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Peruvian-born writer Mario Vargas Llosa published a book titled Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, in which he traces the development and what he sees as the decline of culture in modern society. In this episode, Vargas Llosa discusses this, as well his past work, his influences, and his forthcoming book on classic liberalism. Vargas Llosa is the 2010 Nobel laureate in literature and the co-recipient of the 2017 J. Paul Getty Medal, an award that honors extraordinary contributions to the practice, understanding, and support of the arts.

Portrait of Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa. Photo by Morgana Vargas Llosa

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JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA:  We have for the first time probably in history, the possibility to choose if we want to be prosperous or we want to be poor, if we want to be free or we want to be the slaves of an ideology, of religion, of a kind of populist dictatorship. We can choose the kind of society in which we want to live.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with the author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian-born novelist and essayist. He cites learning to read at age five as the “most important thing that ever happened to [him],” an experience that allowed him to visit worlds that transcend time and space. He quickly became devoted to literature and its capacity for the exchange of ideas, a passion that would endure for the next eighty years. He has written prolifically across various genres, and is a defining author of the Latin American Boom, a period beginning in the 1960s when Latin American authors such as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez became internationally recognized for their experimental and often political writing.

Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 for what the committee called “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” In his acceptance speech, Vargas Llosa spoke of the purpose and benefit of literature, saying “we would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist.”

Vargas Llosa is one of the great thinkers of our day. His most recent book, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, published in Spanish in 2012 and in English in 2015, comprises eight essays tracing the arc and, by the title you might guess, the decline of culture in our time, from the high claims of T.S. Eliot to the mainstream values of Frederic Martel and his embrace of “entertainment culture.”

Mario Vargas Llosa is the co-recipient of the 2017 J. Paul Getty Medal, an award that honors extraordinary contributions to the practice, understanding, and support of the arts. I sat with him in his library in Madrid to discuss his past work and forthcoming book.

So in your book first published in Spanish five years ago, you give a brief account of five critical texts from T.S. Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture in 1948 to Frederic Martel’s Mainstream some 50 years later, and you trace an arc in this development of a concept of culture from a view of culture as something that predates knowledge that is an attribute of the spirit, of sensibility, to something in which culture has become indiscriminate entertainment. Five years on now, do you still see that arc as the arc of development and culture?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Yes, I think this idea is still valid nowadays with some little changes because I would say of Brexit in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the presidency of the States. These two facts, I think, have mobilize[d] artists, writers, intellectuals in general who were quite isolated of social political problems and have pushed them to participate in critical attitude against Brexit and against the kind of populism that President Trump represents. I think this is something new that I was not taking into consideration when I wrote this essay.

CUNO:  So there’s a call to writers and thinkers, intellectuals as you say, to use the power of intellect, the power of discernment, the power of language to address these populist opposition[s].

VARGAS LLOSA:  I think so. And I think this is a very, let’s say, a positive trend in our times that I would like very much to expand to cover the whole western world in which populism is growing in a very disturbing, disturbing way. It’s curious because we thought that after the disappearance of communism, of Marxism, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the conversion of China in a capitalist dictatorship, democracy would be reinforced all over the world and will expand all over the world. But actually what has happened is that this populist movement which is now the major threat that democracy has to face, and this, at least in Britain and in the States, is mobilizing artists and writers to participate once again as in the past in the political debate. This for me is a very positive trend in cultural and political terms.

CUNO:  We talked about this a bit earlier before we started this interview as the result of a suspicion about expertise a kind of disrespect, disregard for expertise for the elites as they are identified. Do you find that to be troubling?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Well it depends, you know, because in certain countries the political elite was so corrupt that you understand this reaction against the elites. Of course not everybody was corrupt but in general, corruption had prospered in such a way that you understand this reaction in the first world and also in the third world of large sections of society who are disgusted with the corruption at the same time that they are making sacrifices because the crisis, so you understand the reasons for this popular support for populists. But at the same time you are trying to solve a problem with a problem this is a still more serious than the previous one because of the way in which populism can destroy and devastate our society is there, everywhere—in the past, in the present.

Look what is happening in Venezuela, for example. Venezuela is a potentially enormously rich country which has been practically destroyed by populism. Look what happened in Brazil, for example. Brazil [is] potentially an enormous very, very rich country, destroyed practically by populists and by corruption. So you understand the roots of populism. But this of course is not a justification because I am convinced that the worst of these solutions for corruption and for the ineffectiveness of the democratic institution is populism.

