Octavio Paz: The Poet as Philosopher
Editorial Note: Durán’s essay is an expanded version of the encomium that he delivered at the 1982 Neustadt Prize award ceremonies on 9 June at the University of Oklahoma.
The poet Derek Walcott remarked recently, “The greatest writers have been at heart parochial, provincial in their rootedness. . . Shakespeare remains a Warwickshire country boy; Joyce a minor bourgeois from Dublin, Dante’s love of Florence was very intense. Hardy’s place, of course, was rural Essex: ‘I can understand / Borges’s blind love for Buenos Aires, / How a man feels the veins of his city swell in his head’ (Midsummer ’81).”1 There are many books and poems by Paz that proclaim his rootedness, his intimacy with Mexican traditions, landscapes, people. Books like The Labyrinth of Solitude, for instance, or Posdata could not have been written by anyone outside the mainstream of Mexican culture. No foreign observer could have given such books the impact and urgency they possess. Paz is not content with describing some of the deepest and most relevant aspects of Mexican psychology; he involves the reader in the system of values he describes because he is himself involved in it for better or for worse, inescapably. It is ancient Mexican culture with its circular patterns that molds a long poem such as “Sun Stone”; it is the experience of being an adolescent in and around Mexico City that imparts distinctive flavor to Paz’s “Nocturno de San Ildefonso.”
Yet very often at the conclusion of Paz’s sustained efforts to explore his roots and the origins of his culture, a change of mood and of ideas begins to emerge. From the poet’s direct and intimate experience he leads us toward a deeper knowledge of what it is to be a Mexican living and working in the present century, within a culture as tragic and fragmented as it is rich and complex. But the poet’s experience allows him to express also much that belongs to our experience. His exploration of Mexican existential values permits him to open a door to an understanding of other countries and other cultures. What began as a slow, almost microscopic examination of self and of a single cultural tradition widens unexpectedly, becoming universal without sacrificing its unique characteristic.
This is a special gift, a gift few poets possess. The inescapable conclusion is that Paz belongs to a select group of poets who can expand the limits of poetry until they invade the realm of philosophy. Paz is a poet-philosopher, a philosophical poet. Such a gift has never been widespread. Among the classics, for instance, Lucretius would qualify, but not Catullus. Dante was a philosophical poet, and so were Shakespeare and Milton, Donne and Eliot. In each of these instances we find a persistent exploration of nature, of the place of human beings in nature. What is our place in the cosmos? Are we, as we often think in our pride, the masters of nature, the almost perfect creation of a protecting and loving God? Are we intruders barely tolerated? Are we, as Shakespeare claims in a somber moment, no more to the gods than flies are to wanton children, flies which they kill as a pastime? Or are we enveloped by the very same love which, as Dante explains, is the force that moves the Sun and the other stars? Philosophical poets may differ widely with respect to the answers they give to the riddles of life. What they have in common, however, is a mixture of curiosity and awe, and this is much more important than what separates them.
The philosopher-poet is always ready to travel with his mind and his body, through time and through space. Octavio Paz has traveled as widely as he has written, and as Anna Balakian has said, he “belongs to that new breed of humans, more numerous each day, who are freeing themselves of ethnic myopia and walking the earth as inhabitants of the planet, regardless of national origin or political preferences.”2
It is entirely possible that all human beings are born poets, born philosophers, born scientists, but that circumstances and a poor education shrink or atrophy the imagination and the curiosity that would sustain such activities. Fortunately for us, Paz was a poet and a curious observer since childhood and has managed to retain a child’s heart and vision. A sense of being open to the world was among his childhood’s more precious gifts. Paz has said about himself:
As a boy I lived in a place called Mixcoac, near the capital. We lived in a large house with a garden. Our family had been impoverished by the revolution and the civil war. Our house, full of antique furniture, books, and other objects, was gradually crumbling to bits. As rooms collapsed we moved the furniture into another. I remember that for a long time I lived in a spacious room with part of one of the walls missing. Some magnificent screens protected me inadequately from wind and rain. A creeper invaded my room. . . A premonition of that surrealist exhibition where there was a bed lying in a swamp.3
I see in this room invaded by rain, wind and plants a symbol of the poet’s career, always open to the wind coming from every direction of the compass, always exposed to the outside world and the forces of nature—a room quite the opposite of a fortress or an ivory tower. From this exposed vantage point the poet ventures forth. His goal is not only to see infinity in a grain of sand, as William Blake proposed, but at the same time to describe the texture and color of the grain of sand, to see its reflection in his eye—and ours.
