Featured Reviews, VOLUME 8

Mario Vargas Llosa – Notes on the Death of Culture [Review]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0374123047″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/51z135qpZwL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”221″]The Death of Elite Culture?

A Review of 

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society
Mario Vargas Llosa.

Hardback: FSG Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

*** This review originally appeared in our quarterly, print magazine ***
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T. S. Eliot wrote nearly seven decades ago: “Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith.” Eliot’s point was made again by European thinkers and church leaders in 2002-03 when the EU constitution was drafted without any mention of faith. Whenever such discussions arise, I always find it strange that the heritage of bloody violence, anti-Semitism and antipathy toward women and minorities that are also central to the cultural heritage of Christianity in the West go unacknowledged.

I also think that most bemoaning about the present, wishing it were more like the past, is sure to find willing ears, but is also just as assuredly a waste of time. Where Eliot was somewhat prophetic seventy years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Spanish novelist and winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, comes across as a crank in his new book, Notes on the Death of Culture, which isn’t concerned so much with the loss of Christianity in culture as the loss of a cultural elite.

Vargas Llosa is bothered by the fact that civilization is now defined by, as he calls it, “the spectacle,” or, entertainment. More noble values such as cultural literacy, political awareness and certain virtues gained by reading of serious books, are slowly fading away. This is largely true, and I, too, am worried as I watch it happen. But I wouldn’t protest or cry as loudly about the transformation as he does. For one thing, I think the evidence for cultural change is always selective, and often spurious. But more importantly and more honestly, I don’t have that much to lose.

To certain literati of an older generation, culture was guided, benevolently and grandly, by a guarded elite. Their literary journals and endowed lectureships nurtured them. They were honored for their ability, so they believed, to think disinterestedly about the meaning of life, art and beauty. The Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa has a lot to lose, most of all, his standing; what is a great writer without the respect he craves? He writes from the perspective of one from whom something precious and personal has been snatched away. How dare the Oprah Winfrey Show, he cries at one point, decide the success of a book, in the way that the critic Edmund Wilson once did with an essay in The New Yorker or The New Republic?

He frequently resorts to straw man arguments not unlike those heard all the time in newsrooms, university offices and publishing houses, where pride and standing are always being battered by new media:

The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn. Tolstoy, Thomas Mann…wrote books that looked to defeat death, outlive their authors and continue attracting and fascinating readers in the future. Brazilian soaps, Bollywood movies and Shakira concerts do not look to exist any longer than the duration of their performance (20-21).

But you can’t pit serious literature against pop culture and pretend to be making a true comparison. There was plenty of chaff that blew away in the 1860s in Russia (and England and France, etc.) as well, when so many people were reading War and Peace. And don’t tell me that the millions who read Tolstoy during his lifetime didn’t also visit the cabaret, follow the gossip and drink on occasion simply to get drunk. Interestingly, in England at the same time, Charles Dickens breaks down many of these divisions. Were his hugely-popular novels high culture or low? Take your pick.

Vargas Llosa does the same thing again—offers a spurious argument—a few pages later, suggesting that today we too easily conflate a “culture-world” (of what was once Wagner’s operas and Hitchcock’s films, to his taste), with the “mass culture” of brands and advertisements that fill our daily lives today. Here, as often happens, he is simply unable to see the transient difference between generations and stages of life.

Twenty year olds will do what twenty year olds do. They always have and always will. None of their fads and interests will bring serious things to their knees, any more than the legalization of gay marriage in any way threatens the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. It also seems to me that what usually goes unacknowledged in this fake debate is how much longer, relatively speaking, we have today to be twenty than we used to. There are no longer as many twenty year-olds getting engaged and starting seminary, as I did at that age. They don’t feel the urgency to become like their parents, as I once did, primarily because they see what their parents have become. There is also the simple issue of the lengthening of human life by twenty-first century First World medicine: we live too long. Combine that with the disappearance of jobs with pensions and the urgency of one’s twenties has now been replaced by the obligation to keep earning a living in one’s seventies…and eighties. What’s the hurry?

Vargas Llosa goes on (further evidence that you really don’t need to read this book) to complain that even drug use is no longer reserved for elites and artists. He actually puts it that way, remembering when drugs were for “elites and small, marginal sectors, such as bohemian, artistic and literary circles.” Instead, can you believe it, that today, “drugs are not used to explore new sensations or visions for scientific or artistic purposes. They are not an expression of rebellion against established norms by nonconformists…”(9)? Someone. Shut. This. Now Privileged. Hippie. Up. Please.

Several chapters later and we are treated to “The Disappearance of Eroticism.” You guessed it: in his day there was romance and erotic seduction. In ours, there are only underage pregnancies and masturbation. If you think I’m kidding, here’s a representative quote: “How many things have changed since my childhood when the Salesian Fathers and the La Salle Brothers—who ran the schools I went to—scared us with the idea that ‘improper touching’ produced blindness, tuberculosis and madness. Six decades later we have jerking-off classes in schools. Now that is progress” (76).

We’ve recently come to realize that the demise of Christendom has been going on for about two hundred years now. Hegemony is long gone. Just as assuredly, we no longer have one culture but many, and everyone is some sort of specialist. I agree with the Great Writer that our devotion to entertainment is screwing us up. It is making us not only dumber but less virtuous, I believe. But I’m not sorry to see the death of Culture for the Few.

Jon M. Sweeney lives in Vermont, is the editorial director at Franciscan Media, and the author of The Complete Francis of Assisi, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, Inventing Hell, and The Pope Who Quit, recently optioned by HBO.


*** This review originally appeared in our quarterly, print magazine ***
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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