The Presence of Octavio Paz
This year, we commemorate two anniversaries: thirty years since Octavio Paz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990 and seventy years since the publication of his most-read essay, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). Anniversaries are as good an excuse as any to rethink the major works and figures within our traditions. Paz wore many hats: poet, essayist, critic, theorist, translator, anthologist, art critic, intellectual, traveler, orientalist, diplomat, magazine founder, group leader. From the beginning, he was a poet folded up into the role of essayist, critic, and thinker: he unveiled his first poems and essays in 1931, at the age of 17. Just as his prose demands to be read as the criticism of a self-serving partial creator, his poetry soon took on a self-critical dimension: creation and reflection coexist in a continuous and fruitful dialogue, each activity fueling the other. What’s the point in demanding monolithic homogeneity from a multifaceted, plural writer? A work’s richness and productive power depend more on its ability to spark a dialogue than on its closed, self-sufficient, totalizing character.
It is easier to assess writers after they are dead. In life, there are too many obstacles in the way of fair appreciation. Even prestige can muddle a work’s reception. Paradoxically, the well-deserved international fame that surrounded Paz in the final decades of his life was a punishment for an independent and unpopular thinker such as himself, a secret, marginal poet. It is hard for a critical, dissident temperament to endure the unconditional acclaim that endeavors to transform the exception to the rule into a docile, conformist rule in its own right. As both a poet and a writer, he always stood out for his bravery and unflagging intellectual curiosity. One of the many myths that circulate about Paz is that he was the disciple of some thinker or another, but he never restricted himself to regurgitating other people’s models: he always transformed what he received into something of his own, something different. He absorbed countless poetic and intellectual influences in order to build a unique and nontransferable universe. Paz cannot be boxed into a single discipline; it is only through the multiplication of perspectives that we can gradually step into his universe. Pazian wisdom does not recognize the payment of levies when crossing disciplinary borders. Furthermore, he was a great specialist in the unspecialized, the only realm where it is possible to explore the enigmas of love, eros, and the phenomenon of alterity, which is central to his thinking. Intelligence is free and does not prostrate itself before dogma.
He was demanding of others, and more so of himself. For him, criticism was, first and foremost, self-criticism, hence his penchant for revision: all his books exist in myriad modified versions. Some of his poems exist in eight or nine different forms, arguably distinct works that share a title. He was never satisfied with his work, not even when he was at the peak of his fame. His enthusiasm and utopian dreams always existed alongside doubt and skepticism. He taught us that thought and poetry are not incompatible and that the convergence of innovation and tradition is possible. He gave us enduring works in all his phases, and with every book he took new risks.
Piedra de sol (Sunstone, 1957) was Paz’s first undisputed masterpiece: a long, circular poem in which three temporalities coexist: the cyclical time of mythology, the linear and unrepeatable time of history, and the instantaneous time of personal experience and love. It is a love poem that travels through the cultural traditions of Mexico, from pre-Hispanic myths through syncretism with European beliefs, complete with Renaissance, baroque, romantic, modernist or symbolist, and avant-garde elements.
For me, his greatest collection of poetry was his last: Árbol adentro (A Tree Within, 1987), a book that few understood because in it, Paz did not limit himself to imitating his earlier work. Rather, he did something unheard of: he reinvented himself as a poet, starting from scratch, facing his own death. It is the work of an old and young poet who is not tired of discovering the world. The poet and the thinker never stopped growing. When Paz died in 1998, his ever-expanding oeuvre was cut off. As a poet, he was a master of both extensive and instantaneous composition, and he utilized both traditional and experimental forms. He did not leave us with a stylistic formula or a treatise on writing, but instead incited us to seek out new ways of expressing untransferable individual sensibility. For this poet who simultaneously believed in inspiration and critical awareness, the creative act was experience, expression, and revelation of the I that is always Other. Thus, his legacy was neither immediate nor self-evident.
Every sentence of his prose is just as varied as his poetry. It is shocking to think that his first book-length essay is already an established classic: El laberinto de la soledad (1950), a book that’s still being read seventy years later. In it, Paz’s prose is characterized by dazzling style, ambition, conceptual depth, polemical zeal, capacity for synthesis in uncommon imagery, and vibrant intellectual complexity built on simple and straightforward syntax.
