THINGS ARE FALLING APART

Wall Street Journal on August 12, 2015, published a reviewby Willard Spiegelman of Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest book, “Notes on the Death of Culture” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 227 pages, $ 23.00). Excerpts below:

What most surprises in Mr. Vargas Llosa’s “Notes on the Death of Culture” is not his lament for present conditions (“stupidity has become the ruling value of postmodern life, and politics is one of its main victims”) or his prediction of future calamity (“the risks of nuclear weapons, the bloody madness of fanaticism and the erosion of the environment”). Rather it is the book’s elegiac tone, conveying a sense that, where once we had giants of intellect, sensibility and creativity, we now have purveyors of spectacle, foolishness and debasement.

Mr. Vargas Llosa’s often outsize claims are the musings of a wise old man, a self-professed dinosaur who has at least a modicum of faith that “dinosaurs can manage to survive and be useful in difficult times.” Part of “Notes on the Death of Culture” is a memoir looking back at the author’s salad days in Peru, France and England, when Western culture and society seemed poised on the brink of greatness. Today, he believes, television pundits have replaced Edmund Wilson; literature lite has trounced the masterpieces of modernism; and sports, celebrity and mass media have drained us of all intelligence.

People used to be more serious, Mr. Vargas Llosa believes, more committed to the life of the mind. Art was supposed to make you think, to humanize and elevate you. Then a crisis occurred—call it by any one of several names: postmodernism, commodity fetishism, deconstruction, fundamentalism—and everything went bad.

Mr. Vargas Llosa begins with reflections on T.S. Eliot’s “Notes Towards a Definition of Culture” (1948), another assessment of imperiled tradition. Eliot was obsessed with decline even at the start of his career. In 1921 he identified a mid-17th-century “dissociation of sensibility” that separated thought from feeling. William Butler Yeats had the same suspicion: “Things fall apart.” But fables of loss tell us more about their makers than about the world. Eliot and Yeats needed theirs to produce “The Waste Land” and “Prufrock,” “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium.”

For Mr. Vargas Llosa, degeneration is a compelling reality, not a poetical myth. Old news, one might say. But he writes clearheadedly and intelligently, with a journalist’s eye and an essayist’s confident familiarity.

Here is a partial list of what he fears, dislikes or cites as symptoms of our malaise: Julian Assange (“the Oprah Winfrey of the information world”); the disappearance of the physical book and the proliferation of the e-reader; advertising and fashion; “quantity at the expense of quality”; piracy and the violation of copyright; sports as “a pretext for irrationality”; the artist Damien Hirst and his shark in formaldehyde; Islamic veils and headpieces; masturbation workshops in public schools; pornography that undermines the mysteries of sexual romance; politicians who are photographed with athletes and entertainers instead of scientists and playwrights.

Like Eliot, George Steiner and other diagnosticians of decline, Mr. Vargas Llosa implicitly commits himself to Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture as “the best which has been thought and said.” Culture, for him, involves elites, although he seems to forget that Shakespeare, Verdi and Dickens—to take only a trio of obvious examples—wowed the masses with their entertainments. He also seems not to notice that what Plato said of writing (that it will deaden the mind by reducing our capacity to remember) is close to what he is himself saying about the noxious effects of viewing a screen instead of reading a book.

Diagnosis is one thing, remedy another. How can a society tolerate a group whose basic mode is intolerance or an ideology that might undermine democratic heterogeneity? He does not say. Celebrity culture, “branding,” the dumbing down of education: These and other usual suspects come in for condemnation. How we might replace them with something better is a question he does not address.

In his role as worrier, Mr. Vargas Llosa is not alone. Here’s another: “A multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” That’s William Wordsworth in the preface to “Lyrical Ballads” (1800). “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Even a dinosaur will derive some solace from this truth.

Mr. Spiegelman is editor in chief of the Southwest Review in Dallas.

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