Mario Vargas Llosa – Notes on the Death of Culture

Metamorphosis of a Word

Before developing my own argument, I would like to explore some of the essays that have focused on [culture] from different perspectives. Although they are very different from each other, they do share a common denominator in so far as they all agree that culture is in deep crisis and is in decline.

a) T.S.Eliot: Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

  • [He] offers a penetrating criticism of the cultural system of his time, which, according to him, is becoming ever more distant from the ideal model that it represented in the past.
  • T.S.Eliot states that what he calls ‘high culture’ is the domain of elite, and he justifies this by asserting that ‘it is an essential condition of the preservation of the quality of the culture of a minority, that it should continue to be a minority culture’.
  • The naive idea that, through education, one can transmit culture to all of society is destroying ‘higher culture’, because the only way of achieving this universal democratization of culture is by impoverishing culture, making it even more superficial.
  • We should not confuse culture with knowledge … … Culture is something that predates knowledge, an attribute of the spirit, a sensibility and a cultivation of form that gives sense and direction to different spheres of knowledge.
  • Culture and religion are not the same thing, but they are not separable … … Religion, ‘while it lasts, and on its own level, gives an apparent meaning of life, provides the framework for a culture and protect the mass of humanity from boredom and despair’.

b) George Steiner: Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture

  • Steiner is disturbed that the great poet of The Waste Land could have written a treatise on culture just three years after the end of the Second World War without linking his discussion in any way to the extraordinary of the two world wars, … … the culmination of a long tradition of anti-Semitism within Western culture.
  • In Steiner’s account, … … the Old Continent [Europe] fell prey to … … a sense of frustration, tedium and melacholy, mixed with a secret desire for explosive, cataclysmic violence … … For Steiner, European culture did not simply anticipate but it also desired the prospect of a bloody and purging explosion that took shape in revolutions and in two world wars. Instead of stopping these bloodbaths, culture desired to provoke and celebrate them.
  • In his final chapters, Steiner sketches a rather gloomy picture of how culture might evolve, … … Traditionally, ‘spoken, remembered and written discourse was the backbone of consciousness’. Now the word is increasingly subordinated to the image.
  • The most polemical part of Steiner’s essay is where he argues that postmodern society requires all cultured men and women to have basic knowledge of mathematics and natural science so that they can understand the notable advances that the scientific world has made … … This proposition is as utopian as those that Steiner decries in his essay.

c) Guy Debord: La Societe du spectacle

  • Debord defines ‘spectacle’ what Marx called ‘alineation’ … …, a condition caused by commodity fetishism, which has taken on such a central role in the life of consumers that it has displaced any other cultural, intellectual or political reality. The obsessive acquisition of manufactured products, which keeps commodity production actively increasing, brings about the ‘reification’ of individuals, turns them into objects. Men and women become active consumers of objects that fashion and advertising impose on them, emptying them of social, spiritual or even human concerns … …
  • These ideas of the young Marx, which he never managed to develop in his mature writings, are at the basis of Debord’s theory of our times.
  • Debord’s book has a number insights and intuitions such as the idea that replacing life by representation, turning life into a spectator of itself, leads to an impoverishment of human existence … … ‘The real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions’. This lucid observation has been amply confirmed in the years following the publication of Debord’s book.
  • This process leads to a sense of futility … … and the disappearance of freedom because any social or political changes that occur are not due to the free choices of individuals, but rather to ‘the economic system, the dynamic of capitalism’.

d) Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy: La cultura-mundo: Repuesta a una sociedad desorientada

  • It puts forward the idea that there is now an established global culture – a culture-world … … This culture, unlike what had previously been defined as culture, is no longer elitist, erudite and exclusive, but rather a genuine ‘mass culture’ … … This mass culture is based on the predominance of image and sound over word … … Not only has information broken through all barriers and become accessible to all, but almost every aspect of communication, art, politics, sport, religion, etc., has felt the reforming effects of the small screen.
  • Some assertions of La cultura-mundo seem questionable, such as the proposition that this new planetary culture has developed extreme individualism across the globe. Quite the reverse: the ways in which advertising and fashion shape and promote cultural products today are a major obstacle to the formation of independent individuals … … Rather than developing individuals, the culture-world stifles them, depriving them from lucidity and free will, causing them to react to the dominant ‘culture’ with conditioned, herd mentality.

e) Frederic Martel: Mainstream

  • … … Mainstream culture has swept away the cultural life of a small minority that had previously held monopoly over culture; it has democratized it, putting it within everyone’s reach … …
  • The accounts and the interviews collected by Martel are instructive and quite representative of a reality that, … … the great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture now is dead.
  • The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn.

I   The Civilization of the Spectacle

a) What has caused the West to slide towards [the civilization of the spectacle]?

