20th Century Man


Morgan Meis on Eric Hobsbawm, in The Smart Set:

I studied briefly with Eric Hobsbawm, the English Marxist historian who died October 1st at the age of 94. I studied with him in the early 1990s at The New School for Social Research in New York City. Hobsbawm was just completing his book The Age of Extremes, the third in a trilogy that included The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. Hobsbawm was not an inspiring teacher. He would shuffle into the classroom in his baggy suit and sit down at a table at the head of the class. Then he would open up a folder and begin to read us chapters from the book he was trying to finish. That was it. Hobsbawm didn't read very well. A strange-looking man, his mouth was always screwed up to the right. He mumbled out of the side of his face. The great German philosopher Jürgen Habermas would sometimes show up for a lecture or a conference at The New School during those days as well. Due to Habermas' severe lisp, you could barely understand him either. I suspect a generation of grad students formed the opinion that academic greatness and the inability to speak were somehow related. I recently read a passage from one of Hobsbawm's books where he reflects on his love of jazz. The book is called Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life. In it, Hobsbawm wrote:

Like the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who has written better about it than most, I experienced this musical revelation at the age of first love, 16 or 17. But in my case it virtually replaced first love, for, ashamed of my looks and therefore convinced of being physically unattractive, I deliberately repressed my physical sensuality and sexual impulses. Jazz brought the dimension of wordless, unquestioning physical emotion into a life otherwise almost monopolised by words and the exercises of the intellect.

Thinking back to the man in his early 70s reading to his students from his then soon-to-be-published book, it occurs to me that Hobsbawm was still that 16- or 17-year-old kid. I ran into him once at the A&P supermarket on Union Square. He had a few items in his shopping cart and was wandering around in the aisles. When I spoke to him he looked at me shyly from under his brow. I asked him a few questions about the Third International. He looked relieved. Yes, let us speak of the Third International. Why is it that I will forever associate Eric Hobsbawm with the feeling of embarrassment?