The Invention of Tradition (Canto Classics) Paperback – 29 Mar 2012
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'The most stimulating history book which has come my way this year …'. History Today --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
This book addresses the complex interaction of past and present, bringing together historians and anthropologists in a fascinating study of ritual and symbolism which poses new questions for the understanding of our history.
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If you're going to write an academic work, footnotes and all, for the "educated layman", you'd better be a good writer, lively and stylish, as well as a good academic. From that point of view, the essays in this collection are very uneven, ranging from the occasionally tongue-in-cheek polish of Hugh Trevor-Roper (on the invention of the Highland Tradition in Scotland) to the convoluted and occasionally asyntactic sentences of Prys Morgan (on "the hunt for the Welsh past"). The one invites you on an enthralling voyage of discovery, the other requires you to wade through a viscous Sargasso Sea. Nonetheless, both journeys are well worth undertaking, as are the others in the collection.
But perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is that it encourages us to reflect in general, quite aside from the specific examples studied, on the human need for a link to the past and evidence of superiority, if not now, then at least in a prior Golden Age. If human communities divide the world into "them" and "us", how do they define who "we" are? And what makes "us" special? On the lines of Voltaire's famous comment that "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." we are forced to the conclusion that if a national history and culture do not exist, it is necessary to invent them. (A process traced also by Y. Nevo and myself in our study of the early history of the Umayyad State). It appears that the need to define one's community as valid -- by reference to an historic past -- is most acute when that community is only just established or is in decline. The lessons of this book should be kept in mind when reading the history of any nation.
Hobsbawm's take is that the fabricators were the 'bourgeoisie' (capitalists) and the workers who 'have no country' were thus manipulated to create uniform 'national' markets and will soon be 'betrayed' further by global capitalism as markets widen. Informed views which are less committed to the 'modernist thesis' in general and Marxism in particular are the prolific AD Smith's Nationalism and Modernism and Tom Nairn's more populist Faces of Nationalism.
One of the essays, Hugh Trevor-Roper's essay on the Highlands, had a life of its own in the debate on Scottish devolution. The idea in its starkest form was that 'highland dress' - having been abolished in one version in 1746 following the second Jacobite rebellion - was 'in fact' not invented until the 1780s, perhaps on the inspiration of an English factory owner. Turnbull & Beveridge's response in Scotland After Enlightenment was that there were obviously several forms of dress at issue and that, although witty, the point was not really relevant to a practical civic project of democratic renewal.
A notable limitation is the predominance of historians: there's nothing from social psychology for example. All in all, I found the book worth reading, but one-sided and tendentious in its selection of contributors and facts.
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