  • The material well-being that followed the years of privation during the Second World War … … at the same time, there was a notable extension of moral parameters. Well-being, a freer lifestyle and the increased time given to leisure in the developed world gave an important stimulus to leisure industries, promoted by advertising, the insipiration and magical guide for our times.
  • Another, no less important factor has been the democratization of culture … …This commendable philosophy has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life, justifying superficial form and content in works on the grounds of fulfilling a civic duty to reach the greatest number.

b) Feature of our time

  • … … The culture we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today’s readers require easy books … …
  • It is true that the more serious newspapers and journals still publish reviews of books, exhibitions and concerts, but does anyone read these solitary paladins who try to map a scale of value onto the tangled jungle that contemporary culture has become? In the days of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, criticism played a central role in the world of culture because it helped guide citizens in the difficult task of judging what they heard, saw and read.
  • In the civilization of our time, it is normal, and almost obligatory, for cookery and fashion to take up most of the culture sections, for chefs and fashion designers now enjoy the prominence that before was given to scientists, composers and philosophers.
  • The vacuum left by the disappearance of criticism has been filled by advertising … … [which] plays a decisive role in forming taste, sensibility, imagination and customs.
  • Massification, along with frivolity, is another feature of our time … … today the major football games, like the Roman circuses, function mainly as a pretext for irrationality, the regression of individuals to the tribe, to being a part of a collective, where, in the anonymous warmth of the stands, spectators can give free rein to their aggressive instincts, to the symbolic conquest and annihilation of the opposition.
  • Today, drugs are not used to explore new sensations or visions for scientific or artistic purposes. They are not an expression of rebellion against established norms by nonconformists looking to adopt alternative forms of existence. Today, the mass consumption of [drugs] is a response to a social environment that pushes men and women toward quick and easy pleasure, that immunizes them against worries and responsibility, allowing them to turn their backs on any self-knowledge that might be gained through thought and introspection.
  • Superficial and glitzy culture, which is playful and an affectation, cannot replace the certainties, myths, mysteries and rituals of religions that have stood the test of centuries. In today’s society narcotics and alcohol offer a momentary spiritual peace, and provide the certainties and respite that, in earlier times, men and women could find in prayer, confession, communion and sermons.
  • A notable feature of contemporary society is the waning in importance of intellectuals.
  • A further characteristic of this civilization is the impoverishment of ideas as a driving force of cultural life. Today images have primacy over ideas.
  • … … sometimes on the margins, and sometimes in the mainstream, great talents would emerge, which, despite difficult conditions in which directors always had to work because of budget constraints and dependence on producers, were capable of making films of great richness, depth and originality, with a distinctive personal style. Today’s society … … no longer produces creators such as Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti or Luis Bunuel. Who is today’s cinema icon? Woody Allen, who is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gauguin or Van Gogh in painting or Dario Fo is to Chekhov or Ibsen in theatre.
  • The disappearance of any minimal consensus about aesthetic value means that in this field confusion reigns and will continue to reign for a long time, since it is now not possible to discern with any degree of objectivity what it is to have talent or to lack talent, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what work represents something new and durable and what is just a will-o’-the-wisp. This confusion has turned the art into a carnival where genuine creators, sharp operators and conmen all intermingle and it is often difficult to tell them apart.

c) In what ways has journalism influenced, and been influenced by, the civilization of the spectacle?

  • [¡Hola! Magazine], which is now published not just in Spanish, but in eleven languages, is avidly read by millions of readers across the globe, who enjoy reading news about how the rich, the famous and the winners in this vale of tears get married, get divorced, remarry, dress, undress, fight, become friends, spend their millions, listing their likes, their dislikes, their taste and lack of taste.
  • While they are acting in this way to meet the demands of their public, the organs of the press are unwittingly contributing more than anyone else to consolidating this ‘light’ civilization that has given frivolity the supremacy previously accorded to ideas and artistic creation.
  • Of course the big press corporations are not mere weathervanes that decide their editorial stance, their moral behaviour and their news priorities simply on the basis of opinion polls on public taste. Their function is also to offer direction, assess, educate and clarify … … But to perform this function, they must have an audience.
  • It is not in the power of journalism by itself to change the civilization of the spectacle that it has helped to create. This reality is deeply rooted in our time … … we who are the fortunate citizens of countries in which the democracy, liberty, ideas, values, books, art and literature of the West have afforded us both the privilege of turning fleeting entertainment into the supreme aspiration of human existence as well as the right to view with cynicism and disdain everything that is boring or worrying, and remind us that life is not just entertainment but also drama, pain, mystery and frustration.

d) Evolution of modern art

  • The most unexpected and disturbing consequence of the evolution of modern art and the myriad experiments feeding it is that there are no longer any objective criteria that make it possible to qualify or disqualify something as a work of art or situate it within a hierarchy. The possibility began to disappear with the cubist revolution and disappeared entirely with abstract art.
  • Under the guise of modernity, the experiment – the search for ‘new means of expression’ – in reality documented the terrible dearth of ideas, artistic culture, dexterous craftsmanship and authenticity and integrity that marks a good portion of the artistic work of our times. There are exceptions, of course. But it is extremely difficult to locate them, because, contrary to the way things happen in the field of literature – where there aesthetic codes that permit the identification of originality, novelty, talent and mastery, or crudity and fraud, have not yet collapsed completely … … in the case of painting the system is rotten to the core.
  • In Bathers at Asnieres, that perfection astonishes and, in a way, overwhelms us: the repose of the figures sunning themselves, bathing in the river, or contemplating the scenery, beneath ta midday sun that seems to dissolve the distant bridge, the locomotive crossing it, and the chimneys of Passy into the dazzle of a mirage. This tranquility, this balance and this secret harmony between man and water, cloud and sailboat, costume and oars, are certainly manifestations of a total command of the medium, the sureness of line, and the use of colour, all achieved by dint of effort; but they also represent an elevated and noble conception of the art of painting as a means of spiritual fulfilment and a source of pleasure in and of itself, in which painting is understood as its own best reward, a metier in the practice of which one finds meaning and joy. … … The admiration it arouses in us derives from more than technical skill and meticulous craftsmanship. Beyond all that, and somehow supporting and fostering it, is an attitude, an ethic, a manner of surrendering oneself to the service of an ideal, which a creator must embrace in order to transcend and extend the limits of a tradition, as Seurat did. This way of ‘choosing to be an artist’ seems lost for ever to today’s impatient and cynical youth, who dream of seizing glory any way they can, even if to reach it they must climb a mountain of pachydermatous shit.