Many of his essays are so original that they lack antecedents within the Hispanic tradition. His extensive essay on poetry, El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre, 1956), is our first treatise on poetry within the romantic tradition (though it is also a powerful argument for symbolism or modernismo, and an impassioned affirmation of the avant-garde, especially in its surrealist vein). Los hijos de limo (Children of the Mire, 1974), his essay on the modern tradition of Western poetry, is the first Hispanic contribution to the field of comparative literature: a history of literary modernity and an in-depth analysis of the dangerous attraction to political and religious utopias. In the realm of the essay, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe (Sor Juana, Or, The Traps of Faith, 1982) is Paz’s crowning achievement: a groundbreaking, watershed book. It is not only a biography of the Hieronymite nun and a study of her uncomfortable position in a colonial world dominated by orthodoxy, but also—and especially—a passionate interpretation of the poetry and prose of a figure that he acknowledged as an influence upon himself.
It is impossible to classify Paz within a group or a generation. His decision to blaze his own path as a modern intellectual led him, as a young man, to idealize the social revolution and, later, to virulently expression his disillusionment with the twisted process that transformed anarcho-socialism into bureaucratic and totalitarian regimes. This was, for him, the central event of the 20th century and his constant obsession: how was it possible, he wondered, for a philosophy of liberation (such as Marxism) to be converted into a tool of oppression?
In Mexico, Paz has been read through a largely ideological lens. Here, the intellectual has supplanted the poet. But Paz the intellectual never aimed to represent anyone: the voice in his poems and essays is an individual, solitary, dissident consciousness, leading to the denouncement of any attempt to make him the official poet of Mexico. In his homeland, Paz has been celebrated and debated mainly as an ideologue (a term he hated) and his ideas have been used to justify or condemn certain causes. This instrumentalization—which says more of Mexico than it does of Paz—betrays the very essence of his thought, which is critical, free, and incorruptible.
How did Paz view his own legacy? Though he didn’t leave any grandiloquent declarations, he had the good judgment to write his own epitaph: one of his last and most perfect poems (elliptical, simple, forceful, colloquial, classic). “Epitafio sobre ninguna piedra” (Epitaph for No Stone) is an autobiography in miniature and a memorable meta-poetic declaration in five alexandrines whose synthetic parallelism recalls the stoic paganism of the many epigrams in the Greek Anthology:
Mixcoac fue mi pueblo: tres sílabas nocturnas,
un antifaz de sombra sobre un rostro solar.
Vino Nuestra Señora, la Tolvanera Madre.
Vino y se lo comió. Yo andaba por el mundo.
Mi casa fueron mis palabras, mi tumba el aire.
Mixcoac was my village: three nocturnal syllables,
a half-mask of shadow across a face of sun.
Our Lady, Mother Dustcloud, came,
came and ate it. I went out in the world.
My words were my house, air my tomb.
(Trans. Eliot Weinberger)
Words are the poet’s only dwelling place. If poetry is, as Paz thought, the expression of our constitutive Otherness, then poets only live if others refresh and appropriate their words. Their destiny depends on others: “Todo poema se cumple a expensas del poeta” (“Every poem is finished at the poet’s expense”). The poetic text is incomplete without a reader/listener/recipient. The poetic experience is an encounter in space and time: in the here and now, a presence articulated for another. Paz is one of the most indispensable poets and essayists within the modern tradition, faithful to himself throughout all his changes.
Translated by Kevin Gerry Dunn
Originally published in El papel literario in the newspaper El Nacional (Venezuela), December 6, 2020.
Kevin Gerry Dunn is a Spanish–English translator specializing in literature, art, gender, and immigration. He is a 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Grant recipient, and his recent translations include Countersexual Manifesto by Paul B. Preciado (Columbia University Press, 2018) and Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina by Kike Arnal and Josefina Fernández (The New Press, 2018). He also heads the FTrMP Project, an effort to make Spanish translations of vital migration paperwork available for free online. His website is www.kgdtranslation.com.
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.