Can Western Cultural Literacy Make a Comeback?

In 2015, two events highlighted the state of Western culture today: the premier of the film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and the publication of the book Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Notes on the Death of Culture is a brilliant and challenging work that argues for the vital importance of high culture in human flourishing and the health of societies. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a piece of junk that serves as a prime example of the cultural collapse Llosa describes in his autopsy.

With amazing lucidity, Llosa drives to the heart of a devastating problem in the West: the erosion of genuine culture. While culture can certainly encompass comic books, movies, and pop songs—I love all three—increasingly we have lost sight of, and appreciation for, the more complex and challenging works of art that can more deeply change us. Llosa cites books by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Homer, and Nietzsche; works of art by Picasso, Rembrandt, and Seurat; and plays by Chekhov, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Brecht as examples of things that “enriched to an extraordinary degree my imagination, my desires and my sensibility.”

One thing all of these works have in common is the great effort involved in creating them and the effort it takes to consume them, at least if we are to truly understand them. Great works of culture should change who we are. They should also attempt to engage with complex cultural and spiritual issues. But with the democratization of culture, the digital revolution, and the elimination of middle and high brow culture in favor of pop culture, this is all too rare. Llosa argues: “Now we are all cultured in some way, even if we have never read a book, visited an art exhibition, listened to a concert or acquired any basic idea of the humanistic, scientific or technological knowledge in the world in which we live.” 

Culture, in other words, becomes not something that you have to actively work at—even as that work is intensely rewarding and joyful—but something you passively consume. 

“Of course, culture can indeed be a pleasing pastime,” Llosa continues, “but if it is just this, then the very concept becomes distorted and debased: everything included under the term becomes equal and uniform; a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones and a performance by the Cirque du Soleil have equal value.”

Thus “Star Wars” becomes War and Peace. There have always been pop culture entertainments that have captured a society’s attention, from the circus to “The Untouchables” to Marvel’s string of hit superhero movies. I don’t come to bury pop culture. I  love it, as I find deep metaphors in the music of Taylor Swift or an epic like “The Dark Knight Returns.” (Llosa is also no snob, admitting he loves movies and goes to them twice a week.) Yet what has been lost in giving so much credence to pop culture and the acceptance of passive transmission over and against having to strive to acquire it, is that willingness by cultural consumers to do any heavy lifting. Thus we lose what we could gain by taking on more challenging works of art: The Brothers Karamazov, Beethoven’s symphonies, “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Without that effort and such anchoring in life altering works, Llosa argues, culture becomes adrift, feckless, and childish. Even George Lucas based the first “Star Wars” movie on a substantive work, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces

While “Star Wars” is treated as a reality-shifting cultural phenomenon, most of the installments in the series are simply mediocre movies. Harrison Ford looks tired and silly reprising the role of Han Solo. There is no exposition or backstory to explain the characters’ motivations. The action is relentless yet somehow boring. The destruction of yet another Death Star is particularly lazy. Our cultural muscles have atrophied, allowing works of marginal value to be praised as high art; it’s all become one big pop culture Death Star sequel, sucking everything into its mindless orbit. 

But we can resist. We can say no. We can learn to flex high brow cultural muscles again and to take on challenging works of art. We can say: Nicki Minaj is junk, James Patterson is a hack, and Lady Gaga produces lazy provocations, not art. We can even say that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is cotton candy that is forgotten seconds after you leave the theater.

Perhaps then we can get back to what Llosa sees as the truest, noblest calling of culture—nourishing our souls while examining the big questions. Despite our vast scientific and technical knowledge, Llosa argues, “We have never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what are we doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be?”

Llosa’s critique offers a challenge and a warning: “The raison d’être of culture was to give an answer to these questions. Today it is exonerated from such a responsibility, since we have turned it into something much more superficial and voluble: a form of entertainment or an esoteric and obscurantist game for self-regarding academics and intellectuals who turn their backs on society.” In other words, culture should not merely be passive entertainment, but an active (and often edifying) journey toward a better understanding of what it means to be human.

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