In Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2006 novel The Bad Girl, his character Ricardo Somocurcio says repeatedly that he wants to live in Paris and go on living there because ‘in Paris, living was living, France was the country of culture’. ‘That’s what I want: to live here. Does it seem like a small thing to you … My only ambition is to go on living here, just as I’m doing now,’ Ricardo says throughout this little novel of constancy in love. Ricardo did not want to be a writer or a musician, an actor or even a revolutionary, he wanted to be swallowed up in the culture of Paris for all of his life.
He could not have said, though, what this culture was, exactly, or where it might be found at its best. Ricardo’s ideas about culture were either so superficial that we, the readers, see him as no more than a cliché, or his ideas were so profound they resisted the superficiality of intellectual analysis. The novel, cleverly enough, does not lead us to define the culture that Paris represents or finally come to a judgement about Ricardo’s devotion to it.
When Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei reflected upon living in New York for ten years from 1983 to 1993, he commented, ‘I felt totally free there, and I was poor but desperate.’ Far from being a criticism of the West, this is the way all societies should be, he argues.
When the emergent extremist Islamic group ISIS (Daesh) funded and inspired coordinated terrorist assaults upon Paris on 13 November 2015, the targets were a football stadium, a rock music concert and cafés and bars in central Paris. Sam Jones, security editor of the Financial Times, reported that ISIS justified their targets as those that represented the worst ‘abominations and perversions’ of Paris. In other words, the action was justified as an attack upon Western culture as much as it was an attack in reprisal for French military action in Syria and central Africa.
The Parisian and Western response has been in terms of a defence of the cultural values of freedom, liberty and tolerance—values that Western culture explicitly stands for beyond the surface glitz and apparent shallowness of football, heavy metal rock and drinking in bars—and beyond the exploitation of minorities, ethnic and economic, that Ai Weiwei experienced in New York. We seem to live in two worlds at once: the real, violent and exploitative world and another one that cultural values gesture towards.
After two world wars in his lifetime, and amid a fallow period in his writing, almost on the eve of being presented with the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, the then world famous poet and playwright T.S. Eliot published a long, rambling essay, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. His aim was to ensure the survival of culture in a new postwar European civilisation. It seemed to Eliot he was living in a period of cultural decline, when the word needed rescuing or at least resetting so that some clarity might be brought to understanding what it was we lived for.
Sometimes Eliot’s essay made complex, organic and down-to-earth good sense as he strove to describe what it might be that infused a culture with life and worthwhileness. He identified the achievements of scholars, intellectuals and artists as essential to one particular understanding of culture, but noted that none of these by themselves could lead to anything but a kind of automatism. The arts must be linked to scholarship and to intellectual enquiry if they are not to become vacuous, for example. Culture, he wrote, should mean to the individual something for which one strives. It is never wholly coherent, always trailing elements of the recent and primitive past into the present, never pure. A people must be neither too united nor too divided, he wrote. He reflected late in his essay on the decline of German culture from 1933 onwards, when as editor of the Criterion he experienced how little of interest came from the conformity of a Nazi-dominated culture.
At times in his essay he explored the relation of religion to culture, and here his essay was at its most mystical and confusing. There must be something we believe in, for without belief, he wrote, there can only be boredom and despair. He surmised that while culture is not religion, it might be the incarnation of religion.
Famously, commenting upon the calamitous decline of European civilisation into two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, Eliot wrote, ‘I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture’ .
The great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, has responded to Eliot in his essay Notes on the Death of Culture, published first in Spanish in 2012. He is writing to announce that Eliot’s prediction of a society of no culture has come to pass in today’s hedonistic, debased, faithless, ephemera-soaked, celebrity-studded, media-obsessed, adulterated forms of spectacle that have replaced culture. He argues we are experiencing the death of culture.