Paz knows that human beings have many roots, not a single taproot, fibrous roots that connect them with many cultures, many pasts. The themes, meanings, images by which poetic imagination seeks to penetrate to the heart of reality—the permanence and mystery of human suffering, human hope, joy and wonder—reach the poet from many sources. The poet sees existence with the double vision of tragedy, the good and the evil forever mixed. He is constantly under strain, admitting dire realities and conscious of bleak possibilities. Yet he is aware that love, knowledge, art, poetry allow us to experience the unity and final identity of being.
Ultimately Paz as a poet is a master of language, yet one who recognizes that language is also our shaper and ruler. If the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer defined man as the animal who can create language and myths, we can also state that it is language, myths, poetry that have created man, that have made man into a speaking, mythmaking, poetry-writing animal. It is through language that Paz faces the world, sees the world as a unity, confronts the diversities of culture and explains their apparent oppositions and contradictions, their conjunctions and disjunctions, as different responses to the same identical questions. To understand is to see correspondences and patterns, structures of symmetry and dissymmetry, constellations of signs in space and in time—yet anything can be expressed and related through words. In Paz’s many-splendored vision the poet is capable of flying through space and time, because like the magical monkey of Hindu legend, Hanumān, he has invented grammar and language.
From above, in his vertical flight, drunk with light and with love, the poet contemplates the fusion of opposites, the marriage of Heaven and Hell, the radiance of the void, the dark luminosity where life and death meet. The movements of planets, the patterns of seasons and nature, are circular, yet the circle becomes a spiral pointing toward vaster spaces where everything becomes possible, where I become the Other, where the labyrinth of mirrors fuses into a single blinding light. We learn to say “no” and “yes” at the same time, because through poetry we reach the certain knowledge that Becoming and Being are two facets of the same reality. As Paz describes it, “The spirit / Is an invention of the body / The body / An invention of the world / The world / An invention of the spirit” (Blanco).4 Within this is language, poetic language, the language of myths and of passion that has made us what we are. Language is a huge shuttle going back and forth, weaving our world, and the poet is at the center of this operation. “By passion the world is bound, by passion too it is released,” reads the epigraph from Buddhist tradition (The Hevajra Tantra) that frames what is perhaps Paz’s most famous poem, “Blanco”. As a poet, Paz is the master of words. Word of passion, words of wisdom. They can create our ultimate vision; they can also erase it.
An English poet-philosopher, John Donne, wisely warns us that when we hear the bell toll for someone’s death we should realize that it tolls for us, that someone else’s death in a subtle but certain way diminishes us, partially kills us, for we are part and parcel of the fabric which this death unravels. I would like to point out a reverse situation: when a poet’s work is heard, understood, applauded, it is a triumph for life, a celebration of Being, and therefore it is our victory, our glory, that is heard in the joyous pealing of the bell.
This celebration of Being is instinctively clear to the philosophical poet because he or she is often conscious of speaking, feeling, writing not only for himself or herself, but for all of us. Sympathy unites the philosophical poet to other human beings that he or she may not know and with whom he or she may superficially have little in common. A capacity for generalized feelings, visions, ideas is another feature of the philosophical poet that makes his or her voice different from the voices of other poets. The philosophical poet sees and describes a specific flower, a yellow rose or a purple iris, and at the same time there is a space in his mind, in his imagination, in his soul, where the rose and the iris come closer and closer to a perfect flower, the Platonic flower described by Mallarmé as “l’absente de tout bouquet”—the flower that is the essence of all flowers and therefore absent from any real bouquet.
