacán state in 1962), in stone or in bronze, has at its basis repeated figures such as the rider (equestrian statues), the circle or ring, the female nude, and, above all, the human face – a face typically pre-Columbian in its features, charged with suffering and, at the same time, with dignity. In particular, we may note an imposing trio of sculptures now located in Luxembourg’s city park, which from a certain angle appear to be dinosaurs but when approached more closely prove to represent inverted human faces.

This multi-site exhibition has already visited other European cities, including Brussels, The Hague and Milan. Javier Marín’s personal site is at: www.javiermarin.com.mx.

The presence of these works in Luxembourg is the result of an initiative of the Mexican Embassy in Brussels. We may note that the same embassy also sponsored recently, on 2 October 2012, a performance, also in Luxembourg and of very high quality, by the student choir of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) (www.difusioncultural.unam.mx/saladeprensa/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1210:172-presentacion-del-coro-universitario-estudiantil-en-la-unam&catid=3:direccion-de-musica&Itemid=10). Congratulations to the authors of these efforts to disseminate the best of Mexican culture in Europe!

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 …

**

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

«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.

 **

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.

**

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/

 

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