Notes on the Death of Culture
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by John King
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud describes the essential characteristic of civilization as “its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities—his intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements—and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life.” Mario Vargas Llosa believes that ideas have lost this leading role, that they no longer matter as they once did. “Today,” he writes in Notes on the Death of Culture, “images have primacy over ideas.” Ours is an impatient world of perpetual distractions, and just as we now prefer images to ideas, so we also prefer instantaneous judgment to contemplation, information to knowledge, and mere amusement to true happiness. Culture is dead, Vargas Llosa claims, and entertainment has taken its place.
Before stating his own arguments about the death of culture, Vargas Llosa examines several books that have already considered the issue, including Notes Towards the Definition of Culture by T. S. Eliot, In Bluebeard’s Castle by George Steiner, and The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. In his brief survey of these books, Vargas Llosa summarizes their main ideas and establishes a useful context for his own book. He then draws the following conclusion:
The great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce, or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic, and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture is now dead, although it still survives in small social enclaves, without any influence on the mainstream.
In other words, Vargas Llosa believes that we are living in the period of cultural vacancy that Eliot anticipated in 1948. Notes on the Death of Culture is his eloquent and impassioned response to this dire situation. It is a fierce admonishment of the frivolous and vapid elements of our society, a refined assault on contemporary literature, art, music, film, sports, politics, religion, and journalism. In prose that is fervent yet articulate, he laments the crucial things we have lost in our endeavor to be entertained.
One of these things is the public intellectual, a figure that was essential to culture from its beginnings but is now nearly nonexistent. Instead, we have the celebrity: a person who is famous for superficial reasons and who holds undeserved sway over the lives of average citizens. (A glance at who is currently running for president shows how dangerous the veneration of celebrities can be, and just how urgent the need for public intellectuals is, especially in politics.) The concept of the intellectual is often derided in today’s society, due in part to the failures of certain intellectuals in previous generations (e.g., their sympathies for totalitarianism), but also to rampant philistinism and an associated attitude of anti-elitism that encourages conformity in the name of democratization. Vargas Llosa summarizes it well:
We wanted to put an end to elites, which we found morally repugnant because the very word itself seemed to speak of privilege, contempt, and discrimination, at odds with our egalitarian ideals....But we have achieved a pyrrhic victory, a cure worse than the disease: we now live in a world of confusion, in which, paradoxically, since there is now no way of knowing what culture is, then everything is culture and nothing is.
In a challenge to the present mandate of political correctness, Vargas Llosa reminds us that to have true culture we must be able to make distinctions between the high and the low, the refined and the crude. But we are wary of this idea, and rightly so, for we have seen the effects of misguided discrimination and the horrific injustices that can occur when one society deems itself to be superior to others. It is not surprising, then, that we have adopted an attitude of uncritical acceptance toward anything that might be considered cultural, and that we persist in this attitude even when it leads to decadence. In our efforts to ensure social equality, we have imposed a doctrine of cultural equivalency in which all value judgments are forbidden. We maintain, as Vargas Llosa describes it, “a huge prejudice based on the desire to abolish, once and for all, all prejudices with regard to culture.”
Notes on the Death of Culture attempts to expose this prejudice and to rekindle an authentic interest in our cultural traditions. It is a provocative and controversial book that deserves to be discussed and debated at length, for if Vargas Llosa’s claims about the decline of culture are incorrect or exaggerated, then it is important that we disprove them; if they are legitimate—and I believe that many of them are—then we must make an effort to improve.
In his inspiring Nobel Prize acceptance speech (“In Praise of Reading and Fiction”), Vargas Llosa lists the authors that were of especial significance to him as a developing writer. Cervantes, Flaubert, Dickens, Tolstoy, Conrad, and Orwell are mentioned, as is Sartre, from whom he learned “that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history.” But this power of art and this kind of engagement with life are becoming less and less common. The things we take seriously as a society are no longer very serious: “journalism based on gossip and scandal,” professional sports that “function mainly as a pretext for irrationality,” an art world that rewards “illusionists who hide their poverty and emptiness behind counterfeit insolence,” and politics defined by “advertising slogans, clichés, trivia, and the latest fashion or whims,” in which success is achieved by “demagogy and a talent for histrionics.”
Notes on the Death of Culture is not a hopeful book, and to read it is at times a bleak and discouraging experience. But there is hope to be found in the example of Vargas Llosa’s life and writing. The closing words of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, about the importance of fiction, can be applied to culture in general: it “is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human.”
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.