II   A Brief Discourse on Culture

a) Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World

  • The Russian critic argues what he calls ‘popular culture’ serves as a sort of counterpoint to official and aristocratic culture. Popular culture satirizes official culture, with incidents that expose and exaggerate what is hidden and censored, and contrasts this bawdy ‘bad taste’ to the so-called ‘good taste’ of the dominant classes.
  • This is more radical than the division between highbrow and lowbrow culture: they gave lack of culture due dignity, showing that what might be seen as crude, vulgar or slovenly could be redeemed by its vitality and humour and the uninhibited and authentic way it represented the most basic of human experiences.
  • In this way the borders that separated culture from lack of culture appear politically incorrect. Now we are all cultured in some way.

b) An era of specialization and the collapse of culture

  • In the past, culture at least allowed [people] to establish hierarchies and preferences in the fields of knowledge and aesthetic values.
  • T.S.Eliot in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture argued that we should not identify culture with knowledge, because culture precedes and sustains knowledge … … something akin to a moral design.
  • It would be wrong to attribute identical functions to science and to the arts: one cannot say of literature, painting and music, as one can say of chemistry and alchemy, that the latter replaces and supersedes the former. A literary and artistic work that achieves a certain level of excellence does not die with the passing of time; it continues living and enriching new generations and evolving with them. That is why, [they] were the common denominator of culture, the space where communication between human beings was possible despite differences in language, traditions, beliefs, and eras.

III   Forbidden to Forbid

a) An end to ‘authority’

  • Michel Foucault (and his ideology of May ’68): in the Western world education had always been one of those ‘structures of power’ put in place to repress and domesticate the social order, establishing forms of compliance and alienation to ensure that the dominant groups could perpetuate their privileges and power.
  • Teachers: stripped of credibility and authority since then; lost the respect of parents and revolutionary philosophers.
  • The impoverishment and disorder suffered by the state education in France has given private education. Effectively Michel Foucault and his unwitting disciples instead contributed to a great education revolution, which ended up with the poor remaining poor, the rich remaining rich … …

b) The delusion of deconstructionism

  • Jacques Derrida: literature does not describe the world, it merely describes itself … …[In the end] nothing exists outside language, which constructs the world that we think we know, but which is nothing more than a fiction woven of words.
  • According to Foucault, power uses languages to control society and to nip in the bud any attempt to undermine the privileges of the dominant elites — If we were merely the languages that power imposes on us, political liberty would not have been born, no historical evolution would have taken place, and literary and artistic originality would not have blossomed.
  • Lionel Trilling and his essays: [he] saw literature as the ultimate witness to the ideas, myths, beliefs and dreams that make a society function and to the secret frustrations or stimuli that explain individual behaviour. [Indeed], the worst and the best of the human story could always be found in books.
  • … … The field of literature encompasses all of human experience because it reflects it and shapes it in decisive ways, and that it should thus be the patrimony of everyone, an activity that is nurtured in the shared experiences of the species, to which we can ceaselessly refer as we search for order when we seem mired in chaos, or look for relief when we are downhearted, or explore doubts and uncertainties when reality seems to safe and reliable.

c) The Islamic veil

  • From the outset, from a liberal perspective, the respect for individual rights demands that any person should be able to dress any way they like without the state getting involved in their decision.
  • The issue of Islamic veil is not so simple if examined more closely and from within the framework of institutions that guarantee democracy, pluralism and freedom.
  • The first, irrevocable, requisite of a democratic society is the secular nature of the state which is the only way of guaranteeing the preservation of the common interest over individual interests … … in the nineteenth century, secular public schooling was a great step forward towards the creation of an open society and it offered a stimulus to scientific investigation and artistic creativity, … …  the development of a critical spirit and of a deep spirituality. A secular state is … … a state that, in order to preserve the freedom of its citizens, has removed religious practice from the public sphere into the private sphere.
  • This process of secularization has made democracy possible. Unlike Christianity, Islam has not experienced this process in any integral fashion.
  • The girls sent by their families and communities to French state schools wearing the Islamic veil are something more than they appear: their objective is to gain recognition for their right to be different, to enjoy, in public spaces, a civic extraterritoriality compatible with what these sectors consider their cultural identity, supported by their beliefs and religious practices. This cultural and political process is one of the most potent challenges that the culture of freedom faces in our time.
  • This argument, taken to extremes, is endless. Or rather, if it is accepted, it will create powerful precedents for the acceptance of other practices that are so fictitiously ‘essential’ in their own culture, such as arranged marriages, polygamy and , as an extreme, even female circumcision.
  • All cultures, beliefs and customs should have their place in an open society so long as they do not collide head on with those human rights and principle of tolerance that are at the heart of democracy. The human rights and public and private freedoms guaranteed by democratic society offer a wide variety ways to live one’s life that allow for the coexistence of all religions, beliefs, but these, in many cases, must give up, as Christianity has done, the most fundamentalist aspects of their doctrine, in order to gain a democratic place in an open society.

