Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Book Reviews

Chronicle of a Decline Retold

David Bahr

Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, 1990; H. John Maier Jr./Getty Images.

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the most talented writers of his generation, is getting cranky. But even if this collection of essays and other writings could be filed under the category of “Complaints by Aging Intellectuals,” Vargas Llosa, now approaching his ninth decade, remains an incisive critic who sees more deeply into the problems of our times than most of his peers.

Notes on the Death of Culture is a slender volume of both new and previously published work, unified by one common concern: the death of culture and its replacement by the “civilization of the spectacle.” That phrase, borrowed from French philosopher Guy Debord’s essay La société du spectacle, serves as Vargas Llosa’s touchstone:

What do we mean by civilization of the spectacle? The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of a scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion…. It leads to culture becoming banal, frivolity becoming widespread.

The concept of the civilization of the spectacle helps Vargas Llosa elucidate the well-known rogue’s gallery of problems facing the West. And while he is not wrong in his assessment, his book at times can read like a litany. Literacy: “Today’s readers require easy books that entertain them.” Politics: “As banal as literature, film, and art.” Journalism: “Blurred, full of holes, and has in many cases disappeared.” Art: “No longer any objective criteria that make it possible to qualify or disqualify something as a work of art or situate it within a hierarchy.” Eroticism: “An organic activity, no more noble or pleasurable than drinking for the sake of drinking, or defecating.”

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