Author Vargas Llosa Provokes, Inspires
by Sherri Kimmel
April 1, 2010
Coming from a tradition of writers deeply rooted in the classics and the great philosophers, Vargas Llosa demonstrated how the age of consumerism has forced serious artists to please the masses by creating a type of art that often puts aside the essential questions of the humanities.
Two very different sides of an international literary lion were on
display late Dec. 3, 2008, when Mario Vargas Llosa came to campus as the
fourth recipient of The Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars
and Writers Program award.
The novelist, essayist, journalist,
critic, playwright—and former candidate for president of his native
Peru—gave two public addresses, signed books and met with students over
lunch and coffee.
Vargas Llosa entertained a full house in the
Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium on Dec. 3, relating, in a humorous,
conversational style, how his experience as a cub radio reporter in
1950s Lima provided material for his 1977 novel, Aunt Julia and the
. He then read the first chapter of the novel in Spanish
and in English.
The following afternoon, in Rubendall Recital
Hall, Vargas Llosa offered a more-formal reading of his essay, “The
Civilization of Spectacle.” He equated such a civilization to “a world
in which entertainment occupies the first place on the chart of current
values, where having a good time, escaping boredom, is a universal
passion.” He traced back the deterioration of thought from the end of
World War II to the present, focusing on popular culture, giving
examples of ways in which the discourse in politics, literature, art
and film have been watered down and stripped of intellectual content
for the sake of easy digestion and entertainment value.
Sagastume, associate professor of Spanish and chair of the Stellfox
committee, noted that while some students and faculty reacted
negatively to the essay, others felt “he caused us to rethink our own
values. He pushed us, denounced us, in a way, for embracing certain
forms of entertainment” that aren’t intellectually challenging.
also inspired. Two Carlisle book groups have now chosen to study his
works, and faculty members who were unfamiliar with Vargas Llosa’s work
are reading his books, said Sagastume. After leaving Dickinson, the
author flew to Venezuela to receive an honorary degree at the
University of Caracas. In Caracas, according to Sagastume, Vargas Llosa
mentioned Dickinson as a place where “education is doing what it is
supposed to do.”
Dickinson students who had the opportunity to
meet the latest Stellfox recipient would second that assessment.
English major Caroline Peri ’10 remarked, “As an aspiring writer, I
cannot express how valuable it is for me to be able to connect with
published authors and to hear both their artistic and personal stories.
I enjoyed learning about Mr. Vargas Llosa’s creative process and how he
put his novels together. I also enjoyed hearing him read aloud from his
novel. There is something magical about hearing written work in the
“I had a chance to talk with him and other
students about the perils of translation and how he feels about having
his works translated for him,” Peri added. “I am interested in
linguistics and enjoy experimenting with the literature of other
countries, as well as writing in Spanish and Arabic myself, so hearing
about his experience was both personally inspiring and very practical.”
Frackenpohl ’09, a Spanish major, also valued her chance to interact
with a prestigious writer. It was “intense, inspiring and
educational—definitely one of the more memorable events I’ve attended
at Dickinson in my three years here,” she said.
visit was funded by the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars
and Writers Program, endowed by their daughter, Jean Louise Stellfox
’60. Stellfox was inspired to become an English teacher after meeting
Robert Frost when he visited Dickinson in 1959, and when she died
suddenly in 2003, her estate provided $1.5 million to the college to
continue her mission of inspiring students through literature. That
core endowment spins out funds yearly to defray the costs of bringing a
major literary figure to campus. Previous awardees are novelist Ian
McEwan, poet Rita Dove and playwright Edward Albee.