Last Monday March 31st the Spanish-speaking media focused all its attention on the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Octavio Paz’s birth, arguably Mexico’s most accomplished and certainly most celebrated writer.
A poet by nature and a prolific essayist by conviction, Paz kept apart the creative vein of his personality (what he called his synthesizing skills) from the more rational strain of his thought (his analytical skills), earning much notoriety among different readers for one or the other but hardly ever for both. He was awarded Mexico’s National Literature Prize in 1977, when he also merited the Jerusalem Prize, and the prestigious Premio Cervantes by the Spanish Academy in 1981 before earning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. Finally, almost 16 years after his death in 1998, Google dedicated one of its famous doodles to him on his centennial—perhaps the greatest honor of all!
Born in 1914 into a bourgeois family of statesmen and intellectuals in a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City, Mixcoac, which by now has been absorbed by the metropolis, Paz spent four years in Los Angeles as a toddler, before returning to Mexico City where he attended school and graduated in Law from the UNAM in 1936. That was when he embarked on the first of his life-changing adventures: traveling to Mérida in the Yucatán peninsula, almost 900 miles south from the capital, to work as a teacher in the so-called “missions” set to educate children in impoverished rural areas.
At the age of 22, Paz was confronted with a very different Mexico to the one he knew, to the one in which he had grown up, not so much in economic terms—in Latin America poverty is a phenomenon with which you are always, inevitably confronted—but in terms of the customs and traditions, of the mindset, even, of a people with Mayan roots and greater affinity to other cultures than to Mexico City’s Aztec heritage. All of a sudden, Paz discovered the deep cultural divide that shaped his country, and he would spend much of the rest of his career as an essayist trying to reconcile the different strands of Mexican culture.
A few months after his journey to Mérida, Paz would embark on another life-changing adventure: having been invited to the Antifascist Congress held in Valencia, Spain in 1937, he was confronted first hand with the horrors, but also with the incongruence of the Spanish Civil War. Almost inevitably Paz sought to join the republican army but was rejected on a technicality, as he was not a member of any political party and could therefore not procure an official recommendation. So he returned to Mexico a year later and supported the loyalists from afar with his pen.
Paz remained a committed and emphatic socialist for much of his life, but his experience of the war had taught him an invaluable lesson: on the other side of the conflict, on the other side of the ideological schism, were people who dreamed and hated, people with children and fears, people who smoked the same cigarettes and drank the same wine as him. This intense form of humanism permeated his poetry from start to finish and ultimately nurtured the concept that more than any other articulated a vast proportion of his work: love.
Paz’s first creative cycle spans from roughly this time to the late 1950s and is nicely condensed in the collection Freedom on Parole (first published in 1949, continuously revised until 1968), which collects his production between 1935 and 1957. Later editions of Freedom also include the long poem “Piedra de sol” (Sunstone), a 584-line piece that echoes the yearly cycle of Venus, which in turn was a highly significant planet in Aztec tradition. Though at times enigmatic—impenetrable, even—Freedom on Parole is nevertheless teeming with that which, perhaps, is most powerful in poetry: beautiful language and lasting imagery.
Freedom on Parole was closely followed by his first collection of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude, a sociological/anthropological study of Mexico’s history and culture which earned him major recognition and which to this day remains one of the seminal sources of Mexican studies. By this point Paz had already left Mexico for the third time, studying at Berkeley University in the mid 1940s and entering the diplomatic service in 1945, which sent him to post-war Paris. Aided by the analytical distance provided by his physical removal from his country of birth and influenced by French surrealism, most notably by André Breton, whom he admired as a young man and befriended in Paris, Paz produced Freedom and The Labyrinth, two of his most notorious works, in the late 1940s.