His essay is framed by Eliot’s, to which he gives considerable attention, and it is linked to Eliot’s via the 1970 George Steiner critique of Eliot, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture. Both Steiner and Eliot agreed that religion is at the core of culture. Nazism and the Holocaust represented for Steiner the ultimate act of a godless culture. What use was high culture alone when barbarism came? Vargas Llosa surveys the ideas of Lipovetsky and Serroy on global culture and Frédéric Martel on the replacement of culture by mass entertainment. What Vargas Llosa sees is a maelstrom of traumatic change ‘in which a new reality has appeared that contains only scant traces of what it has replaced’.
The new reality is the society of the spectacle. In the name of democratisation culture no longer has a meaningful elite, culture no longer requires work, education, refinement, reflection or belief. Culture has come to be anything that contributes to ‘a pleasant way of spending time’ (26). Vargas Llosa rails at the amount of space that cooking and fashion take up in the cultural pages of newspapers and magazines, space that might have once gone to scientists or philosophers. In matters of literature and criticism, Edmund Wilson has been replaced by Oprah Winfrey.
In a series of sizzling pages of prose radiant with disappointment, Vargas Llosa aims his wit and disdain at almost every element of contemporary life. Drugs are no longer used creatively to explore states of mind, revolutionary stances or new styles of vision, but merely for ‘quick and easy pleasure’ that immunises against worries and responsibilities. Religions ‘that have stood the test of centuries’ might be loosening their restrictive grip on the masses, but at the cost of a rise in cults, sects and superficial alternative spiritualisms. Intellectuals have disappeared from public debates. Special effects in films are now more important than ideas or originality. Half-witted critics confer false prestige on spurious artworks. Among politicians eyebrows become as important as arguments. Sex can be had now without love, eroticism or imagination. It is only lifestyle journalism that has a mass audience. In universities, English departments are now staffed by con artists. Fulfilling the dream of all dictatorships, politics has become a mediocre and grubby activity in the eyes of most people.
You get the picture. The dinner party has stopped. The speaker has a lot to get off his chest, and it is urgent and cogent, unreasonably perfect in its phrasing, stripping the skin from his victims mercilessly, and unanswerable because there is so much to answer to. Forks are poised, faces are turned to him. Is this the late-night raving of a disappointed old man or the pronouncements of a wise, learned and much honoured thinker and writer? Or a mix of both? Does the Nobel Prize give Vargas Llosa permission to make pronouncements upon the planet’s cultural life? Is the calamity so urgent that we need to hear the worst from someone who sees clearly what has gone wrong?
The problem with the essay at this point is that it is wholly impressionistic, the argument carried by the passionate indignation one might feel after spending too long at the end of an internet news feed. Strangely, this outrage resonates with those who see the West and its libertarian, secularist, individualistic culture as the work of the devil, or as the incarnation of a decadence that can have no future.
What is it, essentially, that has disappointed, worried and upset Vargas Llosa so much? As far as I can understand, he is disappointed by the shallowness he sees everywhere: ‘our fickle, ludic culture’, he calls it, or ‘the playful banality of the dominant culture’. It represents an abandonment of seriousness and difficulty. ‘Most representative literature of our times is “light”, easy literature’. Of music concerts he complains that they are ‘like the Dionysian pagan festivals that celebrated irrationality in ancient Greece, are collective ceremonies of excess and catharsis’. He condemns the trance-like dancing, drug taking, and the pervasiveness of advertising that he calls massification. He attacks the primitive mass phenomenon of football, though admits he is one of its fans. We need, in his view, a culture that ‘confronts problems rather than shying away from them’.
In a more sober line of argument he goes on to accuse the towering Mikhail Bakhtin and his followers of abolishing the distinction between culture and non-culture in their desire to do away with elites. As in many engaging personal essays, and true to the spirit of Montaigne, Vargas Llosa includes personal anecdotes along the way. He tells of his disappointment with his old friend Jean Baudrillard, who once believed we existed. He recounts his memory of a documentary he watched on the chaos of a strife-torn state school in France where it was only metal detectors installed at the school entrance that resolved their issues of violence. He places the dangers consequent upon this school’s lack of authority against Foucault’s elegant essays on liberation from authority. The glamour of 1968 with its call to overturn all authority offers no answers to teachers who fear mugging on their way to school in a deprived suburb.