Unless the description given above sounds too precious, we should agree on a few basic points. Aristotle stated that there can be no scientific description, no scientific knowledge, until and unless it is generalized description, knowledge, statement. The efforts of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were already moving in the same direction. Poetry is a personal statement, the most individualistic and intimate statement if we mean by poetry what most readers accept as its basic definition: that is to say, lyric poetry. How can any writer bridge the gap between the individual vision and the generalized overview of our world?
Octavio Paz gives us the answer in almost every one of his books. An analysis of his techniques as related to both his style and his ideas would become lengthy if applied to all his texts. It is reasonable to choose two individual texts, one old and one relatively new, one a prose book and the other a poem. The first is perhaps Paz’s most celebrated and widely read book, his obvious best seller, The Labyrinth of Solitude, whereas the second, chosen in order to show how Paz is a consistently philosophical poet, is “Blanco”, a philosophical poem which both rivals and complements—perhaps contradicts would be a better word—T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz approaches a difficult problem: how to define and explain the feelings of identity and lack of identity of today’s Mexicans, especially of those Mexicans who are conscious of living, thinking and feeling according to a Mexican system of values. He uses the vocabulary and the stylistic resources of poetry: images, metaphors, oxymorons, conceits, all the figures of speech. Images and symbols, however, cluster around certain basic observations, which are often derived from a comparison with other sensitivities, other systems of values, whether American, west European or from the Orient. Early enough in the book Paz avows that most of what he has to say about being Mexican came to his mind during the two years he resided in the United States. In order to define what is Mexican, he had to understand and define several other cultural traditions and value systems: only then, profiled by the ways of life that are different, the geographical and temporal space where Mexican values are to appear begins to emerge.
This is so because the identity of an individual or a group assumes the “otherness” of the individuals and groups that surround them. The world is incredibly rich and complex: we can find our place in it only after acknowledging its thousand faces. As Paz puts it in his words of acceptance of the Neustadt International Prize for 1982:
In esthetic terms, Plurality is a richness of voices, accents, manners, ideas and visions; in moral terms, Plurality signifies tolerance of diversity, renunciation of dogmatism and recognition of the unique and singular value of each work and every personality. Plurality is Universality, and Universality is the acknowledging of the admirable diversity of man and his works . . . To acknowledge the variety of visions and sensibilities is to preserve the richness of life and thus to ensure its continuity.
Paz knows by instinct what German philosophers of the Romantic era—Fichte, Schelling, Hegel—found out through arduous reasoning and what in our own time Martin Buber has restated successfully: there is no I without a Thou; there is no individuality without an “otherness,” a plurality. We know everything, we are everything and everybody if, and only if and when, we acknowledge our diversity, engage in a dialogue with everybody else, create bridges between human beings and their own past, their traditions and hopes. A dialogue between ourselves and nature, between human history and the history of the cosmos.
It goes without saying that when a poet invades the realm of philosophy, the impact is bound to be strong and enduring. Philosophers deal with questions that we all care about, but they often are clumsy and obscure in the way they state them and in the way they make their conclusions explicit. Few philosophers are forceful writers. So few, in fact, that their lack of expertise about language and communication is perhaps the major factor that has brought philosophy into disarray and ineffectiveness in our time. Plato was a first-rate writer; so were Nietzsche, Bergson, Ortega y Gasset.
A concern with language, a concern about language, is what poets and philosophers have most in common. Modern philosophy from Descartes to the present has paid constant attention to the tools that have helped us reach toward knowledge, and foremost among these tools is language, which brings us knowledge in such a grasping, intimate way that we receive both knowledge and language at the same time, closely intertwined. Young Emerson points out in his journals, “The progress of metaphysics may be found to consist in nothing else than the progressive introduction of apposite metaphors.”5
Paz is committed to language, not only because he is a poet, but also because as a thinking man he sees in language a meeting place of space and time, essence and existence. “The word is man himself. We are made of words. They are our only reality, or at least, the only testimony of our reality,” Paz assures us in The Bow and the Lyre. Moreover, as Paz writes in Alternating Current, “The problem of meaning in poetry becomes clear as soon as we notice that the meaning is not to be found outside, but rather inside the poem; it is not to be found in what the words have to say, but rather in what the words have to say to each other” (“. . . en aquello que se dicen entre ellas”).
