Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:
“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
These words came to mind as I wrapped up Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest essays, Notes on the Death of Culture, in which he exercises his prerogative as a grumpy old man and complains about what has gone wrong in the world. His lament here is on the decline of high culture and its replacement by a sorry substitute of an anti-culture of the masses. He is unashamed to defend the old elites and use terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ to draw distinctions between the good and the bad. His diagnosis has nuance, but it boils down to this: the democratization of culture has left us with incoherence, and no means of elevating truly great work above the rest of the noise. We live in a society of spectacle, in which the biggest, flashiest sights eclipse all work of any quality. In spite of our great advances in technology and political progress in many parts of the globe, the cacophony may drown out the narratives we need to sustain our societies and thereby jeopardize the entire project.
Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal figure, one that was never in vogue in his native Peru—alas, he lost the 1990 presidential election to eventual autocrat Alberto Fujimori—and his type has become increasingly endangered elsewhere, too. He’s unique among Latin American literary giants of the late twentieth century in his firm embrace of open markets and rejection of leftist revolution. He is also one of those intellectuals with tremendous respect for the religious and the societal role of faith who nonetheless does not identify with any place, perhaps revealing the weakness of his stance in the process: if faith is just some guarantor of social order and does not place any demands upon its adherents, why should anyone else buy in? He knows he takes a lonely stance, but also knows that people like him have long served as the curators of culture, and worries about what may come next.
This worldview leads the Peruvian Nobel Laureate to embrace some fairly standard positions that prioritize a secular political order and existing institutions, including critiques of Muslim headscarves and WikiLeaks. Regardless of his positions, this is hardly the most gripping part of the book; authors philosophizing are a dime a dozen, and Vargas Llosa is witty but never revolutionary. His work is stronger when he delves deeper into the trappings of faith and in a mediation on the death of eroticism (cue Rollo May), which are somewhat more transgressive themes. Here, he mounts a defense of ritual and the private sphere in an attempt to keep some sense of mystery and wonder alive in the world.
Vargas Llosa is at his best when he talks about the arts, and the value of the canon in which some of his finest works (Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat) surely belong. The excerpted section that concludes Notes on the Death of Culutre made bolder leaps than his 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address that pondered some similar themes, but it does better drive home the thrust of his argument: that literature is particularly suited to inspire reflection, rebellion, and the pursuit of ideals, and does so in a way that newer technology cannot. Here we see the depth of his mind, and how he has taken many great works and used them in ways that again prove their greatness: by serving as windows into the soul, an inspiration toward human action in the service of a greater cause. This, he tells us, is how a curmudgeonly “dinosaur in difficult times” can still impart some wisdom.
Our intrepid author is otherwise short on advice for how to sustain culture; he even admits that the future does not concern him much. (This must be much easier when one is 79 than it is when one is 26.) This, perhaps, is what brought me back to MacIntyre today: the need to build communities (and I use that term loosely) that can preserve the best of this great cultural inheritance, even as we make our way in a modern world that often has no regard for it. We do this not to repeat the past or stay stuck in it, but to make sure we don’t lose touch with the more insightful things people have said in the past, and to ensure we stop and reflect on the broader narratives in which we situate our lives. I suppose I ought to get to work.