IV   The Disappearance of Eroticism

a) The masturbation workshops in Spain

  • The initiatives designed to demystify sex, making it something as common and everyday as eating, sleeping and going to work, might have the effect of making future generations feel prematurely disillusioned by sex. For sex would lose its mystery, passion, fantasy and creativity and would become banal, a gymnastic workout.
  • The ideal thing in this respect would be for the boundaries within our sex lives unfold to broaden sufficiently for men and women to act freely, exploring their desires and fantasies without feeling threatened or discriminated against, but within certain cultural forms that preserve the private and intimate nature of sex, so that sex lives do not become banal or animalistic. That is eroticism. With its rituals, fantasies, its clandestine nature, its love of form and theatricality, it emerges as a product of high civilization, a phenomenon inconceivable in primitive or rudimentary societies or people, because it is an activity that requires refined sensibility, literary and artistic culture and a certain propensity for transgression.

b) Catherine Millet’s account on her own sex life

  • This book confirms what all literature that focuses on sex has shown over and over again: that, if separated from all other activities and functions that make up our existence, sex is extremely monotonous, so limited in its scope that, in the end, it is dehumanizing.
  • It is essential, as Georges Bataille has explained, that certain taboos and rules that can channel and limit sex should be preserved, so that physical love can be lived – enjoyed – as transgression.

V   Culture, Politics and Power

a) The loss of prestige in politics

  • In our era those negative aspects of political life have often been magnified by the press, with the result that public opinion has become convinced that politics is an activity full of amoral, inefficient and corruptible people. The frantic search for scandal and cheap gossip with which to launch attacks on politicians has mean that, in many democracies, what the public knows about its politicians are their worst features.
  • There is no way out: muckraking journalism is a perverse stepchild of the culture of freedom. We cannot curtail it without dealing freedom of expression a mortal blow.
  • The root of all this is in the culture, in which the supreme value now is to amuse oneself and amuse others … … to forget serious, deep, disquieting and difficult things and to indulge in light, pleasant, superficial, happy and sanely stupid pursuits. Politics is one of the main victims of the ruling value of postmodern life: stupidity.
  • Another consequence is how little the majority of people react to levels of corruption in developed and developing countries that are at perhaps their highest levels in history. Furthermore this moral laxity has reached such a level of complexity that the supervision of power that any society can achieve is much more difficult than in the past.
  • Of course culture cannot be held solely responsible; another reason is because public office is usually badly paid.

b) Indifference to the law

  • This indifference presupposes that laws are the work of a power that is merely self-serving. Most people adhere to the law because there is no other alternative.
  • There is no better example of this general indifference to the law today than the widespread piracy of books, records, DVDs and other audiovisual products.

c) The disappearance of confidentiality

  • The prodigious transformations brought about by the Internet authorize Internet users to know everything and divulge everything that happens under the sun, dissolving once and for all the demarcation between public and private, is to take a giant leap that might not be an act of freedom but rather an assault on freedom itself.
  • Notes on Julian Assange: it is not about fighting against a ‘lie’, but rather about satisfying this morbid and unhealthy curiosity of the civilization of the spectacle, the civilization of our age, where journalism is guided by the need to entertain.

VI   The Opium of the People

a) Presence of religion in contemporary life

  • Religion shows no signs of disappearing: the resolve and engagement of Catholics have never before been so active in social campaigns, demonstrating against gay marriage, the legalization of abortion, contraception, euthanasia and secularism. Something similar can be said of Protestant churches in United States and Orthodox in Russia.
  • Is this good or bad for culture and for freedom?
  • Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great): books against religion and in defence of atheism
  • Noble Prize winner for physics, Charles Tornes, who defend their religion beliefs

b) The function of churches and religions

  • Fear of death; however, the development of scientific and technological knowledge has not managed to do away with religions. Physical extinction has kept notions of transcendence alive throughout history.
  • A complementary belief: for this life to be bearable, it is necessary that there should be an authority where good is rewarded and evil is punished.
  • Also, so many of us suspect that if this idea were to disappear, then, sooner or later, social life would become barbaric, there would be a return to the law of the jungle and the rule of the strongest.
  • It is rather a feeling of abandonment and loss in this life caused by the mere suspicion that there is no other life, there is no place beyond where a being more powerful and wiser than humans know and determine the meaning of life, of temporal and historical order … … Despite all the advances it has made, science has not been able to reveal this mystery.
  • Positive aspect (private sphere): religion gives people a form of solace; it is a form of salvation that they cling to so as not to give in to the desperation that might undermine their capacity to react to and resist misfortune
  • Positive aspect (social sphere): church played a crucial role in the birth of democratic culture; they did help to alleviate the most brutal forms of exploitation, discrimination and violence … …

