Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa delivers lecture in Spanish before full crowd
Speaking in Spanish to an audience of more than 600, Vargas Llosa challenged the premise that scientific innovation and widespread education have made society more cultured. Quotations from his speech, titled “Brief Discourse About Culture,” have been translated for this article by The Daily Princetonian.
“In our time ... the notion of culture has extended so much that even though no one would explicitly admit it, it has withered,” Vargas Llosa said. “It has become an elusive, multitudinous phantom, because no longer is anyone cultured if ... what we call culture has been depraved so that everyone can justifiably be believed to be so.”
He criticized anthropologists, whom he said claim that all cultures are equally advanced in an attempt to show respect for all cultures and eradicate racial discrimination and prejudice.
“Political correctness has convinced us that it is arrogant, dogmatic, colonialist and even racist to speak of superior and inferior cultures, and even of modern and primitive cultures,” he argued.
According to this conception, “all cultures, in their own way, and in their own circumstances, are equal, and are expressions of marvelous human diversity.”
Anthropologists were not the only academics that Vargas Llosa said were responsible for this “horizontal equalization.”
Sociologists, who were “set on producing literary theory,” contributed to the incorporation of “incultura” — or lack of culture — into culture, he said.
Combining culture and incultura is different from incorporating “high-brow” and “low-brow” cultures into a single category, Vargas Llosa said. Though the works of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway are examples of each category, respectively, they each also belong to the broader dominion of literature, he said.
“[Mijail] Bajtin and his followers, consciously or subconsciously, did something much more radical: They abolished the borders between culture and a lack of culture and gave the lack of culture a relevant dignity,” he explained.
But in an effort to create an egalitarian world, society has created a “cure worse than the illness,” he said.
“In the confusion of a world in which, paradoxically, there is no way of knowing what is culture, everything is and nothing is,” he continued.
Vargas Llosa challenged the idea that scientific discoveries, technological innovation and museum openings show that culture is now flourishing. “Yes, all this progress is true,” he said, “but it is not the work of cultured women and men, but of specialists.” He added that scientific specialization has allowed for the creation of weapons of mass destruction that could “destroy the planet in which we live many times over.”
Such technological achievements are “a flagrant manifestation of barbarianism — that is, an act eminently anti-culture.”
Audience members said Vargas Llosa’s speech was thought provoking but questioned some of his claims.
“I think that for a talk like that, the magnitude of the argument he was making, he needed more time,” said Linda Gouldevine, a Spanish professor at Montclair State University. “He created too much of a dichotomy between different schools of thought, and I think he would agree that some deconstructionism arguments have some merit,” she explained.
Other audience members were surprised that Vargas Llosa’s speech was not more politically charged.
Just last Thursday, at the press conference following the Nobel Foundation’s announcement, Vargas Llosa spoke about the brutality of dictatorships, the violence that has long plagued Latin America and even responded to a question about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with a mix of praise and criticism for each side.
But such topics were bypassed Monday evening. “I was expecting him to incorporate politics more,” said Heidi Osuna, a graduate student at Fordham University, noting that Vargas Llosa once called Mexico a “perfect dictatorship.”
“He never separates politics from his writing, so I was surprised he didn’t touch on contemporary events,” she added.
Yet Vargas Llosa displayed the same passion for the status of culture as he has throughout his career when writing about politics and other issues confronting society. “I may appear to be pessimistic, but my impression is that ... we have made of culture one of those eye-catching sand castles that come apart with the first gust of wind,” he said.
Editor's Note: The article's estimate of audience size at the event has been updated based on new information received.