Mario Vargas Llosa (b.1936) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He is a Peruvian novelist, politician, journalist and college professor. A classical liberal by conviction he commands great respect in Latin America. His latest book, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, is an unsparing criticism of modern and postmodern culture. It is brilliant in its analysis of the disease of banality that pervades most of our media and politics. He helpfully expounds the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, multiculturalism, pornography, political correctness and the limits of tolerance. A few quotes illustrate his concerns.

“What do we mean by the civilization of the spectacle? The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion. To have this goal in life is perfectly legitimate, of course…. But converting this natural propensity for enjoying oneself into a supreme value has unexpected consequences: it leads to a culture becoming banal, frivolity becoming widespread and, in the field of news coverage, it leads to the spread of irresponsible journalism based on gossip and scandal….systematically and imperceptibly, not being bored, avoiding anything that might be disturbing, worrying or distressing, became for increasing number both at the pinnacle and at the base of the social pyramid, a generational mandate..”

“Stupidity has become the ruling value of postmodern life, and politics is one of its main victims.”

While not a believer, Llosa values religious education as essential for understanding our cultural inheritance.

“To ban entirely all forms of religious education in state schools would be to bring up the new generations with a deficient culture and deprive them of basic tools to understanding their history, their tradition, and enjoy the art, literature and thought of the West. Western culture is imbued with religious ideas, beliefs, images, festivities and customs. To cut out this rich inheritance from the education of the new generations would be to deliver them, bound hand and foot, to the civilization of the spectacle, to frivolity, superficiality, ignorance, gossip and bad taste. A non-sectarian, objective and responsible education, which explains the hegemonic role of Christianity in the creation and evolution of the culture of the West, with all its divisions and secessions, its wars, its historical impact, its achievements, its excesses, its saints, its mystics, its martyrs, and the ways in which all this has had an influence, both good and bad, on history, philosophy, architecture, art and literature, is indispensable if we want to avoid culture degenerating at the rate it is doing and having the world in the future divided between functional illiterates and ignorant and insensitive specialists.”

His final thoughts include the following.

“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 we are 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. The raison d’être of culture was to give an answer to these questions. Today it is exonerated from such 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.”

This is book that would bring a group alive with discussion of current issues.