Are We Witnessing the Death of a Culture?

notes-on-the-death-of-a-cultureNobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, thinks so, and makes this contention in a new book, Notes on the Death of a Culture. I have not read the book but came across this excerpt today on Literary Hub. Llosa’s basic contention is that global entertainment culture has basically destroyed any intellectual, literary high culture, except as tourist spots for those who want to get their culture creds. He defines “entertainment culture” as a culture whose only value is profit.

What this article left me wondering is why entertainment is the only thing we value, whether it is in music videos, manga, or opiates. My wife and I have pondered why people give themselves over to such powerful addictive drugs, and the risk of fatal overdoses. All I can come up with is that we have become a culture that is living by the axiom of “let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And if that is the case, then indeed, we are witnessing the death of a culture. And it won’t matter who we elect as president.

Llosa is concerned that we no longer value great art, music, literature and the cultivation of the intellect that led to careful, reasoned discourse. My observation is that people need a reason to value goodness, truth and beauty. Telling them they should do so, particularly when mass culture offers such cheap and quick thrills, is just not going to cut it. What is it that makes us defer instant gratification for the hard work of dissecting a careful argument, of meditatively studying a great work of art, of penetrating the depths of a beautiful but complex piece of music? What is it that drives us to devote our lives to producing such works, or other cultural artifacts of distinctive excellence?

I wonder if at the root of it all is a deep sense of hope that what we are doing matters, and will matter long after our physical death. And I wonder whether the notion that we live on in our work is enough. Woody Allen dispelled that long ago for me in the movie Interiors, when a character remarks after a death, in response to this sentiment, “what does that matter when you are dead?”

Llosa comments on T.S. Eliot, whose sense of the life of a culture was that it was bound up with religious faith. And what religious faith (in Eliot’s case as well as my own, Christianity) offers is hope. Why else would we care for the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, the quest for the transcendent if there is nothing to be transcended. Can a culture exist without hope? And we witness this in our political campaigns, whether they promise expanded employment, or simply to make us “great” again. In the turn to mass entertainment and to narcotizing our pain, aren’t we admitting that none of these chimeras of hope is enough?

People in many quarters are dismissive of religion today, and Christianity in particular. And yet isn’t it the hope of life everlasting, and the consciousness of a reckoning of one’s life that drove the cathedral builders, the great artists, the founders of universities, composers like Bach, and many great writers? From whence did ideas of the rule of law, even over kings come from? Isn’t this what also drove people like newly sainted Mother Teresa to leave the comforts of home for the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata)? If we dismiss religious faith, what will we put in its place to give life to our culture, and hope that is meaningful for the many?

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