January 30th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Dyson report only partial answer to union problems

CANBERRA OBSERVED No urgency but Turnbull will want to make his mark

NATIONAL AFFAIRS SA pays price of solar and wind generation

FRENCH POLITICS AND ISLAM Kepel scathing of French elites, Salafists and far-right Islamophobes

ENVIRONMENT New bushfire tragedies: when will we ever learn?

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Betrayal: Curia no friend to Russian Catholics

HISTORY OF TAIWAN From pivot of Dutch trade to Japanese outpost

LIFE ISSUES Victoria enacts law based on lies told to Parliament

LIFE ISSUES Euthanasia: a false start to end-of-life issues

ETHICS Book traces foundations of true civilisation

RELIGION AND SOCIETY A welcome in truth for the same-sex attracted

CINEMA The beauty beyond fear: The Good Dinosaur

BOOK REVIEW Secularism mars insights

BOOK REVIEW A novel for the remnant


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Secularism mars insights

News Weekly, January 30, 2016


NOTES ON THE DEATH OF CULTURE: Essays on Spectacle and Society

by Mario Vargas Llosa

(Faber and Faber, London, 2015)
Hardcover: 227 pages
ISBN: 9780571300549
Price: AUD$35.00


Reviewed by B.J. Coman


“When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver.”

These words, usually attributed to Hermann Göring, have come back to haunt us because, nowadays, a great many people regard “culture” (in the old sense of the word) as having been usurped by something which, indeed might give us cause to reach for a gun! Among those with such concerns is Mario Vargas Llosa, the Latin American author and Nobel-prize winner who is also the author of this collection of essays under review.

The title of his new book is a direct reference to a famous essay by T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). At that time, Eliot sensed that the old definition of culture encompassing such things as religious belief, the appreciation of artistic beauty and a certain refinement of manners – a rising above our animal natures, was fast disappearing. Using this work as his springboard, Vargas Llosa proceeds to dissect a civilisation in which everything is reduced to spectacle.

“Culture”, he says, “is entertainment and what is not entertaining is not culture.”

So, all aspects of public life are presented in the media, especially television, as so many “bites” of enter­tainment. Here in Australia, a typical news bulletin will contain reports of a nervous stockmarket, the injuries of some football stud, a sex maniac on the loose, the sexual antics of some film starlet, massacres in some far off theatre of war, the birth of a dog with two heads – and so on. All this mixed up in juxtaposition and presented as a sort of homogenised pap, designed specifically for entertainment and nothing more. No one item is to be regarded as more important than another.

Malcolm Muggeridge coined the term “Newsak” for this phenomenon, since it does to public information and public education exactly what Muzak does to real music – turns it into a sort of comfortable background ambience. It makes no demands on us and, like Huxley’s soma drug in Brave New World, deadens us to the reality of our situation.

The author goes on to dissect many of the social phenomena of our age – the debasement of art, the increasing drug problem and the disappearance of the true intellectual as a sort of moderator of ideas.

Part of Vargas Llosa’s book is given over to a discussion of the importance of authority in its many forms, whether it be the authority of teachers at school or, perhaps, the authority of great literature. The chapter titled “Forbidden to Forbid” exactly portrays the postmodernist attack on all forms of traditional authority.

However, this chapter ends on a rather discordant note, because the final essay in this chapter deals with the right of civil authorities to curb religious practices. Vargas Llosa homes in on the wearing of the veil by Islamic girls in French schools. Here we see a different side of Vargas Llosa – his strident secular humanism. He concludes this essay by stating that “the Islamic veil should be banned in state schools in France in the name of freedom”. We might ask: “whose freedom”?

As it happens, I read this chapter on the same day that news arrived of the attempt to drag Archbishop Julian Porteous before a Tasmanian tribunal because he allowed the distribution of literature supporting the idea of traditional marriage in Tasmanian Catholic schools.

In fact, Vargas Llosa’s insistence that religious belief must remain entirely private becomes much more obvious in the second half of his book. He begins with a chapter (three short essays) on “The Disappearance of Eroticism”. While Vargas Llosa does make the necessary distinction between eroticism and mere animal lust, his defence of eroticism is entirely unconnected with the traditional view of human love between a man and a woman.

The ideal expression of eroticism, he tells us “would be for the boundaries within which 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.”

One can just imagine a lecherous old Freudian psychologist delivering this insight to an attractive young female patient! Indeed, Philip Rieff, in his magisterial work on post-Freudian psychotherapy, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, attacks the very notion put forward by Vargas Llosa, and points to the importance of traditional restraints in this area.

But it is in the last chapter of the book, titled “The Opium of the People”, that Vargas Llosa really develops this theme of the nexus between secularism and freedom. Like any number of modern commentators from what passes for the modern conservative fold (read worried liberal), Vargas Llosa has some good things to say about the importance of religion, provided it stays away from the public square. Indeed, there is an evident awkwardness in his prose as he vainly attempts to defend non-specific religious belief, while undermining it at the same time. He is like a man “dancing in treacle” to use a felicitous phrase I read somewhere.

But he shows his true colours when it comes to a discussion of a court case in Bavaria, the outcome of which was the banning of crucifixes (showing the body of Christ) in public schools. He thinks it was a good decision to ban them and he further opines that if the state does not maintain a rigorous secularity, it is in danger of losing its freedom because, he says “no church is democratic”.

He goes on: “Churches 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.”

It escapes Vargas Llosa’s attention that the very problems of modernity he rails against are a direct consequence of such “basic principles” as pluralism, relativism, consensus morality, and so on. Furthermore, in the history of the West, the Christian religion was the very catalyst for a view of the human which emphasises personal dignity and freedom. To suppose that you can drive religion from the public square and then rely upon it to keep society together is wishful thinking.

As C.S. Lewis once said in this regard: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (The Abolition of Man)

This is precisely what has happened to Vargas Llosa. His new book joins a vast throng of similar books all bemoaning the fate of the Western Tradition. But we all know the problems; what we want are solutions. Without religion in the public square, there are none.

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