It is perhaps in “Blanco”, a long poem published in 1966, that Paz reaches his highest level as a philosophical poet. “Blanco” is a text that unfolds in several ways. We can read it as a whole, from beginning to end, or we can read first the central column, which deals with the birth of words, the birth of language. To the left of this central column is another column, a poem in itself if we choose to read it as such, an erotic poem divided into four sections which stand for the four elements in the physical world. To the right of the central column we find another column, another poem, also divided into four parts: it deals with sensation, perception, imagination and understanding. Read as a whole, “Blanco” can be baffling and exasperating if we do not understand that it is the interaction of the different parts across time (the time it takes to read the poem) and space (the printed page with its white spaces surrounding the texts as silence surrounds our words) that conveys the message. Language cannot be born, Paz seems to say in this poem, unless we combine into one single unit space, time, sensuousness, passion and silence.
It is through language that we can approach the world around us, Paz seems to tell us, and each new word created by us enriches us with a new treasure—with the joy which this victory produces we find new strength to go on and invent new words. This is the way he describes the creation of the word sunflower:
Among taciturn confusions,
On a copper stalk
In a foliage of clarity,
Of fallen realities.
High on its pole
(Head on a pike)
Already carbonized light
Above a glass
In the palm of a hand
Neither seen nor thought:
Calyx of consonants and vowels
All burning. (177–79)
Flashes of light and color, metaphors, images, synesthesia precede and follow the word sunflower (girasol), helping in its birth, reinforcing its presence and its meaning. Everything begins and ends in words. Words, on the other hand, need us, need our senses, our passion, in order to be born. In an audacious reverse movement similar to the flight of a boomerang, Paz compels poetic language to turn around and examine itself, examine words and sentences, in order to seize the second in which a sensation becomes a word.
As Ricardo Gullón has stated, “Paz, like André Breton, understands that the language of passion and the passion of language are on good terms with one another, that they are the recto and verso page of the same attitude. Moreover, language is where song happens. There is no song without words, even though a song can be diminished to a susurration or concealed in a number.”6 Poetry, language, passion: these are key words for anyone approaching Paz’s texts. It is the way he relates and combines them that makes his message a universal one, no matter how closely related many of his poems and essays are to the Mexican soil and culture that shaped him. By approaching language through poetry and passion he deals with a universal fact—there is no culture without language, and language belongs to all of us—through feelings (sensuousness, sexual passion) that are also our common heritage. An intellectual and philosophical quest has been carried out through experiences that can be shared by all. Can there be a greater achievement for a philosopher-poet?
1 James Atlas, “Derek Walcott, Poet of Two Worlds,” New York Times Magazine, 23 May 1982, 32.
2 Anna Balakian, “Focus on Octavio Paz and Severo Sarduy,” Review 72, Fall 1972.
3 Rita Guibert, “Paz on Himself and His Writing: Selections from an Interview,” in The Perpetual Present: The Poetry and Prose of Octavio Paz, ed. Ivar lvask (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 25.
4 Octavio Paz, “Blanco,” trans. Charles Tomlinson and G. Aroul, in Configurations (New York: New Directions, 1971), 193.
5 Quoted in “Emerson in His Journals,” New York Times Book Review, 20 June 1982, 20.
6 Ricardo Gullón, “The Universalism of Octavio Paz,” in The Perpetual Present, 80.
Manuel Durán (b. 1925, Barcelona) is an emeritus professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University and a longtime editorial board member of World Literature Today. After publishing an essay on Spanish and Spanish American writers in the “Nobel Prize Symposium” issue of Books Abroad (Winter 1967), the Swedish Academy invited him to take part in a symposium in Stockholm in September 1967.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.