CUNO:  And what do writers and intellectuals bring to this debate or to this problem?

VARGAS LLOSA:  I think they are afraid. They feel that with populism may come a restriction of the essential institutions for a rich and creative culture. Freedom, for example. Freedom from criticism. Criticism is absolutely essential for the development of a regional, creative, and critical culture. And if the freedom of the press is threatened, if the freedom of expression, of participation, of mobilization all over the world, if there is policies against immigration which in that way are a kind of mask for racism—again, you know, all of this is a very, very serious menace for culture.

And I think the men and women of the cultural sphere, from journalist to writers to artists to teachers to researchers feel that they are in a very, very difficult situation in which they cannot keep as independent people from what is going on in the political sphere. And this participation, which I think was absolutely indispensable for politics and for culture, this is still reappearing because of the circumstances. This is a positive aspect of something that is deeply negative.

CUNO:  We talked again before starting this interview about Orwell and the little essay that he wrote that was so powerful when he wrote it some 60 years ago on the relationship between the English language and politics or that it could be generally applied to all lang—

VARGAS LLOSA:  [over Cuno] Well, I think he was very sensible to this aspect of totalitarianism—the way in which language can be kidnapped by the power in order to control the spirits of the people. He wrote essays and he wrote two fantastic books about—two novels—about this. And what is really extraordinary is how these books suddenly become again very actual because [of] what is happening in our days. Now we have another kind of totalitarianism, which combine[s] with populism, that can pervert the language in order to have an instrument of control of society.  So I’m not surprised that the Orwell novels and essays are a bit serious in our day, particularly in certain countries.

CUNO:  Now in your book, with which we began this interview, notes on the death of culture. In your essay in it, “The Civilization of the Spectacle,” you write that “Culture has now become exclusively accepted in its anthropological definition, in all of the manifestations of the life of a community;” that criticism has all but disappeared from our news media, has been filled by advertising with “price” replacing “value;” that intellectuals have disappeared from the public debates and turned their backs on their civil or moral commitment to society; and that serious journalism has been muckraking journalism. Do you still feel that way?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Oh I think so. Unfortunately I think this is a major characteristic of culture in our days. Culture has become more democratic, in inverted commas, because it reaches all sections of society that equality has, I wouldn’t say disappeared but diminished in such a way that now it’s very difficult to distinguish between objects or books or representations that can be considered culture or are or are caricatures of real culture. This trend has, as you know, its defenders. People who, say ask [Gilles] Lipovetsky for example, that for the first time in history there is a real democratic culture because it reaches everybody. I think this is a very optimistic vision of what is going on in the cultural sphere. My impression is that culture is becoming more and more entertainment. And the kind of entertainment that mix[es] and is confuse[d], you know, with the kind of entertainment that was practically the opposite of what culture was considered in the past. I think it’s something against the elites—the elites are considered reactionary, something that represents the past. But I think it’s a very big mistake to consider that culture can exist without the elites. Nobody can read and enjoy the Ulysses of Joyce or read the Proust with pleasure or understand all the intriguing novels of Kafka. So you do have different levels of participation.

I am talking about, about literature, you know, not everybody can read and enjoy [Stéphane]  Mallarmé for example. It’s, I mean it’s absolutely impossible, you know, but that doesn’t mean that Mallarmé is totally divorced of essential problems—not at all. I think these particular kind[s] of products that require a kind of training in order to be really appreciated creates indirectly a kind of public that enjoys and receive[s] the benefits of this kind of culture. Particularly the critical spirit—the critical attitude towards the world, social problems, political problems, cultural problems. And the critical spirit I think is essential to keep alive democratic institutions and a democratic kind of society. And the popularization of culture has I think, as its most dramatic consequence, the disappearance of the critical spirit.

For example the serials on TV on television—the serials are now replacing little by little the novels. People replace and watch more serials, which are—some of them at least—very, very well done, a great entertainment. But from this, you cannot extract the kind of interrogation about human relations, about what is behind the problems that we are facing every day—what I think is the critical spirit which is so essential for the survival of our democracy. And this was I think the great contribution of culture to the development progress of our society. This unfortunately in our times is disappearing with the popularization, if we can call it, of culture.

