Newspaper article International New York Times

A Nobel Laureate's Rant against the Demise of Culture, Glibness Intact

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Nobel Laureate's Rant against the Demise of Culture, Glibness Intact

Article excerpt

The Nobel laureate weighs in on the diffusion of culture and the loss of common referents.


Notes on the Death of Culture. Essays on Spectacle and Society. By Mario Vargas Llosa. Edited and translated by John King. 227 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.

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 Pais. All of which is to say that Mr. Vargas Llosa's cranky, hasty manifesto is made of the stuff it criticizes: journalism.

Mr. 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.

"Until recently" refers to the year of Eliot's essay's publication: 1943. …

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