Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa mourns loss of the elite culture that inspired him

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.
Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. Courtesy photo

“Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society” by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $23)

Here we stand again, graveside, clutching a handful of dirt to be tossed onto the coffin of high culture, an entity that keeps dying an inexorable death, uncomfortably nestled six feet under, victim to an end foretold by intellectuals for at least the past 70 years.

In 1948, T.S. Eliot wrote perhaps the keenest obituary for this vitally engaged approach to literature, civilization, public discourse and art – a holistic view of life that has all but vanished from contemporary society. In “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” he mourned the loss of style as much as the substance of this deeply minority sensibility, which, in his words, made life worth living, and was tied to an ideal model of the past that the present had abandoned.

Some 20 years later, George Steiner – convinced that Eliot had not gone far enough in his critique – decried the ascendency of image over the word, of the “musicalization” of culture in “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture.”

More insidious than a mere dumbing down of social norms – blurring the line between superior and inferior, cutting off our connection to the classical humanities of Hebrew, Latin and Greek – this process belied the barbarity at the dark heart of our European heritage, evidenced by two world wars, the Soviet gulag and other atrocities of the 20th century.

Like Eliot, Steiner proved prophetic: The destructive pace of “progress” has not abated. And popular culture continues to retreat from the word, wrapped in a cocoon of audio-visual escapism.

In the 1960s, a lesser known voice, Frenchman Guy Debord, spun a neo-Marxist interpretation of a similar type of decline, casting it in terms of consumerism and alienation from authentic individualism. The truth of humanity had been replaced by artificiality and falsehood, Debord claimed, based on a globalized and obsessive acquisition of mass-produced, manufactured goods.

All three critics agree that what was once essential to the Western world’s self-understanding has disappeared for good. In its place looms a worldwide culture unified by technology, spectacle and the relentless feeding on the ephemeral. Art and knowledge are not made to last but to be used up and forgotten in pursuit of the next tasty morsel.

Now, the Nobel laureate and Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa joins the fray, bemoaning the loss of the erudite and exclusive high culture that once inspired him, and claiming that contemporary society is in deep crisis and in decline.

What he finds in place of high culture is “the civilization of spectacle” – a world of popular pastimes without ties to intellectual, artistic or literary values. This new civilization is marked by a disturbing predominance of image and sound over the word, and an ever-threatening, global commercialism, given to pursuing entertainment and escaping boredom – whether in light literature, light cinema or light art.

Today’s culture has been sweepingly democratized, Vargas Llosa tells us, made accessible to everyone, no longer the patrimony of the elite: “We are all cultured.”

So what has been lost?

Aesthetic criticism has been replaced by advertising; the need for distraction devolves into the driving force of society; intellectuals have become irrelevant; there exists no consensus of artistic value; scandal and frivolity form the hollow core of our age.

For Vargas Llosa, the secret of high culture was that, though principally confined to an elite minority, it affected society as a whole, cultivating and enriching communal ideals.

Perhaps culture no longer can support this role of sustaining knowledge, of directing it and giving it a definitive function. Yet what he calls the “recognition of a shared heritage of ideas, values, works of art, a store of historical, religious, philosophical knowledge in constant evolution” has not completely vanished.

The Nobel Prize in Literature that he received in 2010 is testament to that.

It is not surprising that Vargas Llosa writes with passion and perspicacity about the perceived loss of culture, but his sustained “essay” relies on a dozen previously published editorials on similar topics. Some of them date to the 1990s. This adds heft to his book, still slender at a little more than 200 pages, but calls into question his confidence in his new material.

He clearly deplores the rise of the audio-visual over the written word. But some contemporary philosophers have hailed cinema as the successor to classical tragedy and the best medium to communicate philosophical ideas.

And despite Vargas Llosa’s vigorous lament, high culture has not died; it may be in decline, but it hangs on, rubbing shoulders with popular culture.

For example, we can still distinguish literary fiction from mass-market genre fiction, and poetry is proliferating like never before.

Art may have lost its communal standards, but we need to recall that previous revolutionary trends – Dadaism, Cubism, Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism – are now commonplace, part of the establishment of art history, and still able, through individual works, to mightily grip the soul.

As expected, Vargas Llosa comes across as articulate and intelligent, adroit and engaging. He pleads his case with nuance, humor and at times profound insight. But the very fact that he can write, publish and promote his essay on the death of culture paradoxically proves that culture is not dead. On the contrary, it is viable enough to take the most impassioned criticism and keep on going.

So we can at last move away from the graveside and let loose our handful of dirt. The procession of death for high culture, though eminently well rehearsed, will have to wait for another day.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or