Notes on the Death of Culture

In 1948, the great Anglo-American poet and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot published a small volume titled Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. In that work, he argued that culture is “essentially the incarnation of the religion of a people.” And in Europe the religion that influenced its culture was Christianity:

It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have – until recently – been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend on that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith.

Now in a newly translated book, Notes on the Death of Culture, another Nobel Prize winner for literature, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, revisits Eliot’s thesis and critiques the present age of Western culture as not only sub-Christian but as having turned into a kind of non-culture.

Born in Arequipa, Peru in 1936, Vargas Llosa was educated in Catholic primary and secondary schools, and earned his doctorate at the Complutense University of Madrid. An amateur journalist from the time he was sixteen, he moved to Paris after completing his studies and tried his hand at writing full time.

The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa’s first novel published in 1963, which describes life in a Peruvian military academy, drew much praise from literary circles and was awarded the Premio de la Crítica Española literary prize; but was dismissed as the work of a “degenerate mind” by Peru’s authoritarian military establishment.

Rejecting Marxism and socialism, Vargas Llosa, who was elected president of PEN International in 1975 and ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990, stressed in his novels and essays that if Latin America is to thrive, its nation-states must embrace liberal democracy.

In 2010, when it was announced that Vargas Llosa was to receive the Nobel Prize, the committee cited him “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” Assessing his career, the noted critic Clive James declared that he “best exemplified the course of the relationship between literature and politics in late twentieth century Latin America.”

Like Eliot, Vargas Llosa believes culture is “born within religion” and even though Western culture has evolved away from Christianity in modern times, “it will always be connected to its source of nourishment by a sort of umbilical cord.”

Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa

Proclamations by twentieth century ideologues that God is dead, Vargas Llosa maintains, did not “signify the advent of paradise on earth, but rather a hell already prefigured in the Dantesque nightmare of the Commedia. . . .The world, liberated from God gradually became dominated by the devil, a spirit of evil, cruelty and destruction that would culminate in the world wars, the Nazi crematoriums, and the Soviet Gulag.”

Vargas Llosa despairs that in his lifetime he has witnessed the dumbing down of culture by confidence tricksters. Society’s elites are no longer devoted to promoting and preserving high culture but are merely snobs. Artists, musicians, writers rarely seek to create works that “transcend mere present time” and “stay alive for future generations.” Instead their works are “consumed instantly and disappear like cake or popcorn.” Cultural endeavors must have commercial value not intrinsic value: “What is successful and sells is good and what fails or does not reach the public is bad.”

This spent culture, Vargas Llosa sadly concludes, “privileges wit over intelligence; images over ideas, humor over gravity, banality over depth and frivolity over seriousness.” As a result, he is distressed that theologians and philosophers, who had traditionally helped form society’s world view, have been replaced by advertising executives.

He laments that jam-packed music concerts have replaced liturgical ceremonies: “In these crowded parties and concerts, young people today commune, confess, achieve redemption, and find fulfillment through this intense, elemental experience of becoming lost to themselves.”

As for drug use, Vargas Llosa holds that it permits people to enjoy “quick and easy pleasure” and to avoid seeking knowledge that can be attained only through introspective thought: “For millions of people drugs now have the role, previously played by religion and high culture, of assuaging doubts and questions about the human condition, life, death, the beyond, the sense or senselessness of existence.”

Yet despite the declines of traditional cultural norms, and the belief of freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists that scientific advances would make religion obsolete, Vargas Llosa, notes that religion is still alive and kicking. The secularists have not “managed to wrench God from the heart of men or women or to do away with religion.”

The fact that so many still belong to established faiths, and that the “beautiful people,” hippies, and other sixties-type bohemians, have embraced the religious-psychedelic preaching of Timothy Leary or turned to the Moonie Church of Unification, or the Church of Scientology or to Buddhism and Hinduism, proves to Vargas Llosa that people need some form of solace or salvation.

Although Vargas Llosa abandoned his Catholic faith, he admits he is constantly in search of another. Why? He’s convinced “that a society cannot achieve a sophisticated democratic culture – in other words it cannot be fully free or lawful – if it isn’t profoundly suffused with spiritual and moral life, which for the immense majority of human beings, is indissociable from religion.”

One can only hope that when Mario Vargas Llosa comes to the end of his search that his fine mind will have rediscovered the religion of his youth.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.