I call it the newspaper problem: About a decade ago I wrote an essay on contemporary poetry for a newspaper that will remain nameless, and had the occasion to quote a line by “Eliot.” The editor sent back many changes, the most telling of which was that the quotation was now attributed to “the English poet T.S. Eliot.” Vaguely piqued, I asked what the editor was trying to clarify: Was he afraid readers wouldn’t realize the quotation came from a poem? Or was he afraid readers might confuse the Eliot who wrote it with, say, George Eliot, the pseudonymous author of “Middlemarch”? Anyway, I noted that the English qualifier was misleading: Though T.S. Eliot had taken British citizenship, he had been born in America. The editor, then, sent on another suggestion: “the American-born English poet T.S. Eliot.” I, having lost all the patience I had as a 24-year-old, replied by modifying that tag to: “the American-born, British-citizen English-language poet, essayist, dramatist, teacher, publisher and bank teller Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965),” after which the editor finally got the point and canceled the assignment.
Of course, it’s tempting, even now, to keep spinning that description out, into “cuckold, chain smoker, cat fancier and anti-Semite” — not just to have my revenge, but also to demonstrate how culture works, or doesn’t. I can’t help suspecting that if I were writing a decade or so in the future I would be expected — despite all information being findable online — to explain what a “bank teller” or “publisher” was, not to mention what it once meant to write criticism, as opposed to a consumer review.
“Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society” is a new nonfiction diatribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, or (should I say) by the Spanish-language Peruvian novelist, lapsed Catholic, last living public face of the Latin American “boom” and 2010 Nobel laureate in literature Mario Vargas Llosa, the author of over two dozen previous books. The subject of this one is “our” lack: of common culture, or common context, common sets of referents and allusions, and a common understanding of who or what that pronoun “our” might refer to anymore, now that even papers of record have capitulated to individually curated channels and algorithmicized feeds. “Notes” begins with a survey of the literature of cultural decline, focusing on Eliot’s “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,” before degenerating into a series of squibs — on Islam, the Internet, the pre-eminence of sex over eroticism and the spread of the yellow press — most of which began as columns in the Spanish newspaper El País. All of which is to say that Vargas Llosa’s cranky, hasty manifesto is made of the very stuff it criticizes: journalism.
Vargas Llosa’s opening essay reduces its Eliotic ur-text to its crassest points, but my own version here must be crasser: After all, I have six browser tabs open, and my phone has been beeping all day. Eliot defines culture as existing in, and through, three different spheres: that of the individual, the group or class, and the entire rest of society. Individuals’ sensibilities affiliate them with a group or class, which doesn’t have to be the one they’re born into. That group or class proceeds to exercise its idea of culture on society as a whole, with the elites — the educated and artists, in Eliot’s ideal arrangement — leveraging their access to the media and academia to influence the tastes of the average citizen, and of the next generation too. As for what forms the individual, it’s the family, and the family, in turn, is formed by the church: “It is in Christianity that our arts have developed,” Eliot writes; “it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have — until recently — been rooted.”
“Until recently” refers to the year of Eliot’s essay’s publication: 1943. Vargas Llosa departs from there, to examine the work of George Steiner, whose 1971 book “In Bluebeard’s Castle” was a direct reply to Eliot, from the perspective of the counterculture, which Steiner and Vargas Llosa define as “post-culture.” In Steiner’s account, which, again, I’ll have to abridge, the post-Napoleonic supremacy of the European bourgeoisie caused culture to fall into tedium and decadence, becoming the outlet for the “transcendence” formerly promised by religion, only now transmuted into the form of “explosive, cataclysmic violence” (the quotes are Vargas Llosa’s). “For Steiner,” Vargas Llosa writes, “European culture did not simply anticipate but it also desired the prospect of a bloody and purging explosion that took shape in revolutions and in two world wars. Instead of stopping these blood baths, culture desired to provoke and celebrate them.” In other words, God died as the last casualty of the Napoleonic Wars, and the wars of the century that followed laid waste to the human. What remains is the reign of what Vargas Llosa calls “the spectacle”: techno-entertainment, and capital.
