In his essay “Culture and Anarchy,” Matthew Arnold defines culture “as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.” Those in pursuit of human perfection—those who aim to be enriched and ennobled by art, literature, science, and philosophy—incline naturally towards what Arnold famously called “sweetness and light.”
Almost a hundred and fifty years on that sweetness has soured, that light has been crudely snuffed out for the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Anarchy, or at least philistinism, has triumphed over culture. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society is a provocative essay collection on the fast decline of intellectual life, and one that manages the dual feat of shedding light while spreading gloom. As with the artful Freudian wink in the title of Mohsin Hamid’s recent collection Discontent and Its Civilizations, Vargas Llosa’s title is a sly reworking of another seminal title, namely T. S. Eliot’s 1948 essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The six essays that comprise Notes on the Death of Culture can be taken as a response to, or even an update on, Eliot’s argument.
“I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further,” Eliot wrote, adding that we may anticipate a period “of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.” For Vargas Llosa that time is now. His first essay, “The Civilization of the Spectacle,” explores how culture—once a vital, stimulating, edifying force—has been reduced to nothing more than light entertainment. Light literature, light art, and light cinema preponderate; reader and viewer can consume any or all with little intellectual effort. Critics are a dying breed. Fifty years ago Edmund Wilson would make or break a book in The New Yorker: “Now The Oprah Winfrey Show makes these decisions.” Comparisons between the golden past and the tawdry present continue: quality journalism has given way to lifestyle magazines; books are being eclipsed by television and the Internet; and while the Ancient Greeks saw the cultivation of the body and the spirit as mutually beneficial, nowadays we usually play sports “at the expense of, and instead of, intellectual pursuits.”
In case we haven’t gotten the message, the second essay here, “A Brief Discourse on Culture,” rams it home. Culture isn’t moribund, “it has disappeared. It has become an ungraspable, multitudinous and figurative ghost.” Vargas Llosa means high culture has gone. Thanks to the “massification” or “democratization” of culture, we can all claim to be cultured even if we have never read a book, listened to a symphony, or attended an art gallery. Eliot said that “higher culture” is the domain of an elite. Vargas Llosa is in favor of putting an end to “morally repugnant” elites which are at variance with our egalitarian ideals. In doing so, however, we achieve “a pyrrhic victory” whereby we dumb down and become too all-inclusive: “everything is culture and nothing is.”
We could argue that complaints about falling cultural standards are nothing new. Culture has declined and society has gone to the dogs in every age. An artistic charlatan, also-ran, or persona non grata in one era is rehabilitated as a pioneering creative genius in the next. Rather than acknowledge this, Vargas Llosa spends time on mourning what we have supposedly lost. He gets back on track when turning his attention from ruined culture in general to specific vitiating factors. In “Forbidden to Forbid,” we get a reasoned but impassioned assault on the “conceptual foolery and obscurity of expression” unleashed by French postmodern theorists. Their form of cultural criticism he sees as deliberately arcane and jargon-heavy, “esoteric, pretentious and often devoid of originality and depth.” As such, it has contributed to making the culture of our time “frivolous.”
This attack on key pupils of what Harold Bloom has called the School of Resentment is amusingly scathing. “Frivolous” seems unapt here, but it is a word that is repeated throughout the book, reappearing as a kind of leitmotif, and one that acquires a deeper, more powerful resonance elsewhere. And yet at one juncture in the essay “The Disappearance of Eroticism,” Vargas Llosa runs the risk of rendering his own argument frivolous. Citing a change to the Spanish school curriculum in which sex education for fourteen-year-olds will include masturbation workshops, Vargas Llosa, his curiosity piqued, goes on to list a number of questions: “Do they take notes? Do they have examinations? What feats will students need to achieve to get a good grade and what fiascos would warrant a fail mark?” He assures us that he is still in serious-mode (“I am not joking”) and that he has no moral reservations about this initiative (his worry is that such workshops will trivialize sex), but nonetheless his questions, particularly those about “tactile dexterity” and “the speed, quantity and consistency” of orgasms come across as at best facetious—or frivolous—and at worst inane.