Foucault troubles Vargas Llosa, for Foucault was undoubtedly the most intelligent thinker of his generation, and one who brought needed respect to minorities, especially in matters of sexuality, but he could not resist intellectual showiness, eventually undermining the possibility that he would be taken seriously enough. Vargas Llosa ranges across Derrida (a miserable waste of time), de Man and Barthes—and returns to Lionel Trilling’s still extraordinary personal essay of 1961 on the paradoxical nature of teaching modernist literature to university students. He shows he is a persistent and diligent reader in search of understanding as much as in hope of finding answers to the maelstrom of confusion he perceives in society.
In this spirit of confronting problems rather than shying away from them, Vargas Llosa raises the issue of French school students wearing the Islamic veil. To an Australian reader this is a fascinating digression in his long essay, for there is no real weight given to arguments for diversity, tolerance or a multicultural social spectrum, as there is in Australia. This section of the essay tests the writer as a representative of the cultured individuals engaged with life. Vargas Llosa is utterly unbending on the notion that a secular state must remain separate from all religion, in the interests of equality in freedom of belief for all religions.
The best protector of religious freedom is an utterly secular state. With a mix of anecdote and argument, Vargas Llosa arrives at a position not dissimilar to that being argued by ex-prime minister Tony Abbott in his international speaking tours. In Vargas Llosa’s view the girls sent to school wearing the Islamic veil are the ‘advance party’ for a militant sector of the Muslim community in France.
The argument for allowing the veil out of respect for differences will culminate in attempts to win acceptance for other ‘essentials’ of cultural identity, such as arranged marriages, polygamy and genital mutilation. ‘Clothed as self-confident pluralism, the Middle Ages might well be revived,’ he writes, with a rhetoric worthy of Tony Abbott. To be fair to him, his is not an argument against immigration, or for the mistreatment of refugees, but it is an unbending stand on where integration and accommodation are expected from religious minorities, including Christians. Perhaps what we might take from this as Australian readers is that there are no globally effective or uniform answers to the ways that democracies might understand best how to manifest and manage liberty within reasonable bounds. Vargas Llosa’s fiercely confident pronouncement that forbidding the veil in schools is a line in the sand that must be drawn worries me mainly because it seems to me a political manoeuvre, not an ethical decision.
Writing after the first optimistic wave of the Arab spring uprisings, he expresses the hope that this represents a triumph of the idea of the secular state against the dictatorship of the satraps. There is a hasty footnote dated December 2013, perhaps inserted for the English translation, acknowledging his optimism in these paragraphs was excessive. It is possible we might find a footnote in a future version of the essay that acknowledges his stand on the veil might have been a tad excessive.
When he expands upon the relation of religion to culture, a relationship that Eliot, Steiner and Vargas Llosa consider to be at the core of any culture, he tackles immediately those forms of Islam that venerate and produce terrorists. He makes the point that Islamic fundamentalism has not resulted in people abandoning religion, but on the contrary has entrenched religious positions. He also notes that every religion is riven by great conflicts. He is merciless in recounting some of the worst scandals of sex abuse among Catholic clergy, the reckless anti-Darwinian education offered by some Protestant churches in the United States, missionary competition between Christian sects in South America, all in the context of the survival and resurgence of religion across the globe. In Russia the churches are once again full. It is a fundamental fact, we read, that belief in a supreme being is part of all cultures on earth. Many and perhaps most people on earth still have the intuition that without belief in transcendence, there would be barbarism.
The difficulty with religions of course is that they propagate absolute truths and are intolerant of other religions. This is what makes the secular state so unwelcome to religion, but so important to maintaining tolerance for all beliefs as a ground upon which a democratic society can stand. He presents Saudi Arabia and Iran as examples of states that have not undergone secularisation, and thus are fertile territories for the growth of repressive dictatorships. It is no badge of honour that the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches survive with respect for each other in European secular societies. They were dragged screaming and protesting into this modern, democratic social order. Paradoxically, their current commitment (as far as it goes) to democratic secular order ensures their survival.
