The Life of the Party
Eric J. Hobsbawm (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz)
Interesting Times is a curiously feeble title for an autobiography, rather as if Noam Chomsky were to write an article called "Could America Do Better?" It carries, of course, the sting of an ominous Chinese saying in its tail; ironic English understatement. "I have lived," Eric Hobsbawm remarks, "through almost all of the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history"; but he has lived through it as one of that century's most eminent Marxist historians, and the dispassionate gaze of the historian is reflected in his title. Gleaning one's history from a man who can remember celebrating the centenary of Beethoven's death at school is rather like being instructed in one's religious duties by the Pope. Hobsbawm has also clapped eyes on Stalin, though the dictator was admittedly a corpse at the time of their encounter.
Like most autobiographies, this one will do well in Eric Hobsbawm's England--not because the English love a Marxist but because they love a character. From Dr. Johnson to Winston Churchill, it is the idiosyncratic individual who stirs their imagination, not some unpalatably abstract truth. This is why they love a lord as well as a character, and Oscar Wilde did his best to be both. They love a lord not only because they are cravenly deferential but because they are also anarchic and bloody-minded, and aristocrats are those who are most cavalier about convention.
In this sense, the autobiography is a covertly anti-intellectual genre, designed for those who are more interested in what Tolstoy had for breakfast than what he thought about Plato. It is also a self-contradictory one. Autobiographies set out to capture the uniqueness of the individual life, but find themselves telling the same old story. Everyone has to be born, have parents, get educated, discover sexuality, launch a career and the like. It is biology that lies at the root of biography. And biology is no respecter of individuals. It is also no friend of humility. However modest the autobiographer--and this one is attractively so--it is hard to escape the implication that things are important simply because they happened to you.
The life story, then, is not the most promising of forms for an intellectual--not only because it is allergic to ideas but because intellectuals are not renowned for their enthralling lives. We would not find as dull a life as Darwin's in the least fascinating were it not for what he wrote. For an English intellectual like Hobsbawm, the problem is compounded by the fact that the English are as averse to confessionalism as they are to ideas. Shy, reticent souls that they are, they are not given to producing what Hobsbawm calls "biographies that lift bedclothes," and this one hardly tweaks a sheet. Hobsbawm is properly reserved about his private life, and would be a disastrous flop on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He lets slip the fact that he was briefly and unhappily married to a woman who qualified as a kosher Cockney, being born not only within the sound of Bow bells but actually in the Tower of London; but this, one feels, is motivated more by cultural curiosity than by emotional exhibitionism. He tells us that both of his parents died when he was very young, and that he was raised by an aunt and uncle; yet though this must surely have had a deep emotional impact on his later life, we learn nothing of it. Instead, he breaks the golden rule of the genre and sets his personal life in the context of historical events and ideas, not in the context of his taste in brandy or blondes.
As far as ideas go, twentieth-century Britain imported them largely from Central European Jewish émigrés like Hobsbawm himself. Wittgenstein, Namier, Eysenck, Popper, Melanie Klein, Isaac Deutscher, Isaiah Berlin: One can imagine the Neanderthal condition of modern English culture without these brilliant blow-ins and carpetbaggers. Much the same happened in the literary arena, as the heights of "English" literature were effortlessly monopolized by a Pole (Joseph Conrad), three Americans (Henry James, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) and five Irishmen (Shaw, Wilde, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett). The Irish were expected to write most of England's literature for it, such being the burdens of empire, as well as supplying them over the years with rents, cattle and cannon-fodder.
The position of these European exiles was ambiguous, as Perry Anderson has argued. Shuffling among three or four different cultures, they had a cosmopolitan flair and range that put the parochialism of the British to shame. Because they were mostly refugees from political tyranny and turmoil at the heart of Europe, their work was infused with a passion and urgency that the natives found hard to match. Yet refugees do not commonly rock the life-raft they are clambering aboard. If they view the sedateness of the native culture with a skeptical eye, they can also be grateful for it.