I Will Face God and Walk Backwards Into Hell

Notes on the Death of Culture
Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. John King
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
AU $35.00

notes_on_the_death_of_cultureI don’t mean to be alarmist or anything, but I have some terrible news.  Culture.  It’s… dead.  It’s dead, Jim!

How do I know?  Well, Mario Vargas Llosa told me so, and as the bastion of all that is Good and Right and Noble in this world, he should know.  Oh, how he laments the loss of glorious enlightemnent ideals, aesthetic art and literature.  A time when intellectuals were given their proper value, listened to and affecting the way society operated.  A time, you see, that only exists in the misted eyes and rose-tinted glasses of the privileged few.  Because apparently any kind of mass culture, any non-western-based culture, is just not worth your time.  And forget about the devilish Internet or about any kind of Islamic culture.  I mean really.  Really.

You might be getting the hint that I didn’t much care for Notes on the Death of Culture.  You might be right.  As a member myself of what I guess I’ll call for the sake of convenience the “cultured” or “artistic” class I find this kind of florid anguish about the storied decline in everything we hold dear kind of tiresome.  People have been moaning about celebrity culture, the horridness of modern art, and the failure of language for millennia.  Yet somehow, culture has clung on despite that.

This is not so say that Llosa doesn’t have some good points, mind you.  He rightly criticises the pretention of the studio art world, in which one’s ability to wax lyrical about intent and purpose seem more important than any technical capability.  Llosa is properly morose about the uniformity of much mass culture and its meaning in the “society of the spectacle” that has arisen under modern capitalism.  I disagree with him on the origins of this particular movement — he blames Baby Boomers, especially those involved in the May 1968 riots in France.  He blames this movement as well for the quality of modern education.  He also has an especial dislike for Damien Hirst*, though admittedly I can’t fault him for that.

Of course if you take the narrow view of culture that Llosa takes in this series of essays, it could be said that culture is dying.  Llosa at least is aware of his limited, exclusionary interpretation of the world, but he attempts to justify it by dismissing entirely cultural relativism** and by preferencing (of course) white European cultures.  By shutting out more than 80 per cent of the world’s artistic, musical, literary and philosophical offerings naturally it will seem that the pool of modern culture is small and dwindling.  Let’s ignore the emerging African*** literary renaissance and movements towards greater appreciation for modern non-English literature in India, for example.

Well, since this is a blog on the Internet, which as we know is a cultural black hole, and since I am, at least in this capacity, a *gasp* critic, I don’t expect the literary monolith that is Mario Vargas Llosa will pay any heed to my bleatings here.  His bleatings are somewhat more eloquent and better sourced.  So you may find something to think about in Notes on the Death of Culture.  I did, even if most of those thoughts were vociferous disagreement.

*The formaldehyde shark chap
** Believe me, I could and probably have written essays on the topic, but not here and not right now. Suffice to say I’m not a complete moral relativist since I believe in universal rights, but probably more of a relativist than Mr Llosa when it comes to valuing cultural offerings.
*** Sorry to use such a general term as “African”, but I run the risk of excluding people if I embark on listing names and places.


About Cecilia Quirk

Cecilia Quirk's ultimate goal in life is to become 'Avatar: The Last Airbender's' Uncle Iroh, or as close a proximation as possible for a redhaired white woman. Or Granny Weatherwax. Or hell, both. She enjoys green tea, long walks, manipulating causality and afternoons at home. She lives in the Magical Kingdom of the Roundabouts and works as a wild gnome herder.
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