c) Church vs. development of secular society

  • While Christianity would serve democracy through the philosophy implicit in its doctrine, in societies that had not become secularized, it became one of the greatest obstacles preventing democracy from expanding and taking root
  • Religions accept and promulgate only absolute truths; every religion rejects the truths of other religions; they all aspire to conquer the hearts of human beings and to control their behavior. In power it became intolerant, dogmatic, exclusivist and fanatical
  • Secularization means unrestricted freedom of citizens to practice and live their faith without any hindrance, as long as they respect the laws of their parliaments and democratic governments
  • Catholicism and Protestantism reduced their intolerance and accepted coexistence with other religions, not because their doctrine was any less all-encompassing and intolerant than that of Islam, but because they were forced to change; in Christian societies, there was a process that forced religion to privatize and step back from state control
  • In an open society, religion belongs to the private sphere should not usurp the function of the state, for monopolies are always a source of abuse and corruption

d) Necessity of spiritual life

  • While I am firmly convinced that secularism is indispensable in a truly free society, I also believe with equal certainty that for a society to be free it is necessary for there to be an intense spiritual life
  • There are examples of secular morality, but they could be found only in small groups … … It is still an incontrovertible reality that, for the great majority, religion is the first and the main source of the moral and civic principles that buttress democratic culture
  • It is in the economy that the evisceration of spiritual life are most visible: this system of free economy accentuates economic differences and encourages materialism, consumerism, the accumulation of wealth, and an aggressive, belligerent and egotistical attitude
  • All the great liberal thinkers  argued that economic and political freedom achieved its full civilizing function only when the spiritual life of a society was intense and fostered a hierarchy of values respected and adhered to by that society. The great failure, and the crises that the capitalist system faces again and again are not due to inherent faults in the institutions of capitalism themselves but rather to the collapse of moral and religious values, which act us a curb that keeps capitalism within certain norm of honesty, respect for one’s neighbor, and respect for the law.
  • And it is even worse if the person committing the crime is rewarded by media success

e) The case of German Constitutional Court

  • If the state doesn’t preserve its secular character, and gives in, democracy is lost, in the short or the long term
  • Churches would negate themselves – they would cease to exist – if they were flexible and tolerant and prepared to accept the basic principles of democratic life, such as pluralism, relativism, the coexistence of contradictory truths, the constant mutual concessions required to arrive at a social consensus

Final Thoughts

a) The idea of progress is deceptive

  • Never before have we lived in an age so rich in scientific knowledge and technological discoveries; never have we been better equipped to defeat illness, ignorance and poverty, and yet perhaps 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?
  • In the past, literature and the other arts were often the best way of attracting attention to such problems … … Now, by contrast, it is a mechanism that allows us to ignore problematic issues, distracts us from serious concerns, and immerses us in a transitory ‘artificial paradise’, … … , a brief vacation of unreality

b) A final query: will paper books survive?

  • Jorge Volpi: the arrival of electronic books will contribute in a decisive way to ‘the greatest democratic expansion that culture has been since the invention of the printing press’
  • [I suspect] something of immateriality of the electronic book will affect its content, as happens with the clumsy literature, without order or syntax, full of apocopes and jargon, sometimes undecipherable, that dominates the world of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other Internet-based communication systems … … Television is to date the best demonstration that the screen makes ideas banal and tends to turn everything it touches into spectacle … … My impression is that literature, philosophy, history, art criticism, to say nothing of poetry, all the manifestations of culture written for the Net, will doubtless be ever more entertaining, that is, more superficial and transient. If this is the case, new generations of readers will find it difficult to appreciate the worth and significance of demanding works of ideas or literature … …
  • Molina Foix reminded Volpi that for many readers, ‘reading’ is an operation that as well as registering the semantic content of the words also means savoring the beauty that, like the sounds of a beautiful symphony, the colors of an unusual picture, or the ideas of a shrewd argument … … reading is not only an intellectual operation but also a physical exercise

c) The world of Internet

  • Nicholas Carr (and his The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember): his book is vindication of the theories of Marshall McLuhan who argued that the medium is important not just for its content, but that the medium itself has a surreptitious bearing on this content and, in the long run, changes how we think and act
  • There is evidence that when a person’s memory is not exercised because it relies on the infinite archive that a computer can offer, then it stiffens and weakens, like muscles that are no longer used
  • Dr Katherine Hoyle at Duke University: ‘I can’t get my students to read whole books any more’

d) The fate of literature

  • The power of literature: to help readers better understand human complexity, be alert to historical realities and to resist the manipulation of the truth by the powers
  • If literature is just about entertainment, having a good time, immersing ourselves in fantasy, free from the pettiness of everyday life, domestic hell or economic anguish, in a relaxed spiritual indolence, then literary fictions cannot compete with those supplied by our screens, be they big or small
  • Screen fictions are intense in their immediacy and ephermeral in terms of their effects: they seize us and then release us almost immediately … … what is important about reading good novels always happens after the event; it is an effect that lights up in one’s memory over time
  • Benjamin and Popper, the Marxist and the liberal, both heterodox and original within larger currents of though that they renewed and stimulated, are two examples of how, by writing, one can resist adversity, act and influence society








Walter Benjamin – Illuminations

(Selected paragraphs from seven articles)

Unpacking My Library

I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age. For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways. Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals—the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names. To renew the old world—that is collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things, and that is why a collector of older books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting than the acquirer of luxury editions.

