Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society
by Mario Vargas Llosa; translated by John King
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 227 pages)
The word “culture” gets used in all kinds of ways in today’s culture (see what I did?). Precisely which “culture” is Nobel Prize winning novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa lamenting the death of in this book of critical essays? He speaks not of culture in the broad sense, that is, “as a mere epiphenomenon of social and economic life,” but instead “as an autonomous reality, made up of ideas, aesthetic and ethical values, and works of art and literature that interact with the rest of social existence, and that are often not mere reflections, but rather the wellsprings, of social, economic, political and even religious phenomena” (14). Vargas Llosa is presiding over the funeral of the sort of culture that T. S. Eliot warned was slipping away in 1948 with the publication of his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Eliot, with his conception of “higher culture” is a conversation partner for Vargas Llosa throughout the book.
For Vargas Llosa, higher culture has been all but lost in the thicket of what he calls a “civilization of spectacle.” This civilization, defined as it is by celebrity obsession, reality TV, and professional sports, continually and publicly lays before us the crassest elements of our existence in the name of entertainment. This makes the importance of privacy a constant theme for Vargas Llosa. The privacy of our information, of our sex lives, and of our religious faith are essential to a society in which art and literature can flourish. As he sums it up, “with the disappearance of the realm of the private, many of the best achievements of humanity deteriorate and become degraded, beginning with everything that has safeguarded certain forms including eroticism, love, friendship, modesty, good manners, art and morality” (152).
The critiques of Notes on the Death of Culture are well formed and eloquently articulated. Vargas Llosa’s warnings regarding the consequences of the loss of private information in a digital age, occasioned by an essay lambasting Julian Assange, are particularly important. That said, there is a grumpiness and nostalgia that characterizes these essays. This leads me to suspect that Vargas Llosa’s negative views of contemporary culture, as accurate as they are about its more detestable elements, are at least to some degree a result of being out of touch with the better developments in the various societal and artistic arenas that he critiques. I very much enjoyed these reflections from an eloquent curmudgeon, even if I don’t entirely trust them.