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

By Cohen, Joshua | International New York Times, August 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

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


Cohen, Joshua, International New York Times


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

CORRECTION APPENDED

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.