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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mario Vargas Llosa and Culture

Mario Vargas Llosa and Culture


Vargas Llosa, Mario. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. Ed. and trans.  John King,  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015.


We have had overmuch talk about the crisis of the humanities , and Mario Vargas Llosa has cleverly offered us an alternative  ----  the crisis of culture.  He has dusted off and polished the subject matter of Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy  (1869, 1875) to relieve us of boredom.  In so doing, he doesn't invite us to jog through the Victorian realm of Arnold's sweetness and light; instead, he invites us to surf the contemporary ocean of chaos. His jeu d'esprit is not cheap.  But thanks to John King's lucid translation of La civilización del espectáculo (2012), we can afford the price of the ticket to gawk at the cage wherein Vargas Llosa has sought habitation as if he is truly a Kafkaesque hunger artist.

Shortly after Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Spanish monarch bestowed him with the entitlement to be addressed as "Ilustrisimo Señor Marqués de Vargas Llosa," a gift that has no doubt improved the quality of Spanish nobility.  Being an integral part of Spanish spectacle, Vargas Llosa employs his new aristocracy to lecture us on the death of culture.  Like earlier efforts to announce the Death of God, the Death of the Author, the Death of the Novel, and the Death of Death, this recent broadcast is momentarily enthralling.  Yet, the attempt to persuade us that Walter Benjamin and Karl Popper can serve "as evidence that however rarified the air might become, and life turn against them, dinosaurs can manage to survive and be useful in difficult times" (226) ultimately fails. We are amused but not persuaded when we notice the limits of Vargas Llosa's neoliberalism.

He begins the collage of essays with a swift review of T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), a modernist work that anticipates the postmodernism displayed in Notes on the Death of Culture.  To be fair, we admit that reminders of what Eliot said regarding culture, the individual, the group or class, and the whole society are necessary for specifying the character of Western civilization.  It is from Eliot that Vargas Llosa derives the notion that the democratizing force of education is fracturing and destroying "higher culture."  In this regard, he is in synch with Allan Bloom's lamentations in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), implying that membership in the elite is requisite for  acquiring  true knowledge.  Yet, the idea of knowledge promoted by Eliot, Bloom, and Vargas Llosa is suspect and much in need of deconstructive unpacking.  Certain kinds of indigenous knowledge (which  might be more respected in advanced physics than in the sprawling humanities) seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Vargas Llosa hints at this possibility in his remarks about George Steiner's In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (1971).  Steiner attributed Eliot's failure to acknowledge that the carnage of World Wars I and II was an integral element of culture to anti-Semitism, and Vargas Llosa is uncomfortable with Steiner's alleged belief that postmodern society is dominated by science and technology. He seeks a little comfort in Guy Debord's La Société du spectacle (1967) but actually seems to find a more authentic comfort in La cultura-mundo: Respuesta a una sociedad desorientada (2010) by Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy and the best comfort of all in Frederic Martel's Mainstream (2010).  After dancing in English, French and Spanish, Vargas Llosa must conclude that pre-twenty-first-century culture was designed to transcend time but that post-whatever cultures evaporate with noteworthy swiftness in their own times.

However much we applaud the performance, we are left with the enduring  problem of how theories of culture are merely incomplete speculations, particularly coming from the imagination of a writer who apparently is uninformed about what W. E. B. DuBois,  Lu Xun,  Frantz Fanon , and  Edward Said have written about the life of culture.  Vargas Llosa is right in claiming that entertainment is a universal passion.  He is rather naïve in thinking that Benjamin and Popper, whom we admit are very  important in a long parade of committed writers, show us "by writing, one can resist adversity, act and influence history"(226).  He aristocratically glosses over the implacable dread of material suffering and dying in global civilization as he makes a trenchant critique of our deadly passivity.  We may like the spectacle of Mario Vargas Llosa as Don Quixote, but we are not obligated to believe and dream the impossible dream, to confuse the image with the actuality.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            January 17, 2016


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