As the current Chair of the Historical Studies Department at the New School, in which Eric Hobsbawm taught for nearly a decade, I approached his memorial with a sense of both excitement and obligation. Institutions define themselves by legacies of excellence, and Hobsbawm embodied, all his own, such a legacy for the New School. His titanic intellect defined a whole era of the New School, and I was eager to hear more about the cause of our collective pride.
By the same token, I knew embarrassingly little about the man we were honoring, given the break-neck pace of scholarly fashion. I came of age intellectually in the 1990s, when history was taking the “linguistic turn,” graduate students like myself were taught to trust no book more than ten years old, and the grand recit, such as Hobsbawm wove about whole political traditions and epochs, was considered in theory-rich circles something of a fading genre, supplanted by micro-history and deconstructions of the whole notion of grand, collective destinies. Hobsbawm could be appreciated, like Richard Hofstadter and George Mosse, as a master of a waning tradition, still worth reading by virtue of his erudition and insight, no matter how mired in old methods and assumptions. I thus felt the need to pay tribute to giant shoulders on which purportedly more daring ideas now dance.
What I saw and heard at the memorial blew away my small expectations with praise for the bigness of the man and his ideas. Starting with testimonies from his proud children, and running through hyper-articulate tributes from colleagues and comrades, the memorial was a festival of appreciation of a scholar, teacher, and personality of magisterial stature. We in the audience learned, to be sure, of Hobsbawm’s voracious curiosities and uncanny learnedness. We learned also of his endearing character and ethical resolve — his fondness for the grand sentence, jazz clubs after dark, local campaigns for concrete justice, and the minutiae of distant and lost causes, such as European communism. Totally by surprise, the event filled me with an odd nostalgia — for an “old New York” of intellectuals and artists I had mostly only read about, for precisely the master narrative of civilizational destinies, and for a New School that honors, yet ever makes new, the timeless quest for democracy, human rights, and true justice. Therein lay my deepest pride pondering the life and work of Eric Hobsbawm, issuing the obligation to be some small measure of who he was, for our own times.
The memorial, which took place on October 25th at The Auditorium at 66 West 12th Steet, is now a must-see video (above) for the league of dreamers who share in Hobsbawm’s vision of ideas in service of justice. History is full of wins and losses, marvels and mistakes. Taking account of both, as did Hobsbawm, we increase the odds of making miracles. – Jeremy Varon