Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society BY Mario Vargas Llosa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 240 pages. $23.
The cover of Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the world’s greatest living novelists, but, as Clive James wrote in Cultural Amnesia, his “true strength" is "undoubtedly in the essay. His collected essays written between 1962 and 1982, Contra viento y marea . . . makes the perfect pocket book for getting up to speed with how the bright baby-boom students of Latin America won their way towards a solid concept of liberal democracy.”

Liberal, in this case, is a relative term. In Vargas Llosa’s rich and funny 1993 memoir, A Fish in the Water, which described his 1990 presidential campaign, he wrote, “There was practically no way in which an intellectual of a country such as Peru was able to work, to earn his living, to publish, in a manner of speaking to live as an intellectual, without adopting revolutionary gestures, rendering homage to the socialist ideology, and demonstrating in his public acts—his writings and his civic activities—that he belonged to the left.” Peruvian intellectuals, he said, lived in a “‘moral hemiplegia’ . . . repeating on the one hand, in public, an entire defensive logomachy—a sort of countersign in order to assure their posts within the establishment—which corresponded to no intimate conviction . . . . When one lives in this way, the perversion of thought and language becomes inevitable.”

After more than half a century of a life devoted to literary and intellectual discipline, Vargas Llosa, age seventy-nine, seems to have become a kind of dinosaur. With some deft ju-jitsu, he accepts the label because, “however rarefied the air might become, and life might turn against them, dinosaurs can manage to survive and be useful in difficult times.” Age has not dulled his instincts, it has sharpened them by affording him perspective.

Vargas Llosa has always maintained his status as an independent public intellectual; his philosophical beacon has always been Camus, who broke with the European orthodox left in the early 1950s. Which is why it seems so odd to see him, over the last decade or so, criticized for not upholding a socialist ideal he never espoused in the first place. With Notes on the Death of Culture, a collection of essays on the state of Western arts and thought, he is taking some hits for laying out in detail propositions that he has pretty much maintained over his entire writing career. As readers of his essays (collected in such volumes as Making Waves, Touchstones, and, most recently, The Language of Passion) know, Vargas Llosa has, for years now, been critical of a culture that has lost its sense of eroticism, and has long bemoaned a civilization that has failed to develop moral and civic principles in the wake of the decline of religion. What is unique about Notes on the Death of Culture is that, for the first time, he attempts to weave all aspects of culture into a single polemic.

His central thesis is stated early on: “Culture, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term, is now on the point of disappearing. And perhaps it has already disappeared, discreetly emptied of its content, and replaced by another content that distorts its earlier meaning.” He runs through a number of theories of culture from the previous century that have little similarity, though “they do share a common denominator in so far as they all agree that culture is in deep crisis and is in decline.” In other words, MVL reminds us that the subject of the decline of culture, however one defines it, is not new but has been on the minds of Western intellectuals for some time. T. S. Eliot “states that what he calls ‘higher culture’ is the domain of an elite, and he justifies this by asserting that ‘it is an essential condition of the preservation of the quality of the culture of a minority, that it should continue to be a minority culture.’”

When we read Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture today, Vargas Llosa notes, “it seems to refer to a very remote era, without any connection to the present.” And yet, “the period Eliot is referring to is the one in which we are now living.” He doesn’t endorse Eliot’s concept of high culture, but is sympathetic to certain aspects of it. He agrees with Eliot, for instance, that high culture is not just a province of the upper class: “Eliot’s idea of class is not rigid or impermeable; rather it is open. A person from one class can move up or down a class, and it is good that this happens, even though it is an exception rather than the rule.” He is also sympathetic to George Steiner’s 1971 essay In Bluebeard’s Castle, which shares some qualities with Eliot’s definition of culture, “but without Eliot’s narrow defence of ‘Christian discipline’.”

Neither Eliot nor Steiner, though, tickles Vargas Llosa’s intellect as much as Guy Debord, the radical French Situationist whose “central thesis is that in modern industrial society, where capitalism has triumphed and the working class has been (at least temporarily) defeated, alienation—the illusion of a lie that has become a truth—has taken over social existence.” The spectacle, Debord says, giving Vargas Llosa the basis for his subtitle, “is the effective dictatorship of illusion in modern society.” MVL further elucidates: “The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of a scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion.”

Vargas Llosa brings into the argument Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy’s La cultura-mundo (“Culture-World”), a study of the concept of “globalized” culture, and Cultura Mainstream by the sociologist Frédéric Martel, which Vargas Llosa calls “fascinating and terrifying in its description of the ‘entertainment culture’ that has replaced almost everywhere what scarcely a half century ago was understood as culture.” Martel, in particular, strikes a nerve. He paraphrases his thesis—that “the entertainment enjoyed by the vast majority of people . . . has been replacing (and will end up finishing off) the culture of the past”—and sounds it as a warning.