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book-fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who writes books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like. You, ladies and gentlemen, may regard this as a whimsical definition of a writer. But everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical.

The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

The purchasing done by a book collector has very little in common with that done in a bookshop by a student getting a textbook, a man of the world buying a present for his lady, or a businessman intending to while away his next train journey. I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!

The Task of the Translator

Art, in the same way, posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.

Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original? This would seem to explain adequately the divergence of their standing in the realm of art. Moreover, it seems to be the only conceivable reason for saying “the same thing” repeatedly. For what does a literary work “say”? What does it communicate? It “tells” very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential.

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works. . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed, how language differs from language almost the way dialect differs from dialect; however, this last is true only if one takes language seriously enough, not if one takes it lightly.”

The Storyteller

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What distinguishes the novel from the story (and from the epic in the narrower sense) is its essential dependence on the book. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of this epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature—the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella—is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. Leskov is a master at this. The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

The storytelling that thrives for a long time in the milieu of work—the rural, the maritime, and the urban—is itself an artisan form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus trances of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel. Storytellers tend to begin their story with a presentation of the circumstances in which they themselves have learned what is to follow, unless they simply pass it off as their own experience.

A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller; even a man reading one shares this companionship. The reader of a novel, however, is isolated, more so than any other reader. In this solitude of his, the reader of a novel seizes upon his material more jealously than anyone else. He is ready to make it completely his own, to devour it, as it were.

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

Franz Kafka

“I remember,” Brod writes, “a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. ‘We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,’ Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. ‘Oh no,’ said Kafka, ‘our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.’ ‘Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.’ He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.’” These words provide a bridge to those extremely strange figures in Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle and for whom there may be hope. There are not the animals, not even those hybrids or imaginary creatures like the Cat Lamb or Odradek; they all still live under the spell of the family. It is no accident that Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug in his parental home and not somewhere else, and that the peculiar animal which is half kitten, half lamb, is inherited from the father; Odradek likewise is the concern of the father of the family.

Some Reflections on Kafka

In speaking of the experience of the big-city dweller, I have a variety of things in mind. On the one hand, I think of the modern citizen who knows that he is at the mercy of a vast machinery of officialdom whose functioning is directed by authorities that remain nebulous to the executive organs, let alone to the people they deal with.

Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition. Wisdom has sometimes been defined as the epic side of truth. Such a definition stamps wisdom as inherent in tradition; it is truth in its haggadic consistency.

It is this consistency of truth that has been lost. Kafka was far from being the first to face this situation. Many had accommodated themselves to it, clinging to truth or whatever they happened to regard as truth and, with a more or less heavy heart, forgoing its transmissibility. Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables.

On Some Motifs in Baudelaire

Towering above this literature is Bergson’s early monumental work, Matiere et memoire. . . . The title suggests that it regards the structure of memory as decisive for the philosophical pattern of experience. Experience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life. It is less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data. It is, however, not at all Bergson’s intention to attach any specific historical label to memory. On the contrary, he rejects any historical determination of memory.

Proust’s work A la Recherche du temps perdu may be regarded as an attempt to produce experience synthetically, as Bergson imagines it, under today’s conditions, for there is less and less hope that it will come into being naturally. Proust, incidentally, does not evade this question in his work. He even introduces a new factor, one that involves an immanent critique of Bergson. . . .[Bergson] leads us to believe that turning to the contemplative actualization of the stream of life is a matter of free choice. From the start Proust indicates his divergent view terminologically. To him, the memoire pure of Bergson’s theory becomes a memoire invoontaire. Proust immediately confronts this involuntary memory with a voluntary memory, one that is in the service of the intellect. The first pages of his great work are charged with making this relationship clear. In the reflection which introduces the term Proust tells us how poorly, for many years, he remembered the town of Combray in which, after all, he spent part of his childhood. . . . This his calls the memoire volontaire, and it is its characteristic that the information which it gives about the past retains no trace of it. “It is the same with our own past. In vain we try to conjure it up again; the efforts of our intellect are futile.” Therefore Proust, summing up, says that the past is “somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us), though we have no idea which one it is. As for that object, it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it.”

If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader.

The crowd—no subject was more entitled to the attention of nineteenth-century writers. It was getting ready to take shape as a public in broad strata who had acquired facility in reading. It became a customer; it wished to find itself portrayed in the contemporary novel, as the patrons did in the paintings of the Middle Ages. The most successful author of the century met his demand out of inner necessity. To him, crowd meant—almost in the ancient sense—the crowd of the clients, the public. Victor Hugo was the first to address the crowd in his titles: Les Miserables, Les Travailleurs de la mer. In France, Hugo was the only writer able to compare with the serial novel.

The masses had become so much a part of Baudelaire that it is rare to find a description of them in his works. His most important subjects are hardly ever encountered in descriptive form. As Dujardin so aptly put it, he was “more concerned with implanting the image in the memory than adorning and elaborating it.” It is futile to search in Les Fleurs du mal or in Spleen de Paris for any counterpart to the portrayals of the city which Victor Hugo did with such mastery. Baudelaire describes neither the Parisians nor their city. Forgoing such descriptions enables him to invoke the ones in the form of the other. His crowd is always the crowd of a big city, his Paris is invariably overpopulated.

