A Culture Warrior Contemplates Defeat

Review: Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘Notes on the Death of Culture’

Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa / Wikimedia Comons

In his 1948 essay, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot argued that the highest levels of culture are only attainable by relatively small groups of people, and that in order for a civilization to sustain high culture a class system of some kind is necessary. Because culture is transmitted primarily through the family and religion—not schools—and because it relies to a large extent on these particular loyalties for its perpetuation, when these institutions fail, "we must expect our culture to deteriorate."

At the risk of over-simplifying Eliot’s argument, one of his basic contentions sounds rather old-fashioned, perhaps even bigoted by today’s standards, that "we can distinguish between higher and lower cultures; we can distinguish between advance and retrogression." This notion flies in the face of multiculturalism, not to say the notion of equality. Yet it’s a necessary premise for his assessment of the state of contemporary culture:

"We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity. I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture."

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According to Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, the culture-less period foreseen 67 years ago by Eliot is the one in which we are all now living. His latest collection of essays, ominously titled, Notes on the Death of Culture, adheres to Eliot’s understanding of culture as "not merely the sum of several activities but a way of life"—one that recognizes a shared heritage of ideas and principles, religious and philosophical knowledge, and standards in art and literature. This way of life, Vargas Llosa argues, has never been attainable for everyone. Throughout history, "there were cultured and uncultured people and, between those two extremes, there were people who were more or less cultured and more or less uncultured, and this classification was quite clear the world over because there was a shared system of values and cultural criteria, and shared ways of thinking, judging and behaving."

So much for all that. We’re now living in what Vargas Llosa calls "the civilization of the spectacle," an era characterized by the replacement of ideals, principles, and intellectual life with images, gestures, and a "universal prevailing frivolity … where everything is appearance, theatre, play and entertainment." This transformation, he says, has affected every part of society: art, music, journalism, politics—even sex, which in the era of the spectacle "has become a sport or pastime, a shared activity that is no more important, perhaps less important, than going to the gym, or dancing or football." Stripped of all taboo, all mystery and privacy, eroticism, "which turns the act of sex into a work of art," has become impossible in the civilization of the spectacle, replaced by "purely instinctive and animal sex. It meets a biological need, but it does not enrich the life of the senses and emotions and it does not bring couples closer together, beyond the sexual coupling."

The degradation of human experience and endeavor is the defining feature of our era, according to Vargas Llosa. One can see its effects everywhere in public life: politicians more concerned with appearances and slogans than ideas and convictions, journalists are drawn to scandal and gossip, and readers prefer entertainment and titillation over information and analysis. Vargas Llosa has special disdain for the contemporary art world, populated in his view by celebrity charlatans like Damien Hirst, whose purely sensational work (for example, a shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde) is the very embodiment of form over substance. He argues that the disappearance of aesthetic standards is to blame for the sorry state of the art world, which now produces supposedly "daring" artists like Chris Ofili, who made his reputation by using elephant dung as a medium and producing, for example, a piece featuring the Virgin Mary surrounded by pornographic photos.

The disappearance—or rather, the deliberate dismantling—of standards is the chief source of the decay Vargas Llosa sees in our culture. It’s tempting to accuse him of suffering from some form of golden age syndrome—the belief that everything was better in some bygone era and that the present day is the nadir of civilization—but that would be to dismiss out of hand his central thesis, which isn’t easily refuted.

There is no question that standards have been deliberately rejected in much of what we consider cultural activities. Yet without some kind of aesthetic or intellectual hierarchy, mastery of any medium becomes impossible, and without mastery there can be no masterpieces, no great cultural achievements. Instead of masterworks we get the crass sensationalism of Hirst. By contrast, Vargas Llosa points to the French painter Georges Seurat, whose Bathers at Asnières and Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Jatte are true masterpieces, as the kind of artist we no longer produce (or at least no longer celebrate or patronize). An exhibit at the Royal Academy in London traced Seurat’s two years of work and preparation, between 1883 and 1884, on Bathers. The end result, writes Vargas Llosa, is a work that embodies not just formal perfection but the very essence and idea of high culture:

"This tranquility, this balance and this secret harmony between man and water, cloud and sailboat, costume and oars, are certainly manifestations of a total command of the medium, the sureness of line, and the use of colour, all achieved by dint of effort; but they also represent an elevated and noble conception of the art of painting as a means of spiritual fulfilment and a source of pleasure in and of itself, in which painting is understood as its own best reward, a métier in the practice of which one finds meaning and joy."

