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So, a history that begins with Eliot’s Anglo-American expatriate striving proceeds through refugee German-Jewish anxiety and ends with the communist, poststructuralist French: Guy Debord.Now we’re ready for what used to be called, with colonial scorn, the margins, the fringes: South America.Instead of stopping these blood baths, culture desired to provoke and celebrate them.” In other words, God died as the last casualty of the Napoleonic Wars, and the wars of the century that followed laid waste to the human.
It’s impossible to think of the way the narration is split among cadets at a military school in “The Time of the Hero,” or the way the teeming jungle causes timelines to mix in “The Green House,” without thinking of film; it’s impossible to recall Vargas Llosa’s stint as a TV talk-show host without finding its fictionalization in “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” later adapted for the screen itself; “Who Killed Palomino Molero?
” and “Death in the Andes” owe much of their plotting to noir. Vargas Llosa, abjuring the inevitable socialism of his youth, ran unsuccessfully as a pro-American candidate for the Peruvian presidency in 1990; “The Feast of the Goat” and “The Dream of the Celt” are rife with intellectuals who deign the compromises of diplomacy, and dine out on the laden tables of neoliberalism.
But instead of pointing out that the most interesting literary culture on the planet, post-1968, was being made by Cortázar (Argentina), Donoso (Chile), Fuentes (Mexico), García Márquez (Colombia), Puig (Argentina) and, hey, himself, Vargas Llosa instead mourns the lack of an audience, as if novels ever could, or should, make the same box office as a blockbuster.
It’s here, in the essay “The Civilization of the Spectacle,” that Vargas Llosa falls into contradiction — exhorting more people to read more, even while decrying the deleterious effects of “democratization”:“This is a phenomenon born of altruism: Culture could no longer be the patrimony of an elite; liberal and democratic society had a moral obligation to make culture accessible to all, through education and through promoting and supporting the arts, literature and other cultural expression.
Anyway, I noted that the qualifier was misleading: Though T. Eliot had taken British citizenship, he had been born in America.
The editor, then, sent on another suggestion: “the American-born English poet T. Eliot.” I, having lost all the patience I had as a 24-year-old, replied by modifying that tag to: “the American-born, British-citizen English-language poet, essayist, dramatist, teacher, publisher and bank teller Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965),” after which the editor finally got the point and canceled the assignment.
I call it the newspaper problem: About a decade ago I wrote an essay on contemporary poetry for a newspaper that will remain nameless, and had the occasion to quote a line by “Eliot.” The editor sent back many changes, the most telling of which was that the quotation was now attributed to “the English poet T. Eliot.” Vaguely piqued, I asked what the editor was trying to clarify: Was he afraid readers wouldn’t realize the quotation came from a poem?
Or was he afraid readers might confuse the Eliot who wrote it with, say, George Eliot, the pseudonymous author of “Middlemarch”?
Eliot defines culture as existing in, and through, three different spheres: that of the individual, the group or class, and the entire rest of society.
Individuals’ sensibilities affiliate them with a group or class, which doesn’t have to be the one they’re born into.