Old farts notoriously always think the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.
Mario Vargas Llosa probably ought to know better, but here he is, in an extract on Literary Hub from his Notes on the Death of Culture, advising us about the end of culture “in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term”. Now of course we rubes may not be cultivated in exactly the same way as T. S. Eliot was, as indeed nobody could be who wasn’t raised in the same environment that he was, but while our betters may not approve, we do all have a culture. As social human animals we can’t avoid it. Things of course are never as good as they used to be, except for the fact that things are always getting better and better.
It is true that George Steiner makes cultural demands on us — we feel we have to read everything before he’ll allow us to judge anything — but this has nothing to do with “post-culture”, a meaningless term, surely, which Mr Llosa persists in using. If he were to adjust his terminology to say we are now living in an age which has a culture different from the culture that obtained, say, in the court of Louis XIV, then nobody would have a problem with that — other than the fact that it isn’t worth saying.
“Culture was born within religion” — nonsense. Christian culture (and that’s what Eliot was talking about), yes, but again hardly worth stating. It’s true that it was 1971 when Steiner wrote: “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist”, but nobody today would contend that poetry was merely in “the keeping of the specialist”. It may not be a mass-market phenomenon but more poetry is being written and published today than at any time in the past. Elitists may disapprove of poetry slams and rap, but so what. Just today traditionalists have had to cope with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Llosa joins the elitist pack, sneering at the motives of the masses who visit cultural landmarks like the Sistine Chapel: just because there weren’t many English aristocrats on the Grand Tour back before Napoleon doesn’t mean their appreciation of what they saw was any better or more valuable than that of lots of modern tourists. We forget at our peril the fact that trivial reactions from long ago tend to get lost in the garbage heap of history.
The TLS just told us that “we now find it hard to imagine a world in which a successful currency trader like Eliot would subordinate his profession to his literary endeavors”. If that’s true, then it’s only a failure of our imagination. I am aware of lots of Wall Street types who give up their profession (many after making their pile) and do something completely different. The one I know best became the publisher of a well-known culture sheet; another opened a restaurant; another’s a stay-at-home dad; many become philanthropists or angel investors. I just read a novel by an ex-trader. It’s hardly surprising that the financial industry hasn’t produced a T. S. Eliot clone recently. What other business has? We might as well moan that the insurance industry owes us another Wallace Stevens. The rarity is not the readiness to leave one’s profession, it’s the having the requisite talent. And if there is a brilliant new star just waiting to burst out of the City, we can be absolutely certain it won’t be a T. S. Eliot clone. Some oldies might like it to be, but it will be something different, altogether different: that’s what originality is all about. Sitting around waiting for another doctor, say Atul Gowande, to write like a reincarnated John Keats or William Carlos Williams is just stupid.
Isn’t it a bit paradoxical for a business we can refer to as Merchants of Culture to persist in publishing books about the death of culture? I guess there are people who read this sort of navel-gazing: well at least people who buy this sort of navel-gazing. Anything to make a buck, to be sure.
Don’t worry Mr Llosa, it may not be the same as you remember, but it’s still culture even if it has been influenced by global entertainment.