It seems to me some critics are either willfully misinterpreting what Vargas Llosa is saying or missing the point altogether. Hannah McGill wrote in The Independent that Vargas Llosa “here joins the sad ranks of commentators who, unable to tolerate the inevitable fact that tastes, priorities and technologies have undergone change in the course of their lifetimes, decide instead that ‘everything has just got worse.’” Her summary of his message: “People made new stuff! It’s different from the old stuff! How dare they!” Is it possible that McGill has read anything in Vargas Llosa’s vast oeuvre (up to and including his most recent novel, The Discreet Hero, as humorous and optimistic a book as one is likely to find this year) and come to the conclusion that his point is “everything has just got worse”?

This strikes me as an attempt to dismiss what he is saying without having to deal with it. His central idea doesn’t need paraphrasing: “The idea of culture,” he writes, “has broadened to such an extent that, although nobody would dare to state this explicitly, it has disappeared. It has become an ungraspable, multitudinous and figurative ghost. Because nobody is cultured if everyone thinks they are.”

Tolstoy, Joyce, and Faulkner “wrote books that looked to defeat death, outlive their authors and continue attracting and fascinating readers in the future,” Vargas Llosa writes. “Brazilian soaps, Bollywood movies and Shakira concerts,” on the other hand, “do not look to exist any longer than the duration of their performance. They disappear and leave space for other equally successful and ephemeral products. Culture is entertainment and what is not entertaining is not culture.” Vargas Llosa isn’t saying that there shouldn’t be soaps; he is, after all, the author of the hilarious and insightful Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, about a man who makes soap operas based on the master plots of literature. Such popular grist might be the raw material from which art is made, but is not art in and of itself; critics who judge art for its entertainment value are missing the point of art. He is arguing against the stance propounded best by Stephen Colbert, that the marketplace determines what is “best.”

In Salon, Laura Miller writes, “Surely [Vargas Llosa] knows that one reason why the culture of the past seems so much better than today’s is that only the best of it has been remembered and celebrated?” Yes, I’m pretty certain that he knows that, but I’m equally certain that that’s not what he’s talking about. The man who helped discover and define the best literature of the last several decades (including his friend and antagonist, Gabriel García Márquez, whose Nobel Prize MVL helped pave the way for with his critical study, Story of a Deicide) isn’t railing because no country so far in the new century has produced a Flaubert. He’s saying that the rise of “light literature,” “light cinema” and “light art,” all of which “give the reader and the viewer the comfortable impression that they are cultured,” has dulled our senses when it comes to recognizing that new Flaubert. He quotes Nicholas Carr (whose 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Vargas Llosa regards highly): “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

“It remains an instructive paradox,” Vargas Llosa says, “that while in countries that are considered the most cultured, that are also the most free and democratic, literature has become increasingly . . . a trivial entertainment, in countries where freedom is restricted and where human rights are abused on a daily basis, literature is considered dangerous, a vehicle for subversive ideas.”

Vargas Llosa reserves a special circle of hell for the critical establishment—or rather, he bemoans the lack of a current critical establishment (the kind that would include an Edmund Wilson or a Lionel Trilling, whom he singles out for praise). Criticism, he says, has been retreating into the academy: “It is true that the more serious newspapers and journals still publish reviews of books, exhibitions and concerts, but does anyone read these solitary paladins who try to map a scale of value onto the tangled jungle that contemporary culture has become? . . . Now critics are a dying breed, to whom nobody pays attention unless they also turn themselves into a form of entertainment and spectacle.”

“The vacuum left by the disappearance of criticism," Vargas Llosa writes, “has been filled, imperceptibly, by advertising, and advertising is now not just an integral part of cultural life, it is its main vector.” He puts the blame for this not on the broad shoulders of Don Draper but on postmodernist criticism, which has produced “a curious inversion of values: theory . . . came to replace the work of art, to become its own raison d’être. Critics were more important than artists.” This “had the paradoxical effect of distancing cultural criticism from the broad public . . . it has been one of the most important factors in making the culture of our time frivolous.” The deconstructionists “subvert our confidence in any truth, in our belief that logical, ethical, cultural or political truths exist. In the final analysis, nothing exists outside language . . . which is nothing more than a fiction woven of words. From there it is only a small step to state, like Roland Barthes . . . that language is ‘quite simply fascist.’”

In compiling the essays in Notes on the Death of Culture, Vargas Llosa appears to be especially inspired by the final days of Walter Benjamin and Karl Popper: “The image of Walter Benjamin poring over Baudelaire, while the net that would end up choking him”—the Nazis—“was tightening around him, is moving, as is the image of the philosopher Karl Popper who, at the same time, in exile on the other side of the world, in New Zealand, began to learn classical Greek and to study Plato as . . . his personal contribution to the fight against totalitarianism.” They are two examples of committed writers, who, “by writing . . . can resist adversity, act and influence history.” Dinosaurs, if you will, who tried, like Vargas Llosa, to be useful in difficult times.

Allen Barra writes about books and film for the Daily Beast and Salon. He is a columnist for American History.