WHAT MOVED a novelist of the stature of Mario Vargas Llosa — in a work of nonfiction — to unburden himself of a long list of complaints?
Was it the emergence of Julian Assange, or that particularly hideous Venice Biennale? The erotic memoirist Catherine Millet? The “mass consumption of marijuana”? The mere existence of Shakira? That artist who painted on bases of elephant dung?
Based on the evidence of Notes on the Death of Culture, a book built around nine columns Vargas Llosa wrote for El País, the Madrid newspaper to which he has contributed since the 1980s, it’s all these things and many other specimens of what he describes as “a culture devastated by frivolity.” (Curiously, some of the columns are translated by Natasha Wimmer, who is best known for her translations of Roberto Bolaño, a writer Vargas Llosa might regard as frivolous.)
Damien Hirst (“an extraordinary purveyor of con tricks”), Paul de Man (“vacuous”), Woody Allen (“who is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gaugin or Van Gogh”): Vargas Llosa executes miniature hatchet jobs on each of these men in a book whose pages the self-googling type will flip through with a thumping heart. “Brief Reflections on Hideous People” would have been a daring but appropriate title for this book.
Vargas Llosa also frets over cultural journalism that shortchanges literature for “cookery and fashion.” Though a nonbeliever, he laments the erosion of religion, which is “for the vast majority of human beings […] the only path leading to a spiritual life and an ethical conscience.”
Like most cultural conservatives, Vargas Llosa performs his disgust against a background of nostalgia. He pines for a recently bygone era when in most European countries you didn’t have to squint to see a cultural elite, when “Bertrand Russell in England, Sartre and Camus in France, Moravia and Vittorini in Italy, Günter Grass and Hans Magnus Enzensberger in Germany,” among others, were both influential and prominent. This was a time when it was possible, without irony or apology, to refer to oneself as an intellectual — a time that predated the rise of “the obscurantist prose and asphyxiating literary or philosophical analyses of Jacques Derrida.”
According to Vargas Llosa, the old order, in which an intellectual elite acted as faithful custodians of culture, fell long before flat screens, mobile devices, and social media. That brand of intellectualism was ravaged from one side by the French literary theorists whose ideas about language “subvert our confidence in any truth,” and, on the other, by the well-meaning anthropologists who proposed that “all cultures, in their own way and in their own context are equal,” an idea that has helped “convinc[e] us that it is arrogant, dogmatic, colonialist, and even racist to speak of superior and inferior cultures.” (Some readers may be reminded of Saul Bellow’s unfortunate question to an interviewer, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”) If we believe Vargas Llosa, a few venal or misguided academics were the authors of a cultural vacuum that has sustained the English edition of ¡Hola! magazine, global action blockbusters, and so much other junk.
As refreshing as it is to encounter a work of cultural criticism that takes aim at the Sorbonne’s lecterns rather than young coders subsisting on Soylent, many of the specimens Vargas Llosa holds up for scrutiny are long past their expiration dates. Take ¡Hola!, which Vargas Llosa recalls seeing “with my own eyes the dizzying speed with which this creature of Spanish journalism conquered the land of Shakespeare.” Can a book that claims to comment on contemporary culture lament the rise of that tabloid when far more readers turn for gossip to TMZ? Vargas Llosa’s appraisal of the internet, which is slotted in this book’s last chapter, titled “Final Thoughts,” does not tread anywhere new. Even Vargas Llosa’s meditation on the possibility of the disappearance of paper books seems dated.
But perhaps a finger-on-the-pulse argument is not the point of this book, which can be read as an earnest outgoing memo to the next generations of literary intellectuals, but should also be appreciated for its many acerbic riffs. Vargas Llosa’s blind spots are counterbalanced by gems of controlled contempt like “The Hour of the Charlatans,” a 1997 column that moves from a measured opening scene in the bookstore of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where he awaits a public lecture by the French theoretician Jean Baudrillard, to a gentle evisceration of the speaker. Vargas Llosa admired Baudrillard’s “extrem[e] intelligen[ce]” when they were both students of Roland Barthes at the Sorbonne, but he disapproves of how Baudrillard has used it: for “the demolition of what is, and its replacement by a verbose unreality,” as exemplified by “the essay he wrote proving that the Gulf War ‘did not take place.’” After the lecture (in which Baudrillard cites the film Jurassic Park), Vargas Llosa decides not to approach his old classmate “to remind him of the bygone days of our youth, when ideas and books excited us and he still believed we existed.” For its sure-footed intellectation, its early ominous tone, and its utter certitude, this column can be compared with the best work of Janet Malcolm. Vargas Llosa’s haughty detachment serves him less well in a chapter that includes another 1997 column criticizing Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung as a base for his paintings but fails to describe a single work of this major artist who has long since transcended his brash start (and stopped using elephant dung).
For the past 30 years, Vargas Llosa has lived in France, where this book has not yet been published. By the time it is released there, French readers will likely know that it contains a measured but unambiguous assertion that French Muslims should modify their cultural practices to conform to the culture of France — an opinion Vargas Llosa expressed in an El País column. His stance on the question of whether French Muslim girls should be allowed to wear a hijab to school is that they should not; he describes the girls in question as “an advance party of a campaign undertaken by the most militant sectors of Muslim integration in France, who look to establish a beachhead not only in the education system but in all the institutions of French civil society.”
Before the attacks of November 13, 2015, in Paris, these words struck me as paranoiac and vicious. I recognize that Vargas Llosa is not the only intellectual in France who holds such views. But aren’t the seeds of the death of culture contained right here?
Michael Rymer directs the Writing Center at CUNY's Joseph Murphy Institute. He covered higher education for the Village Voice from 2008-2015.