So, a history that begins with Eliot’s Anglo-American expatriate striving proceeds through refugee German-Jewish anxiety and ends with the communist, poststructuralist French: Guy Debord. Now we’re ready for what used to be called, with colonial scorn, the margins, the fringes: South America. But instead of pointing out that the most interesting literary culture on the planet, post-1968, was being made by Cortázar (Argentina), Donoso (Chile), Fuentes (Mexico), García Márquez (Colombia), Puig (Argentina) and, hey, himself, Vargas Llosa instead mourns the lack of an audience, as if novels ever could, or should, make the same box office as a blockbuster.
It’s here, in the essay “The Civilization of the Spectacle,” that Vargas Llosa falls into contradiction — exhorting more people to read more, even while decrying the deleterious effects of “democratization”:
“This is a phenomenon born of altruism: Culture could no longer be the patrimony of an elite; liberal and democratic society had a moral obligation to make culture accessible to all, through education and through promoting and supporting the arts, literature and other cultural expression. This commendable philosophy has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life, justifying superficial form and content in works on the grounds of fulfilling a civic duty to reach the greatest number.”
But Vargas Llosa doesn’t stop at that. Later in this essay he notes: “It is not surprising therefore that the most representative literature of our times is ‘light,’ easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be — as its primary and almost exclusive objective — entertaining.” And if you need more to file under the Grumpy Old Novelists rubric: “Chefs and fashion designers now enjoy the prominence that before was given to scientists”; “The vacuum left by the disappearance of criticism has been filled, imperceptibly, by advertising”; “Today . . . people usually play sports at the expense of, and instead of, intellectual pursuits”; “Today, the mass consumption of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, crack, heroin, etc., is a response to a social environment that pushes men and women towards quick and easy pleasure.”
Even if Vargas Llosa is correct, there’s a difference between being correct and being stylish. The psychology’s too obvious, applicable equally to a novelist as to a reader: To complain about the death of culture is to complain about dying yourself. It’s a displacement of mortality. Vargas Llosa turns 80 next year. I take no joy in kicking an old man when he’s down. I’d rather reread his earlier books, and remember how his character Zavalita expressed rage — expressed Vargas Llosa’s previously productive rage — in “Conversation in the Cathedral”: “He was like Peru, Zavalita was,” Vargas Llosa wrote there, because Peru and Zavalita had both screwed up (though he uses a stronger expression) “somewhere along the line.”
But where? When? Vargas Llosa’s novels have never hesitated to traffic in the same high-low blend he now bemoans. It’s impossible to think of the way the narration is split among cadets at a military school in “The Time of the Hero,” or the way the teeming jungle causes timelines to mix in “The Green House,” without thinking of film; it’s impossible to recall Vargas Llosa’s stint as a TV talk-show host without finding its fictionalization in “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” later adapted for the screen itself; “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” and “Death in the Andes” owe much of their plotting to noir. And then there’s the lowest, the nadir: politics. Vargas Llosa, abjuring the inevitable socialism of his youth, ran unsuccessfully as a pro-American candidate for the Peruvian presidency in 1990; “The Feast of the Goat” and “The Dream of the Celt” are rife with intellectuals who deign the compromises of diplomacy, and dine out on the laden tables of neoliberalism.
In novels like “The War of the End of the World” and “The Storyteller” — the former set during the Canudos conflict, just as slavery came to an end in Brazil, the latter set among the Machiguenga of the Peruvian rain forest — Vargas Llosa had no trouble juxtaposing native cultures with the conquest’s importations. He has always believed that one tradition can, and does, reinforce the other, but it seems that his belief gutters out when the indigenous becomes the popular. After all, to be an Amazonian chief is to be a legend to your tribe alone, but to be a famous Latin American novelist is to be paparazzied for your foibles. About a week before “Notes on the Death of Culture” was published, Vargas Llosa left his wife of 50 years for Isabel Preysler, a Filipino-born Spanish socialite, model and former beauty queen known as the Pearl of Manila, and as the ex-wife of Julio Iglesias. Vargas Llosa announced their relationship on his official Twitter account, and sold photos and the “exclusive” story to Hola! magazine, reportedly for 850,000 euros. My favorite headline read: “Enrique Iglesias’ Mom Just Broke Up the Marriage of Nobel Winner Mario Vargas Llosa, 79.” Since the scandal broke, his numbers have been up, in English and in Spanish, on the only Amazon that people seem to care about. Culture is how we pass the time between hypocrisies.
NOTES ON THE DEATH OF CULTURE
Essays on Spectacle and Society
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Edited and translated by John King
227 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.