The Image of Proust

We know that in his work Proust did not describe a life as it actually was, but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it. And yet even this statement is imprecise and far too crude. For the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection. . . . For here the day unravels what the night was woven. When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting. However, with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering each day unravels the web and the ornaments of forgetting.

Max Unold, one of Proust’s more discerning readers, fastened on the “boredom” thus created in Proust’s writings and likened it to “pointless stories.” “Proust managed to make the pointless story interesting. He says: ‘Imagine, dear reader, yesterday I was dunking a cookie in my tea when it occurred to me that as a child I spent some time in the country.’ For this he uses eight pages, and it is so fascinating that you think you are no longer the listener but the daydreamer himself.” . . . . Proust’s frenetically studying resemblances, his impassioned cult of similarity. The true signs of its hegemony do not become obvious where suddenly and startlingly uncovers similarities in actions, physiognomies, or speech mannerisms. The similarity of one thing to another which we are used to, which occupies us in a wakeful state, reflects only vaguely the deeper resemblance of the dream world in which everything that happens appears not in identical but in similar guise, opaquely similar one to another.

The eternity which Proust opens to view is convoluted time, not boundless time. His true interest is in the passage of time in its most real—that is, space-bound—form, and this passage nowhere holds away more openly than in remembrance within and aging without. To observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution. It is the world in a state of resemblances, the domain of the correspondances; the Romanticists were the first to comprehend them and Baudelaire embraced them more fervently, but Proust was the only one who managed to reveal them in our lived life.

“Proust approaches experience without the slightest metaphysical interest, without the slightest penchant for construction, without the slightest tendency to console.” Nothing is truer than that. And thus the basic feature of his work, too, which Proust kept proclaiming as being planned, is anything but the result of construction. . . . One must picture him in this state of weakness to understand how felicitously Jacques Riviere interpreted the weakness when he wrote: “Marcel Proust died of the same inexperience which permitted him to write his works. He died of ignorance of the world and because he did not know how to change the conditions of life which had bugun to crush him. He died because he did not know how to make a fire or open a window.” And, to be sure, of his psychogenic asthma.














Things to Come 观影速记





Cristi Puiu – Sieranevada




Maren Ade – Toni Erdmann




Cristian Mungiu – Bacalaureat









其实导演本可以选择把这条暗线继续强化和发展下去,片中有不少和罗密欧一样身居要职可称作社会“中流砥柱”的“官人们”,他们大多身怀良知,更深谙处世之道,还多少明白“东方”与“西方”的异同,他们背后的故事又是怎样的呢?片中还有戏份不太多的母亲,一位被刻画成“坚守道德准则”而“失去”了其它东西的母亲,跟着罗密欧回到罗马尼亚的二十多年来,她的故事又是怎样的呢?蒙吉并未让影片朝这个方向发展,后半部分女儿男友 Marius 戏份开始增多,使整个故事发展继续“紧密团结在”父亲和女儿周围。我们这次看到的是一个野心不那么大的克里斯蒂安·蒙吉。


在国家转型的过程中,人们追求的东西也在不断变化,两代人不同价值观之间的碰撞,蒙吉在《毕业考试》中通过教育这个母题,和“高考”这个切入点巧妙地给挖掘出来了。然而美中不足的是,虽然海报上是父亲和女儿两个人,但事实上片中只有父亲罗密欧一个主演,甚至几乎就是他的独角戏。不管是戏份还是表演功力,女儿的扮演者 Maria ——这位曾出演过迈克尔·哈内克《白丝带》的长在德国的罗马尼亚裔演员——都要逊色不少。没有一个血肉更加丰满的对手与罗密欧对戏,这比影片缺少一个强有力的结尾还要让人遗憾。



现在似乎恍然明白了一些,影片《她》的台柱子伊莎贝尔·于佩尔之所以说这部电影非常具有现代性(原词是“contemporary”),其实是因为本片的“观感”优于电影文本本身。抛开别的不谈,《她》属于那一类即便笔记本屏幕上也可以一样看得津津有味的“现代人”电影。紧凑的情节,潇洒的节奏,当然还有 Isabelle 本人非常耐看的脸,以及内容本身的话题性,都是这部电影非常“抓人”的地方。在一个周末的夜晚,用这样一部几乎可以用惊悚片来归类的电影打发时间,不会是一个多差的选择。

都是些轻佻的玩笑话。不过在真正“批判一番”前还得重复一遍,(虽然已是路人皆知的事实),Isabelle 对于这部影片来说实在是太重要了。从放映后的问答环节就可以清楚看出,女主演比导演还要有地位,两百多名影迷观众前是如此,那么在片场里只会更甚。有一个问题问到保罗·范霍文,你在拍摄过程中是怎样把自己对角色的想法传达给 Isabelle 的,七十八岁的老人家也很坦诚,毕竟是“七十而从心所欲不逾矩”了,说其实关于角色本身他没有和 Isabelle 交流哪怕一句话。(可以想象此时那么见过世面的伦敦人还是一片愕然)。两位嘉宾最终还是巧舌如簧地把话圆回来了,譬如 Isabelle 就说,Michele 这个角色从始至终都带着某种模糊性(“obscure”),你不太能读得懂她每次行动背后的动机,但也正因为这种模糊,才让你慢慢觉得开始懂她,了解她,甚至开始为她的立场辩护。其实是很有道理的说法,我认同《她》的现代性正是通过角色和剧情发展的“非预设性”来表现的。或许正因为如此,保罗也不用在拍摄的时候跟 Isabelle 交代太多。