This brings Vargas Llosa back to the vexed question of the burqa and the hijab. On the one hand, as a democratic society we are committed to the freedom of the individual to choose clothing, lifestyle, beliefs, language, entertainment and specialisation. On the other hand, can we tolerate, as evidence of diversity and personal choice, the wearing of restrictive clothing that symbolises a longstanding oppression of women, a tradition that has excluded them from education and free social movement? What other oppressive practices would be considered legitimate if we allowed this covering-up of schoolgirls? Vargas Llosa reinforces his view that France has shown courageous commitment to its ideals in banning comprehensively the wearing of Islamic veils in state schools.
Finally, in the manner of his essay, wanting to take ideas seriously while coming down in a practical way to the hard questions that matter, Vargas Llosa asks, how do we combat a small group of extremists who have resources to make violent and destructive attacks upon civil society? His answer is far from practical. He recalls that Walter Benjamin began to write a book on Baudelaire’s poetry as Nazi Germany overran Europe and invaded France, and that Karl Popper, exiled in New Zealand at the same time, began to learn classical Greek and study Plato as his contribution to the resistance.
This seems to be close to the same answer that the citizens of Paris arrived at after the 2015 terrorist attacks. Studying classical Greek, going to football games, reading poetry, drinking at bars—somehow they are each in their own ways acts of resistance against the violent abyss of extremism. When Ai Weiwei says ‘Poetry for me is almost like a religious feeling’, he seems to be reaching towards something similar, a world where culture gestures towards what is most difficult to discover in ourselves, the doubt that must inhabit belief.
Notes on the Death of Culture is the essay of a disillusioned, confused and frustrated 79-year-old man who has devoted himself over many years to arts, politics, philosophy, spiritual quests, the writing of difficult and ambitious fiction, and to a commitment to what Paris represents to the larger world; a man who now wonders where this world he has loved and laboured over for so many years might be heading. If he is right in saying that we do not have any culture worth the name, that we are living in culture’s end times, then together with Eliot we can remember that this will be a period only ‘of some duration’, out of which will come a new civilisation. The next generation must recognise what is worthwhile in the new, and keep the future to the best ideals as it emerges, dragging what remains useful from the past into that as yet unmade future time.
I am not likely to see it, but my children will be there. They have been raised as a kind of experiment, for they have no religious belief in the normal, institutional sense. They are now young adults. I know they are dismayed by Islamic extremist terrorism, the protection of paedophile priests by the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, the religious shooting of girls who want to be educated. They are not religious, though they do have, I think, what Vargas Llosa seems to recognise as culture. They tackle difficult films and demanding books, they go to listen to philosophers give public talks, they have learned to play musical instruments, they read in science and especially evolutionary theory and physics, they love a debate, they are both vegetarians for ethical reasons, they watch many documentaries and TED talks. I am amazed at what they are making of themselves. They go to football matches too, and music concerts, cafés and bars. They are highly educated. They do believe in personal ethics, but they do not base these beliefs in any religion or a particular faith.
And they are not unusual, for as a university lecturer and as a member of an extended family of children becoming young adults I can see that there are many young people of no particular religion who live deeply in a culture that confronts problems. Like Ai Weiwei they seek the truth, and if the past is useful to the future they will learn from the past, and they are moving more rapidly than I can now, and apparently more rapidly than Mario Vargas Llosa can, into the future.
- Ai Weiwei in conversation.
- T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Faber, London, 1948.
- Sam Jones, writing in the Financial Times.
- Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ai Weiwei Speaks, Penguin, London, 2011.
- Mario Vargas Llosa, The Bad Girl, trans. Edith Grossman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2007.
- Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, trans. John King, Faber, London, 2015.