He returns to safer ground by expounding on how eroticism (neatly defined as “physical love stripped of animality”) marks a high point of civilization, and later by examining the interaction between culture and politics, analyzing along the way the extent to which the former has devalued the latter. The best he saves for last. “The Opium of the People” begins with hard facts: religion lies at the heart of all recent global conflict; belief in a supreme being and in an afterlife forms part of every known culture and civilization. With this in mind, Vargas Llosa moves on to ask if our undying interest in religion and our upheld faith in God (still alive and kicking despite the evangelizing efforts of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) is good or bad for culture and for freedom.
In essence he wants the best of both worlds, the preservation of secularism (“fundamental to the survival and improvement of democracy”) and an intense spiritual life, with religious education in state schools giving each generation the basic tools to understand their history and appreciate art and literature. Cutting out this “rich inheritance” results in delivering young ignorant learners “bound hand and foot, to the civilization of the spectacle, to”—that word again—“frivolity.”
Vargas Llosa is consistently adept at showing us both sides of the coin, causes and effects, the rough and the smooth. He concedes that culture can be a “pleasing pastime” but argues that if it is only this then the concept becomes debased and is transformed into a cheap catch-all term that apportions equal weight to a Verdi opera and a Rolling Stones concert. Muckraking journalism is “a perverse stepchild of the culture of freedom”; that said, for as long as we want to champion freedom of speech it remains a necessary evil we must put up with.
Not all of Vargas Llosa’s arguments stand up. He writes off Damien Hirst as “an extraordinary purveyor of con tricks” yet lauds his forebear Marcel Duchamp—“clearly a genius.” One man’s shark in formaldehyde is not art but “counterfeit insolence.” The other’s urinal passes muster for having “the virtue of being provocative.” Disjointed and slightly fogyish opinions of modern art give way to sweeping statements about the future of literature. “Of course the Web can store Proust, Homer, Popper and Plato,” he writes, “but it would be difficult to imagine that their work will have many digital readers.” Would it? Are classic authors incongruous with modern technology, overlooked by digital readers?
Vargas Llosa is on far better form when discussing literature and its continuing moral importance in the collection’s closing segment. At times his liberal political standpoint on multicultural issues (immigration, the Islamic veil in classrooms) feels more considered than his periodic hidebound views on cultural topics. There is no denying, however, that his frequent acerbic digs are as welcome as his piercing insight. Hirst, the parvenu fraudster, is felled from his plinth. Reading the “obscurantist prose” and “asphyxiating literary or philosophical analyses” of Jacques Derrida has been “a miserable waste of time.” Julian Assange is an “Internet dowser” who is the “emblematic symbol of a culture where the supreme value of information has become that of amusing a foolish and superficial public thirst for scandals.”
As we read these essays two thoughts gradually take shape. The first is that Vargas Llosa repeats himself. An opinion in one essay is rehashed in a subsequent essay. Sometimes this repetition has the ring of a resounding echo; at other times, particularly when the viewpoint is strident, the effect is that of a man beating a drum. The second discovery is that when Vargas Llosa bewails this frivolous age he starts to resemble the eponymous culture-vulture protagonist of his 1997 novel The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, a man who takes refuge from the barbarism of the world in his book-lined, art-bedecked study. Rigoberto returned earlier this year in the author’s latest novel, The Discreet Hero, only now he sees his study as an inadequate means of protection against “lack of culture, frivolity, stupidity, and emptiness.” Within eighteen years, then, both character and creator have admitted defeat.
And yet towards the end of these intelligent, penetrative, rigorous, but sporadically mournful essays we can detect a glimmer of hope. “There is still time to put things right,” Vargas Llosa declares. His drum is no longer laboring a point but marshaling his readers to take heed. Little does he know, we have been rapt from beginning to end.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 82
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