CUNO:  So do you think that the heart of it is a loss of discernment and discipline with regard to observation, with regard to articulation, with regard to emotion and spirit—there’s a sense of discipline that’s being lost?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Well I think what is lost is the sense of values which were, you know, so clearly established in the past and in our times this is discussed practically disappeared. It’s very, very difficult to say, in the arts, for example, particularly in the plastic arts—painting, sculpture—which is generally creating a new, and something that advance[s] our art and what this just show. There are no values that permit us to establish a clear frontier between these two things. It depends entirely of what the critics, the galleries—it depends on so precarious institutions and that you can, we say in Spanish very easily to have the “el gato por un liebre,” you know, [chuckles] you know. And I mention the plastic arts because I think is particularly in this field in which the catastrophe is more visible but it’s happening also in cinema, in literature, in music. For the first time in our history the music of our times—I mean the cultivated music, you know—is so marginal. It’s been so expelled from the common public that it’s practically as if it didn’t exist. And this is a very, very serious, serious problem for the first time in history.

CUNO:  You write about the critics sort of abandoning their responsibilities and you refer to Lionel Trilling as a great example of a critic who accepts his responsibilities and with regard to criticism, and for a large and broad community of people, not for specialists alone.

VARGAS LLOSA:  This kind of critic, you know, they don’t exist in our times. You have the university critics, which are completely isolated. They are inaccessible to the common people. They write for university audiences which are very small. So this kind of criticism has no influence at all in the public taste, in the common taste. But what was the function of people like Lionel Trilling and George Steiner when he wrote in The New Yorker for example—Cyril Connolly, I remember when I went to live in London in the 60s, Cyril Connolly wrote every week in The Observer or in the Sunday Times, I don’t know, a whole page which was an extraordinary pleasure because it was addressed to the great public, not to the specialist, not the university, you know, ghettos—no, no, no, to the common public. And this kind of criticism had an enormous importance. This kind of criticism has disappeared completely in the first world, in the third world—doesn’t exist anymore. You have the university criticism, which is just for very various small minorities, and the public has completely abandoned factors that are not really cultural, there are styles, sometimes fashions, also the manipulation of the of the media which promotes a certain artist or writers usually for frivolous reasons not for artistic and literary reasons. So that is the kind of confusion in which we live. We are not condemned to keep in this situation. There are things that can change. For example Brexit, Trump can change things, and at least it will be a very positive reaction of something that is deeply bad in its origins.

CUNO:  You write in one of the essays in the book, the essay called “A Brief Discourse on Culture,” that “it’s one thing to believe that all cultures deserve consideration because they all contribute positively to human civilization and quite another to believe that all cultures by the mere fact of their existence are equivalent to each other.” You see this as the triumph of the anthropological view of culture. What do you mean by that and what are its implications?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Well, in anthropology all cultures are studied with the same respect, with the same interest because all of them explain what is happening in the world. And I understand perfectly well this attitude, but there are cultures that have moved forward humankind and there are cultures that are keeping humankind in the past. And some are cultures that are regressing humankind with the kind of institutions that they have, for example the subordination of women to men in such a way that you remember the medieval times, you know, so these cultures are not respectable in the same way that others [are].

And I think that all cultures have contributed in a certain way without any doubt. And it’s important the differences of cultures. But there are cultures that have pushed humankind to real progress, eliminating prejudices, eliminated institutions that were absolutely immoral. Slavery for example, discrimination of women, discrimination of certain cultures against others, racialism. So I think this difference is very important to preserve if you want to move humankind forward to real progress, to real or positive changes. And I think this is an aspect that in our times, because of political correctness, we are obliged to exclude of our debate. And I think this is a very dangerous demission of the Democratic society, no? Otherwise we are going to regress again. It is happening in certain countries, you know?

CUNO:  Elliot says that “culture,” and you quote him in this that, “culture precedes and sustains knowledge, directs it and gives it a precise function.” But that culture and knowledge are different things. What is the relationship between culture and knowledge?

VARGAS LLOSA:  I think the difference is that for Elliot, culture was forms—the respect of forms. In our time forms are not respected at all. On the contrary, you know, it’s important to be against, to challenge and destroy forms, and this creates also a great, great confusion. That is the reason I think why we tend to confuse specialization with culture. And a specialist is not a cultivated person; a specialist is someone who knows a lot about very few things. And a cultivated person has at least an understanding of everything that he didn’t know. This idea of the limitations of knowledge was typical of a cultivated man. Now the specialist in our times—they are not cultivated; they think that they know everything because they know something about a very special fragment of sciences or humanities. And I think this is also a very dangerous train because this, if succeeds, it will establish a kind of society in which everybody will be understood only for the other specialists, and the common denominator, which was culture, will disappear.