But Paz was a man of deep political convictions. Born in the middle of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 and dragged on till 1920, Paz’s father was the secretary to Emiliano Zapata, and though largely absent in his childhood he remained a significant influence in his life. If Paz was not predestined to become a revolutionary, he certainly wished it so, siding strongly and vociferously with communism through the 1940s. But he was also a highly rational man, which means leant an element of inevitability to his eventual fall out with the ideology. Unlike Neruda, for instance, who was one of the communist faithful, Paz’s relationship with politics was closely connected to its moral connotations.
Paz’s distancing from Marxism began in the early 1950s, when he criticized Stalin’s violent authoritarian rule and the widespread horrors of concentration camps in the Soviet Union. But prose works such as The Bow and the Lyre (1956) clearly show that he was still a committed Marxist. Moreover, he continued his collaboration with the hegemonic ruling party in Mexico, PRI, which governed the country uninterruptedly between 1929 and 2000 and at the time had a strong popular base and a moderately leftist tendency, until the massacre of Tlatelolco 1968 in which hundreds of dissenting students were shot dead by forces loyal to the government. Paz had been acting as Mexican ambassador to India since 1962, but the size and nature of the repression scaled against the people of his country made him lift his support for PRI: at the age of 54 and holding a distinguished diplomatic post, Paz was brave and lucid enough to question his beliefs and criticize the establishment—a breach for which he would forever be considered a traitor among the leftist intellectual elite.
Over the following years Paz’s distancing from the Marxist ranks would be progressively more evident, culminating in his stance against the Cuban authorities in the notorious Padilla case in 1971, when the Cuban government persecuted and imprisoned the poet Heberto Padilla, and ultimately deriving in his final realization—a confession of sorts—in 1974 that the prior beliefs of his generation, their opinion in relation to Marxism, had not only been mistaken, but had amounted to “a sin in the ancient sense of the word, something that affects the entire body.”
Sinful or not, Paz’s involvement in the intellectual arena throughout this time was tireless, documenting in detail his close involvement with other cultures—notably Indian and Japanese civilizations through his diplomatic assignments—in the poetry collection Eastern Slope (1968); developing a form of non-temporal poetry he dubbed topo-poetry, anchored on the work’s topography, which highlighted the role of its imagery and limited the importance of its chronological or narrative aspects; and producing in 1970 what became one of his most famous poetry collections, The Monkey Grammarian. As an essayist Paz looked in detail as the work of those he considered to be the fundamental pillars of Spanish literature, from Rubén Darío to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, through lucid and convincing critical pieces that in the end, though, tell us almost as much about Paz and what he considered important in literature as they do about the subjects of the works. The range of Paz’s interests is astounding, and the erudition with which he tacks complex themes, from Claude Levi-Strauss’s theories to Marcel Duschamp’s conceptual art, commendable. In this respect his collection of critical essays Cuadrivio (1965) and his scathing yet entertaining critique of contemporary art The Children of the Mire (1974) are particularly notable. Furthermore, he was a vigorous and enthusiastic cultural agent, founding and directing multiple magazines from the late 1930s, including Plural (1971-1976) and Vuelta (1976-1998), which became the most respected intellectual platforms in the Spanish-speaking world at the time. Even Letras Libres, perhaps the most prestigious literary magazine published in Spanish at present, is in one way or another an extension of Paz’s Vuelta.
On the occasion of the writer’s centennial the question that has been asked incessantly is, what should Octavio Paz be remembered for? His engagement in the cultural debate from the 1940s to the 1990s was undeniably pivotal, and his critical perspectives about different intellectual matters remain interesting on the whole, and insightful in relation to Mexico. Perhaps due to this multifariousness, however, continued calls have been voiced to place his poetry at the core of our historical reassessment of his figure. That his creative work is beautiful, at times even touching, and always daring is beyond question, but Paz’s poetry is also difficult to engage with, demanding, at times even hermetic. There is nothing coincidental in this: that is just how Paz wanted it to be. That is how we should assess it, how we must accept it—like love, almost, sweet on the one hand and prickly on the other.
Published bt the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday April 6, 2014.