Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa - book review: Grumpy old man rails against age...

… but transmutes his anger at his own mortality by declaring the death of all creativity and civilisation

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The Independent Culture

“Culture, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term, is now on the point of disappearing,” asserts Mario Vargas Llosa at the opening of this set of essays about just how much people born after him have screwed up what he most holds dear.

That “in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term,” incidentally, should be understood as “In the meaning ascribed to the term by me, Mario Vargas Llosa.” The Peruvian-born winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature – currently in the news for the rather more fleshy and vulgar reason of having left his wife of 50 years for Filipina socialite Isabel Preysler – here joins the sad ranks of commentators who, unable to tolerate the inevitable fact that tastes, priorities and technologies have undergone change in the course of their lifetimes, decide instead that “everything has just got worse.”

The outcome is an onslaught of half-baked, snobbish assertions about the veneration of the cheap and the throwaway over the solid and authentic, which might be distilled to: “People made new stuff! It’s different from the old stuff! How dare they!”. Or distilled even further to “I’m  really annoyed that I’m going to die.” It’s depressing in its humourlessness, in its sneering lack of respect for every creator or consumer aged under 70, and – ironically – in its lazy disregard for history (does he seriously expect us to accept the fallacious notion that celebrity gossip, scandal-seeking magazines or cultural objects defined by their “playful banality” are newly invented things?).

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But it’s most depressing in its dearth of self-awareness. Has Vargas Llosa really neglected to make the connection between the period of decline he identifies – the past 50 years – and the duration of his own active, adult engagement with culture? Does he consider it pure coincidence that he has happened to live through the ending of all meaningful things – or might it have occurred to him that the death he’s foreseeing is his own, and that what he’s nostalgic for is not all human culture, but his own greatest time of intellectual inquiry and creative fertility?

Oh, and speaking of fertility... “Making love in our time, in the Western world, is much closer to pornography than to eroticism and, paradoxically… it has become a degraded and perverse derivate of freedom.” That’s right! Even the sex you are having is of questionable validity, because it is modern sex, and all modern things are bad! (It’s not clear whether sex is still satisfactory outside the Western world. Nor whether this particular opinion might have altered since Vargas Llosa took up with Ms Preysler.)

It is nothing new for intellectuals to bang on about how much worse things are getting. The death of the novel has been predicted since fairly close to its birth; the coming of sound and colour were expected to put paid to quality cinema; people tore their hair out about jukeboxes, television and Dylan going electric. There has always been creaky, pessimistic condescension along these lines: “Today’s readers require easy books that entertain them… Light literature, along with light cinema and light art, give the reader and the viewer the comfortable impression that they are revolutionary, modern and in the vanguard without having to make the slightest intellectual effort.”

And what this mindset has always missed is that fact that what’s really easy is closed-minded grouchery, while what actually calls on our intellectual effort is welcoming cultural change. Striving to understand new forms. Remaining flexible and open. Not treating our own children with contempt simply for envisaging, imagining and recording things differently from us.

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