CUNO:  You also write that “literature and the arts are revitalized but they do not progress. They do not obliterate their past but rather they build on it.”

VARGAS LLOSA:  This is the great difference between culture and sciences, you know, science has evolved. And when they evolve they eliminate the wrong ideas, the wrong knowledge of the past.  But a great writer like Faulkner does not eliminate Homer. Homer and Faulkner form part of this extraordinary work of literature. This is a big difference between humanities and sciences.

CUNO:  How does this affect you as a writer? The examples that you quote in your book of Borges and Faulkner not replacing Cervantes for example—they’re all available to you equally.

VARGAS LLOSA:  All available—well, the message is different because the raw material with which they work was very different. Cervantes worked in the 17th century, Faulkner in the 20th century, Borges in the 20th century—of course they are closer to us, the contemporaries, but the past is so, so important because probably Borges, Faulkner wouldn’t have been possible without Joyce and without Homer, you know. That is the big, big difference between humanities and sciences.

CUNO:  How important is it to you to have as a background and a foundation, a particular literary tradition that is of South America or do you find it equally important that there be Faulkner, that there be Pound, there be Yeats, for example.

VARGAS LLOSA:  There are no borders for literature; the limits are the languages, no? Of course if you write in English or you write in French or Russian, you represent something different, you know. But borders don’t exist in literature; [it] succeeds when [we] eliminate borders and expresses human passions, human challenges, human problems—everything that is a common denominator between people from different languages, different beliefs, different traditions. I think this is one of the great things of literature in particular and culture in general. There is no border, there is no frontiers, and when you want to impose frontiers, borders, walls, you are creating, you know, a kind of ghetto or for a culture or for a language or for an ideology that regresses human world in this long way in which we have been trying precisely to disappear, you know, everything that distance or discriminate the common denominator of humankind. That is one of the great things of real literature, you know, great literature.

CUNO:  [It] promotes a cosmopolitan view of the world.

VARGAS LLOSA:  Absolutely. Yeah cosmopolitan in the best sense of the of the word. You are not forgetting your roots. Not at all—real literature mixed always roots, particular roots of the person or our family or our society, with the rest of the world. This mixture is the realm of literature. For that reason I think literature and culture should respect this great, great tradition of opposing anything that can divide and separate mankind in reversal societies, you know, societies that are enemies because they don’t know each other. This is one of the great functions of culture, of literature. But in our times I don’t think with this new orientation of culture that culture is able to have this traditional function, you know.

CUNO:  You also write in a related essay that, “the first, irrevocable, requisite of a democratic society is the secular nature of the state, its total independence from ecclesiastical institutions, which is the only way of guaranteeing the preservation of the common interest over individual interests.”

VARGAS LLOSA:  Oh yes, I think if a religion is considered a religion of the state, freedom disappears. Religion cannot be democratic. Religion proposes a kind of fruit that is not divisible, that cannot share with other different groups. So that is absolutely essential that the state will be secular. But that doesn’t mean that the religion is not important. I think it’s very important because for the great majority of people probably the spiritual life comes always attached to religion.

I think only a minority of people can have a very rich spiritual life devoid of any religious attachment. So for that reason writing is very, very important to have in a free society—in a lay society—a very rich spiritual and religious kind of life. But important is to preserve the state institutions [that] have been completely absorbed by one religion, because when this happens freedom disappears.

CUNO:  That’s true also of our cultural institutions, of museums, of universities, of orchestras—

VARGAS LLOSA:  [over Cuno] They are open, I mean they open their doors to all kinds of art that is valid. It doesn’t matter if it is attached, you know, to a particular religion. Yeah, of course, in the western world, Christianity was so important. That has impregnated our culture in the past and we cannot reject this tradition at all. But I think democracy is something that has push mankind far more away of this kind of limitation that the religious imposition had in the past. That is the big difference in our base with the past—the past in our culture produces fantastic things without any doubt. But freedom was very limited because of religious limitation. We have the great fortune that in our democratic times religion has become something of the private world and we should keep it there.

