Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes On The Death Of Culture

Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru’s most successful novelist, and perhaps the living Latin American writer with the widest international following. English readers gained access to his most recent non-fiction book, Notes On The Death Of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, in 2015, but it first appeared, in Spanish, in 2012, on the heels of his 2010 victory of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Its Spanish title, La Civilización del Espectáculo (The Civilization of Spectacle), drops the overt reference to T.S. Eliot’s famous essay “Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture,” but gives a clearer idea of Llosa’s thesis: spectacle – mere entertainment – has replaced culture in Western society, with the disastrous consequence that “images have primacy over ideas.” In these “Notes,” he fleshes out the causes and consequences of that shift, from the decline of literature as a socially impactful art form to the trivialization of politics through its increasing subservience to entertainment.

The first thing to do, when discussing culture, is define exactly what one means by the term. Sociologists, anthropologists, theologians and philosophers alike all use the word “culture,” but they have in mind different concepts. Our culture has died, Llosa argues, in part because we have failed to draw meaningful distinctions between these varying concepts. “Culture has now become exclusively accepted in its anthropological definition. That is, culture is all the manifestations of the life of a community: its language, beliefs, habits and customs, clothing, skills and, in short, everything that is exercised, avoided, respected or hated in that community.” The impulse that did our culture in was essentially democratic: we recognized that all peoples have a culture, and we declined to draw meaningful distinctions between them. Consider the fate of Amy Wax, a law professor who co-authored an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture,” which lamented the loss of such middle-class values as thrift, temperance, and a focus on education; the most controversial passage committed the heresy of noticing that different cultures do not produce equal life outcomes for their adherents:

The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.

Wax has been widely denounced, with petitions circulated calling for her termination, for the crime of making distinctions between cultures. Political correctness, which Llosa recently described as “the enemy of freedom,” forbids such observations. But there’s another worthwhile distinction to be made, between what used to be called “high” and “low” culture. The very terms presuppose a value system that strikes most of us, today, as elitist, and so the logic of what Llosa terms “the democratization of culture” has forced us to flatten all distinctions between art forms. After all, the cultural products that appeal to the widest array of people are, almost by definition, the least difficult, least demanding: movies replace books, rock and rap music replace classical or orchestral music, and the tendency, even within these new mediums, is towards entertainment rather than enlightenment or edification.

Light literature, along with light cinema and light art, give the reader and the viewer the comfortable impression that they are cultured without having to make the slightest intellectual effort. Culture that purports to be avant-garde and iconoclastic instead offers conformity in its worst forms: smugness and self-satisfaction.

What are the Oscars if not one lengthy display of smugness and self-satisfaction, and what has Hollywood become if not a purveyor of cheap entertainments and empty platitudes, dressed up as profundities? Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, though not explicitly mentioned by Llosa, exemplifies one of the most baleful influences of entertainment: its encroachment into political life. Late night comedy has become dominated by political talk, once the exclusive domain of news media, and news media has responded by imitating the glamour and glitz of late night – to the detriment of both.

It is also not by chance that, whereas in the past politicians on the campaign trail wanted to be photographed and appear side by side with eminent scientists and playwrights, today they look for support and entertainment from rock singers, movie actors, and football and other sports stars. Such figures have replaced intellectuals as arbiters of the political consciousness of middle and popular sectors. They present manifestos and read them at the hustings, and they appear on television preaching what is good and evil in economic, political and social spheres. In the civilization of the spectacle, the comedian is king.

Those, on the Left and the Right, who lament America’s “reality tv president” would do well to heed Llosa’s words, for the culture that trivializes itself cannot help but trivialize politics as well. Oprah, we now hear, is considering a 2020 campaign run.

There are extended meditations on the decline of literary criticism, both in quality and in influence, that echo sentiments I have expressed on this blog in the past: that the new generation of critics take it for granted that literature is hopelessly subjective, with little of importance to say about the wider world, or our place in it, and that this foundational ethos dooms them to irrelevance, for if literature is nothing more than subjective opinion, what good is literary criticism? Opinions on opinions, without profit.

There is a complete incongruity in critical thinking that starts out proclaiming the essential inability of literature to have an influence on life (or be influenced by life) and to transmit truths of any kind related to the human condition and then to spend so much time painstakingly breaking down, often with insufferably pretentious intellectual flourishes, these artefacts comprised of useless words.

Even more interesting, because more novel, is Llosa’s argument about the death of eroticism. We are inundated with sex, in advertising and in entertainment, and our very over-exposure, he contends, is dulling us to the sensuousness of the truly erotic, which depends, for its function, on mystery (and therefore privacy) and a measure of transgression (and therefore rules and taboos, without which there is nothing to transgress).

Unrestricted freedom, the abandonment of all theatre and convention in the activity of sex, has not enriched the pleasure and happiness that we humans experience through sex. It has rather contributed to making it banal, converting physical love, one of the most fertile and enigmatic sources of humanity, into a mere pastime.

The mechanized sex of pornography is indeed banal, and in our age it no longer possesses the frisson of the illicit – and yet it is everywhere, offering many a young boy and girl their first glimpse of human sexuality.

This book is not an extended meditation on the subject of culture or its demise, nor does it take the time to fully develop its own thesis; it is, indeed, a collection of notes, of passing thoughts and laments. And yet it is also perceptive, persuasive, and cogently argued, eulogizing what we once had and have so hastily cast aside for the promise of a more democratic future that has yet to materialize.