On Hist -Op/106

Eric J. Hobsbawm, Author
Eric J. Hobsbawm, Author New Press $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-56584-393-6
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 305 pages - 978-1-56584-468-1
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Hobsbawm, now 80 and among the most distinguished of living historians, reprints 21 of his essays and lectures that are frankly Marxist in background and seemingly sermons for the dwindling brethren. Still, there is a challenging if bleak wisdom in all of them that goes beyond what Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, 1914- 1991) concedes is a failed political movement but remains, he claims, a valid working tool for historians. Quotable gems leap from his pages: ""Arguments about counterfactual alternatives cannot be settled by evidence,"" he contends, ""since evidence is about what happened and hypothetical situations did not happen."" A major theme for Hobsbawm is the ideological abuse of history perpetrated by those who blur the borders between recorded reality and fiction, something he deplores also as postmodernist practice. Yet, recognizing that the desire to restore or to pull down a medieval quarter or a Stalin statue may be more symbolic than effective as history, he observes that a facsimile is ""a form of magic which, by restoring a small but emotionally charged part of a lost past, somehow restores the whole."" History, then, is not merely for the historian: ""It takes two to learn the lessons of history or anything else; one to give the information, the other to listen."" A Cambridge historian educated in interwar Europe, Hobsbawm has lived his contemporary history and makes an effective case here that it should transcend documented narrative, that eye-witness accounts have immediacy. (Sept.)
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