现代人的一大特征就是需要担当多种角色,并且在它们中间不停转换。和今年另一部着眼于现代女性的电影《托尼·厄尔德曼》不同,(那里的 Ines 仅被职场一项就折腾得焦头烂额了),《她》中的 Michele 无疑是更加“成功”的那一类——当然这里的“成功”并不是各种光鲜的外表。影片是由“受害者”这个标签串成的,刻画了米歇尔身为女儿,女人,情人,母亲,还有老板等等这些角色在受到攻击时是怎样应对的。她的反应其实很 Isabelle Huppert,有种固执,又有点神经质,但终究是随欲随心的,概括起来就是一种看上去不按常理出牌但又完全出自初心的我行我素。Isabelle 本人说 Michele 这个角色超出了我们对“女权”的传统定义,实际上是这样,在电影文本中对“传统家庭妇女”追求思想独立行为自由的刻画早就被视为“老掉牙”的今天,我们在《她》里面看到的 Michele,她身上的理智,坚毅,决断,以及背后隐抑的柔弱,仔细推敲起来其实和性别没有多大关系。但吊诡的是,大部分她所面对的不幸,却和整个社会的“男权思维”和“男权现象”密切相关。


电影的名字是 Elle,法语中的她,她们,没有直接起名叫 Michele,想必导演想要借此把 Michele 和 Isabelle 身上的特质推广到更多人身上。看完电影后,我依然怀疑这是不是徒劳。Michele 身上让人难以忽视的距离感便是明证,这部电影拿不到好莱坞任何资金便是明证,没有哪个美国女演员敢出演这个极富挑战的角色便是明证——我们还是身处在这样一个保守的社会里。好吧,退一步说,这部讲“现代人”和“现代性”的电影其实也没用非常高明的技巧和缜密的构思来打动观众,更别说上述这些也许本是莫须有的条条框框和大道理了。留在我们脑海中的,除了那几个惊悚的挑逗的瞬间,稍纵即逝的新鲜感,片中眼花却不缭乱的男女关系,和它们所谓的姿态与生活,还有什么呢?大胆试想一下,如果保罗·范霍文当时拿到了美方的投资,并且也有美国女演员愿意出演,这部剧情算是相当狗血的电影怕未必会有现在的高度吧。

这次电影节目前为止,所有去过的活动中这部《Elle》收到了最好的临场效果,保罗和 Isabelle 侃侃而谈,言之有物,掌声前所未有的热烈,而也感觉得到观众是相当用心地在听他们发言。过节嘛,明星嘛,其实就应该是这样一副祥和的气氛,别的什么都是次要的。我想这就是现代人的悲欢。


在三个小时的片长面前,任何电影爱好者都会再三掂量一下自己的决心,但是回过头来看,超过两个小时的电影也易出精品,不仅因为导演可以在充足的时间里把故事说透,演员和角色有足够的空间把戏份做足,而且从“选择性偏差”(selection bias)的角度讲,所有敢把电影拍成三个小时那么长的导演里面,应该大多数都是有两把刷子的。

很幸运,罗马尼亚导演克里斯提·普优的作品《雪山之家》就符合这样的描述,而且更加难能可贵的是,这部送展戛纳的东欧电影并没有受“戛纳”和“东欧”这两个标签影响,全无高冷气质,Vue West End 容纳得下两三百人的放映大厅里座无虚席,观众随着剧情的进行笑声就没有停过。我中间看了有四五次表,倒不是因为想要电影早点结束,而是通过记时间来默默推敲一下全片的段落结构。








《纽时》在影评里介绍说《雪山之家》和很多其他 NYFF 的电影一样,也是在讲人性(humanity),这里讲的是自私,因为自私也是人性里很重要的一部分。写到这里我似乎有点明白了作者的意思,生活从来都不是水到渠成的,十之八九也都容不得你既来之则安之那样潇洒,该争取时争取,该坚持时坚持,做好自己,对得起自己,也许就是这种自私背后真正积极的一面吧。

Life is Brief – #15


#15 《借我》


— 木心

image source:

Jan Morris – Spain (Chapter Ten)

第十章 理发师的铜盆

在菲利普二世把马德里立为这个国家的首都之前,这里不过是一个小村庄,人们说这个城市最初的由来是因为摩尔人要搭建城堡,那个时候,西班牙中部的卡斯蒂利亚高原,还是一个蛮荒之地,北方是基督教文明,南方是伊斯兰文明,马德里的建成更多是出自军事用途。这里并不是哪条交通大动脉的交汇,也没有大河流经,更没有富饶的地矿资源,或者特殊的历史意义,菲利普国王选择这里,就像后来巴西的首都被定在巴西利亚一样,是国家统一的象征。马德里地处伊比利亚半岛的正中央,把它作为中心和统一的符号,自然是再合适不过了。而且, 西班牙人也喜欢这种象征。







Jan Morris – Spain (Chapter Nine – Part II)

第九章 四个城市(接上篇)