All of this of course comes at a price. The achievement of Bathers, which Seurat completed at the age of 24, was only possible because of "an attitude, an ethic, a manner of surrendering oneself to the service of an ideal, which a creator must embrace in order to transcend and extend the limits of a tradition, as Seurat did." Culture, in other words, is hard work. It requires tremendous commitment, sacrifice, and no small amount of formal training and education—not just for artists to create lasting works but also for cultured people to recognize and cherish them, to be nourished by them.

The decimation of standards Vargas Llosa so laments, and which has made such commitment impossible, has its roots in the postmodernism of French philosophers like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom advance some version of the claim that reality is subjective; objective reality, or truth, is either unknowable or impossible.

Vargas Llosa singles out one French thinker in particular, Jean Baudrillard, to expound on the problem. Baudrillard was an old acquaintance of Vargas Llosa’s, a fellow student and Leftist radical at the Sorbonne in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Attending a lecture of his some forty years later, Vargas Llosa is dismayed to see that Baudrillard is "focused on an ambitious undertaking: the demolition of what is, and its replacement by a verbose unreality." Specifically, Baudrillard argues something slightly more radical than his fellow postmodernists: "True reality doesn’t exist anymore; it has been replaced by virtual reality, the product of advertising and the media." The inability to distinguish historical events from fiction, truth from media lies and manipulations, is the chief characteristic of what Baudrillard calls an "age of simulacra"—a notion that at first seems not far removed from Vargas Llosa’s civilization of the spectacle. The difference is that Baudrillard believes the age of simulacra has fundamentally transformed human existence and reality itself, making us "mere ghostly automatons … stripped of freedom and knowledge and condemned to die without ever having lived."

Vargas Llosa is a firm believer in reality, without which culture is impossible. Baudrillard and his ilk have made the death of culture possible by asserting a philosophy of unreality, which renders cultural standards arbitrary and therefore meaningless. Vargas Llosa doesn’t say hello to Baudrillard after his lecture or, "remind him of the bygone days of our youth, when ideas and books excited us and he still believed we existed." During those youthful days, Vargas Llosa was a zealous member of the radical Left and supported communist revolutions throughout South America. When he began to see what those revolutions were really about in the late 1960s, particularly in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he renounced Leftist politics and embarked on a journey toward classical liberalism and a kind of eccentric cultural conservatism.

Classical liberalism’s dogged insistence on things like natural law, human equality, and self-evident truths—objective reality—form the backbone of Vargas Llosa’s argument that we’re losing something essential in our rejection of culture as it has been traditionally understood. Readers of Vargas Llosa’s novels might note some parallels here with his dominant literary themes. As a novelist, he has for decades explored the profound disconnection between human aspirations and our ability to fulfill them, as well as the fanatical mind that cannot see reality for what it is. His 1981 novel, The War of the End of the World, grappled with humanity’s intermittent but persistent revolutionary and utopian urges, which always promise to alleviate human suffering but always end up making it much worse. His 2001 novel, The Feast of the Goat, mixed historical fact and fiction to depict the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, a harrowing tale of power, cynicism, and the ways political violence can utterly transform and degrade a society.

It will be too easy, perhaps, for Vargas Llosa’s detractors to scoff at this collection of essays. He can come off as stuffy and out-of-date, and he makes no effort to mask his contempt for the twin doctrines of multiculturalism and moral relativism—sacrosanct among the intelligentsia, who will have as little use for Vargas Llosa’s criticism of culture as they have for his classical liberalism. Like the fanatics of Vargas Llosa’s novels, too many of them are blinded by the fantasy of a perfect world, unable to see things as they really are.

That’s a shame, because the stakes could not be higher. As culture gives way to mere entertainment, and the ideas that allowed us to shake off authoritarianism and safeguard liberty dissolve in a toxic brew of cynicism and frivolity, do we have the will and desire to sustain our civilization? The enemies of civilization have not, after all, disappeared. From Iran to Russia to the enclaves of the Islamic State, barbarism and oppression are enjoying something of a renaissance. These regimes, like the sovereigns of old, still believe that literature and the arts are dangerous enough to censor, that high culture carries within it the seeds of rebellion because its fruits declare the great self-evident truth: all men are created equal.

Culture is not frivolous in those parts of the world. It is a powerful force, perhaps more powerful than any other. The question is, do we still believe that? And if the answer is no, then how long can we survive?