CUNO:  You write in the essay, “while I’m firmly convinced that secularism is indispensable in a truly free society, I also believe with equal clarity that for a society to be free it is necessary for there to be an intense spiritual life, which for the great majority means religious life, for without it not even the best conceived laws and institutions function as well as they should and often fail or become corrupted.”

VARGAS LLOSA:  I’m totally convinced of this. I think it’s very important that the society has a spiritual life, very rich spiritual life because otherwise for the great majority of people, it will be emptiness, the kind of empty worlds, you know, in which there are no illusions. And this can be very disruptive for our society. So I am not against religion. I am in favor of it. I am not a believer myself but I think it’s very important for a society to have a rich spiritual life, which means for many, many people a religious life. But we must separate the state public institutions or be contaminated or totally controlled by religion. Because if this happens, freedom disappears.

CUNO:  I know that we’re coming up at the end of our time, but I have a couple of last questions. In your final essay you wrote that “literature should be engaged with the problems of its time and that writers should write with the conviction that by writing they can help others become more free, sensitive, and lucid” and that in your words “while remaining entertaining literature must immerse itself in the life of the streets and communal experiences in history as it unfolds as it did in its best moments.”

VARGAS LLOSA:  Yes, I still believe all this. Yeah, well, maybe we could introduce some particular specifications but in general I think this is my idea today.

CUNO:  Are there times, and are we living in a time now, when fiction seems inappropriate and only nonfictional responses are appropriate?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Oh, I would say that this has happened. We have had in history so many critical times in which everything seemed to be—go into the abyss, you know. I think we are having a very serious crisis. But I don’t forget something that Karl Popper used to do to remember always. Never in history we have had the kind of opportunities that we have today. We have for the first time probably in history the possibility to choose if we want to be prosperous or we want to be poor, if we want to be free or we want to be the slaves of an ideology, of a religion, of a kind of populist dictatorship. Now we have this extraordinary opportunity. We can choose the kind of society in which we want to live. And I think this is something extraordinary that give[s] us the possibility of chang[ing] things if we can see that things are wrong, no?

CUNO:  You’re right now a writing a book-length essay on the liberal imagination, liberal thinking, classical liberalism. Is that compelled by the political circumstances you are surrounded by?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Of course. I had this idea, you know, of since I read a marvelous book by an American critic, To the Finland Station.

CUNO:  Edmund Wilson.

VARGAS LLOSA:  Edmund Wilson, who I consider a very great critic. He was from the left but a very, very great critic. And he wrote this book, this extraordinary book, about the socialist idea, which starts very arbitrarily by the way in the 19th century and it finishes when Lenin arrives to the Finland station.

And I since then, I thought why there is no book in which the liberal idea is described as Wilson do[es] with socialism in a book which can be an essay but that should be read as a novel because the richness of the telling, of using words of the construction of the story. And so it is something that I had in mind for many, many, many years. I am working now [on] this one, but the first idea I have is when I write for the first time To the Finland Station which I think was in the 60s.

CUNO:  So the book will not be just about the ideas of these thinkers but about the moral lives they lived?

VARGAS LLOSA:  Oh yes. Well the idea that the most important achievements in the culture of freedom where the result of the liberal ideas. Liberal in the very wide sense, liberals embrace, you know, very different ideologies. Real liberals, social democrats, conservative, sometimes socialist, you know. Liberalism is not an ideology, it’s a doctrine—it’s something much more open than an ideology. And I think the great advances of all of humankind were the result of these ideas. That is more or less the sense of the book. And I am writing this book because the incredible success of the totalitarian ideas was to impregnate liberalism as something negative and as something responsible of the worst injustice of society. And I think it’s exactly the opposite, you know. Liberalism was hated by the Catholic conservatism, by communism, by socialists, and there was one reason is because liberalism make[s] the great reforms that have produced the kind of free world that we have in, well not in our country but in certain countries in our day.

CUNO:  You say that great literature can help us learn to read carefully, confront moral choices, and inhabit the moral universe of others. That’s the world of fiction.

VARGAS LLOSA:  I think this is true but at the same time I am forgetting there to mention that the extraordinary pleasure that great literature produces in us. The way in which we enjoy living this alternative life that literature offer[s] us is the essential reason for reading books and all the other consequences are very important, too. But the main reason is the pleasure that great literature, great art produces in us.

CUNO:  Thank you very much.

VARGAS LLOSA:  Thank you.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA:  We have for the first time probably in history, the possibility to choose if...

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