Notes on the Death of Culture

By Mario Vargas Llosa

I don’t think Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, would be at all upset at anyone saying his latest collection of essays on the death of culture is part of a long tradition of such post mortems. Indeed he acknowledges some of his more illustrious precursors in his introduction, flagging T. S. Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture and George Steiner’s re-definition of the same. He doesn’t mention Guelph author Stephen Henighan’s A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, but it’s a worthy representative of the same genre. And this is to name just a few.

It is the nature of culture to feel threatened because it is always evolving – not progressing, but adapting in order to survive in different conditions. For Llosa such an evolution means one thing: “To survive, literature has to become light, irresponsible, and at times idiotic.” To borrow a phrase from Neil Postman, we are amusing ourselves to death, drowning in the “playful banality” of the “civilization of the spectacle.”

The argument here is familiar, setting up a dichotomy between culture and entertainment, the spiritual vs. the vulgar, and the genuine and idealistic vs. the superficial trick of a con job. Culture no longer exists as a timeless and transcendent social “common denominator,” but only as an ephemeral product “like cake or popcorn . . . soap or fizzy drinks.”

Llosa takes this basic dichotomy and gives it various applications: moving from literature to subjects like sex, religion, and politics. Unfortunately he doesn’t have much to say about the Internet, which is not only the most important cultural actor today but one that threatens to swallow everything else. One suspects he doesn’t get online that much.

Not surprisingly, given his background, it is with regard to politics that he is strongest, explaining why a vital, “serious” culture is essential to the functioning of democracy and the future of liberalism.

Yes, this is well-worked ground, but Llosa is a passionate and lively commentator with a clear commitment to the subject. Culture isn’t dead (yet), and it’s nice to know it still has its champions.

Review first published online March 21, 2016.

%d bloggers like this: