From the renowned Peruvian novelist and essayist, a survey of where Western culture finds itself these days—which is mostly nowhere.
If the T.S. Eliot–inflected cultural criticism of the 1950s could be said to have a modern exponent, Vargas Llosa (The Discreet Hero, 2015, etc.), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, might best wear the crown. (George Steiner is close, but he likes physics too much.) Vargas Llosa is conservative, arch, and classical; he agrees with his predecessor that the world of nuclear weapons and iPhones is “a blatant manifestation of barbarism” and that culture writ large is what makes life worth living. The essays in this collection take a predictably dim view of Marxism and of one unintended consequence of democratization, namely the democratization and dumbing-down of culture—with the “undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life.” There’s a certain get-off-my-lawn quality to some of Vargas Llosa’s complaints, but just when he seems to be falling into tired golden-age reveries, he turns on the heat. If people were better educated, he suggests, they’d be more worthy of democracy, but for the time being, they can’t be bothered to be bothered by the pandemic corruption that governs the world. If people were more cultured, we might have better cultures in which to live. If capitalism were less venal, then perhaps the cultural world would be less the province of “thinkers and artists with mediocre or zero talent but who are very bright and flamboyant, who are skilled self-publicists or who know how to pander to the worst instincts of the public.”
Of a piece with late writings by Hilton Kramer, Hugh Kenner, and even Steiner; sometimes pat but offering fresh interpretations and sharp criticisms of things as they are.