We may not be living in the worst of times, although a case might very well be made for it, but anyone with a thought in their head would be entitled to say that we’re living in the stupidest. Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, certainly believes we are. In this series of coruscating and passionate essays on the state of culture he argues that we have, en masse, capitulated to idiocy. And it is leading us to melancholy and despair.
This is a book of mourning. What Vargas Llosa writes is a lament for how things used to be and how they are now in all aspects of life from the political to the spiritual. Like TS Eliot in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, written in 1948, he takes the concept of culture in the general sense as a shared sensibility, a way of life.
Eliot too saw culture decaying around him and foresaw a time in which there would be no culture. This time, Vargas Llosa argues, is ours. Eliot has since been under attack for what his critics often describe as his elitist attitudes – as well as much else – and Vargas Llosa will probably also be tarred with the same brush for his pains.
But we must be grateful to him for describing in a relatively orderly manner the chaos of hypocrisy and emptiness into which our globalised culture has plunged and to which we seem to have little option but to subscribe.
It’s not easy, however, to be orderly on such an all-encompassing and sensitive subject as the way we live now. On some aspects, such as the art business, Vargas Llosa practically foams at the mouth. The art world is “rotten to the core”, a world in which artists cynically contrive “cheap stunts”. Stars like Damien Hirst are purveyors of “con-tricks”, and their “boring, farcical and bleak” productions are aided by “half-witted critics”.
We have abandoned the former minority culture, which was truth-seeking, profound, quiet and subtle, in favour of mainstream or mass entertainment, which has to be accessible – and how brave if foolhardy of anyone these days to cast aspersions on accessibility – as well as sensation-loving and frivolous.
Value-free, this kind of culture is essentially valueless.
Bread and circuses
Vargas Llosa adopts a name for this age of ours coined by the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord. We live in the Society of the Spectacle. A name that recalls the bread and circuses offered to a debased populace in the declining Roman empire. Exploited by the blind forces of rampant consumerism, we are reduced to being spectators of our own lives rather than actors in them.
Our sensibilities, indeed our very humanity, is blunted by those who traditionally saw their role as the guardians of it.
The intellectuals, the supine media, the political class have abandoned substance and discrimination and with treacherous enthusiasm adopted the idea of the image as truth. The liberal revolution of the 1960s, especially the events of 1968 in France, and French theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard come in for a lot of invective. They have turned culture into “an obscurantist game for self-regarding academics and intellectuals who have turned their backs on society”.
Meanwhile the masses exist, docile and passive, in a world of appearances, reduced to no more than the audience in a kind of tawdry theatre where scenes shift from violence to inanity before our bored and brutalised gaze. Rock stars are given more credence than politicians, comedians are the new philosophers. Lifestyle merchants such as cooks and gardeners are revered as writers once were. It’s a sad and hopeless devolution from what we used to have and used to be.
Vargas Llosa is pessimistic about the survival of literature, which is to say books that aren’t primarily entertainment or pragmatic. He’s pessimistic about how a society can live without coherent religious belief (although he himself can) and not fall into despair, about our abandonment of the concept of privacy. To put the inner self on public display in the way we’re expected to do is to revert to barbarism.
And the most cultured countries are the most guilty. We will decline – like many a civilization before us? – having squandered our inheritance, “this delicate substance” that has taken millennia to develop and imparted sense, content and order to our lives. The words “inanity”, “idiocy” and “banality” appear again and again in Vargas Llosa’s discourse. And when the extraordinary and wondrous resource of the internet is experienced by so many people only via the inanities of social media, who can argue with him?
But the internet is only a tool for a shallow acquisition of knowledge. And knowledge, dazzled though we are by it, is not culture. Knowledge matters only as an aid to thinking. Which, incidentally, poses a question: has “thinking” become the new sex, a transgressive and secret activity?
Elevation of sex
On the subject of sex Vargas Llosa is at his most pessimistic and most passionate. What has happened to arts, letters and intellectual life, he grieves, has also destroyed one of civilization’s “most sublime manifestations and achievements”: eroticism.
The elevation of sex to the erotic sublime has played a vital role in making us human and not merely animal, he argues, quoting Sigmund Freud and Georges Bataille on its importance in the creation of personhood. And eroticism requires sex to have a transgressive and secretive dimension. To bring it into the public sphere, to reduce it to a pastime, a sport or a prophylactic and to disconnect it from love and reverence can only lead us to anomie.
In a way that seems sadly quaint now, he believes in concepts such as modesty, ritual, mystery and beauty. And when I say that it’s a pity he’s the age he is – nearly 80 – I don’t mean it in the ageist sense. What I mean is that he’s the age at which one is expected to be disenchanted with the world and the way it’s gone. An age at which the young can smugly say, “You don’t understand us,” and write you off.
And he’s not a particularly gifted polemicist, in that he writes with a bluntness that prefers synthesis to the subtleties of thesis and antithesis. There are moments when he can sound like an opinionated reverend mother or an old-style pulpit orator.
On the other hand he has the virtue of accessibility – although he mightn’t thank me for saying that – and clarity. He might, and should, be read by any thinking person, young or old.
Not that he offers any solutions. Deprived of the mainsprings of our past, the prospects for our future happiness look bleak. And yet the one thing we can be certain of is that we can’t predict the future. How much mindlessness can humanity take? That society won’t revolt against the spectacle before long is by no means sure.
Anne Haverty's novels include The Free and Easy (Vintage)