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Book review: Mario Vargas Llosa's Notes on the Death of Culture

A shallow levity has taken over. Entertainment is all. Politicians increasingly become clowns. Peruvian's essays sift the dying embers of our culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am
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In his wonderful 1977 novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the Peruvian Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa invented Pedro Camacho, an exuberant radio-serial writer whose output consisted of ever bleaker and more exhilarating variations on the apocalypse. Reading these essays and articles on what Vargas Llosa sees as the dying gasps of our culture - poisoned by generalised tabloid frivolity when it isn't being gashed by extreme (religious) seriousness - I was occasionally reminded of Camacho's dark energy, and at other times of T.S. Eliot's or Matthew Arnold's reactions to mass taste.

Vargas Llosa has long been known as a public intellectual as well as a novelist in the Spanish-speaking world, a cultural liberal who wants value in the arts, ideas and literature to rule over easy relativism, the register of price and the "civilisation of spectacle".

By succumbing to what Marshall McLuhan called an "image bath", he writes, we have ushered in a time of "docile submission to emotions and sensations triggered by an unusual and at times very brilliant bombardment of images that capture our attention, though they dull our sensibilities and intelligence due to their primary and transitory nature". A shallow levity has taken over. Entertainment is all. Politicians increasingly become clowns, prepared to do anything to capture media attention. The press, whose freedom is crucial, is more symptom than cause of this regrettable phenomenon.

In one of the best essays in the book, "Culture, Politics and Power", Vargas Llosa explores the decline of our political sphere. Sullied and sometimes exposed by tabloid journalism, politics is estimated to be a "mediocre and grubby activity that puts off the most honest and capable people and instead mainly recruits nonentities and rogues…" The best, as a result, are no longer attracted to it - not even in the UK, which Vargas Llosa thinks has a long tradition of high civic duty. He cites the UK's phone-hacking saga as an example of the scandalous conduct of the press and complicity of power-seeking politicians, though he doubts that the evil will be easily rooted out. The rot is in ourselves and in our desire to be amused by the spectacle of "catching a minister or parliamentarian with his trousers down".

Is there an antidote to all this in the values that stem from religion? Vargas Llosa seems to believe so, though he simultaneously recognises the nullifying dictatorships that religious states continue to impose and is adamant about the necessity of a secular state and public sphere. Pedro Camacho is alive and well in this ever-provocative collection.

Notes on the Death of Culture  by Mario Vargas Llosa  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)