Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa review – are we too amused for our own good?

In a provocative collection of essays, the Peruvian novelist and intellectual argues that the west’s obsession with entertainment has dulled minds and turned politicians into clowns

In his wonderful 1977 novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the Peruvian Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa invented Pedro Camacho, an exuberant radio-serial writer whose output consisted of ever bleaker and more exhilarating variations on the apocalypse. Reading these essays and articles on what Vargas Llosa sees as the dying gasps of our culture – poisoned by generalised tabloid frivolity when it isn’t being gashed by extreme (religious) seriousness – I was occasionally reminded of Camacho’s dark energy, and at other times of TS Eliot’s or Matthew Arnold’s high moral ground when confronted by the depredations of mass taste.

Vargas Llosa has long been known as a public intellectual as well as a novelist in the Spanish-speaking world – and indeed in the UK, where he lived in the 1980s. One-time contender for his country’s presidency, a cultural liberal who wants value in the arts, ideas and literature to rule over easy relativism, the register of price and the “civilisation of spectacle”, he worries over the dangers to democracy the latter group poses. He’s at home with the giants of French theory, from Guy Debord, inventor of situationism, to Jacques Derrida and his archival fever. Their impact, he notes, has hardly been salutary. Meanwhile, neither artists nor critics, journalists nor politicians value judgment or intelligence.

By succumbing to what Marshall McLuhan called an “image bath”, he writes, the 21st-century west has ushered in a time of “docile submission to emotions and sensations triggered by an unusual and at times very brilliant bombardment of images that capture our attention, though they dull our sensibilities and intelligence due to their primary and transitory nature”. A shallow levity has taken over. The ethics of Hello!, which he reminds us was originally a Spanish magazine, rule. Entertainment is all. Translated into the political sphere, this means our politicians increasingly become clowns, prepared to do anything to capture media attention. The press, whose freedom is crucial, is more symptom than outright cause of this regrettable phenomenon.

In one of the best essays in the book, Culture, Politics and Power, Vargas Llosa explores the decline of our political sphere. Sullied and sometimes exposed by tabloid journalism, politics is estimated to be a “mediocre and grubby activity that puts off the most honest and capable people and instead mainly recruits nonentities and rogues…” The best, as a result, are no longer attracted to it – not even in the UK, which Vargas Llosa thinks has a long tradition of high civic duty. He cites the hacking saga as an example of the scandalous conduct of the press and complicity of power-seeking politicians, though he doubts that the evil – “the playful banality of the dominant culture” – will be rooted out by the closure of the News of the World. The rot is in ourselves and in our desire to be amused by the spectacle of “catching a minister or parliamentarian with his trousers down”.

Is there an antidote to all this in the values that stem from religion? Do the people need their opium – not only the solace of an afterlife, but the illusion of a higher authority to impose a sense of moral value? Vargas Llosa seems to be convinced of the case, though he simultaneously recognises the nullifying dictatorships that religious states continue to impose and is adamant about the necessity of a secular state and public sphere. He is also a great advocate of the erotic life – with the necessary obstacles, of course, without which there can be no pleasure.

Pedro Camacho, as well as his higher-brow double, are both alive and well in this ever-provocative collection.

Lisa Appignanesi’s Trials of Passion (Virago) will be out in paperback this winter. Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa (Faber & Faber, £20). To order a copy for £16, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Lisa Appignanesi

The GuardianTramp

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