The Labyrinth of Solitude

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The Labyrinth of Solitude

by Octavio Paz


An essay about Mexico published in Spanish in 1950 (as £/laberinto de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de Mé revised in 1959), in English in 1961.


Octavio Paz reflects on the character of Mexicans, the history of Mexico, and the long search for a Mexican identity.

Events in History at the Time of the Essay

The Essay in Focus

For More Information

Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City in 1914 in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. His father, a journalist and lawyer deeply involved in the Revolution, was rarely home, so Paz was raised mainly by his mother, aunt, and grandfather, whose library of Mexican writers and European classics supplemented his education in a French Catholic school. In 1943, after establishing himself as a poet, Paz left Mexico for 11 years, living first in the United States and then in Paris, France, as a diplomat. It was during this time that he wrote The Labyrìnth of Solitude, his best-known essay. In the post-war desolation of France, Paz confronted Mexico’s history of uprootedness and alienation and sought to escape from the solitude that then seemed to have encompassed the world.

Events in History at the Time of the Essay

From the conquest and colonialism to Paz

In 1519 Hernán Cortés, who had been living in Cuba, landed off the coast of present-day southeastern Mexico with some 500 Spanish soldiers. His goal was to conquer the natives, convert them to Christianity, and fill his coffers with their gold in the process. These natives included a number of different Latin American Indian tribes with their own beliefs and languages, among whom the Aztecs, led by Moctezuma II, were the most dominant in the area at the time. By allying themselves with tribes that had been terrorized by the Aztecs, by exploiting Moctezuma’s initial belief that the Spaniard Cortés was a god, and by involuntarily spreading European diseases to which the natives had no immunity, the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztec empire in 1521 and to establish a Catholic Spanish colony in its place. As neighboring lands were conquered, the colony expanded to include all of present-day Mexico, parts of the southwestern United States, and most of Central America.

The conquered area, renamed “New Spain,” was quickly organized according to the principles of Spanish government. While some Aztec nobles retained local leadership as caciques (chiefs), Spaniards were clearly the privileged class. Land that had been held communally by groups of Indians was seized by the Spanish Crown, and, while most of it was granted back to Indians for farming, Spanish settlers gradually began claiming the land for themselves. A local tax and welfare practice known as the encomienda system was also established. Under this system, a Spaniard would be assigned to protect the inhabitants of an Indian village and to convert them to Christianity. In exchange, the villagers paid this encomendero (grantee) a tax, or tribute, in goods or services, often in the form of forced labor. Those Indians without an encomendero paid their tax directly to the Spanish Crown. Only those tribes who had supported Spain during the conquest were exempt from either tax.

Since the Aztecs had been accustomed to paying a regular tribute to their overlords before the conquest, this new system proved fairly easy to establish. It was also a necessary source of income for many Spanish colonists, who needed encomienda funds to offset the heavy taxes and duties they were required to pay to the Church and the Spanish Crown. However, by the 1560s the Spanish government had grown uneasy about the power held by encomenderos and the increase in forced labor as a form of tribute payment. The Spanish government seized a number of encomiendas, or Indian territories assigned to individual colonists, and abolished the policy of allowing personal service in lieu of tribute. Thereafter, Indians were directed to pay a standard tribute, essentially a head tax, directly to the colonial government.

The encomienda system was just one element in a network of municipal, regional, and village governments that stretched across New Spain. While the primary purposes of this network were to maintain Spanish rule, spread Spanish culture, and fill the Spanish treasury, it also served to unify an area previously fragmented by separate tribes with their own languages and social structures. As Paz explains in Chapter Five of The Labyñnth of Solitude, “The Conquest, then, whether considered from the native or the Spanish point of view, must be judged as an expression of a will to unity. Despite the contradictions that make it up, it was a historical act intended to create unity out of the cultural and political plurality of the pre-Cortesian world” (Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 100).

Mexican Catholicism—from its inception, to Sor Juana, to Paz

The unity imposed by Spanish rule also extended to religion. In fact, although some Indians initially resisted conversion to Catholicism, ultimately the Spanish missionaries succeeded in creating a Catholic Mexico. Part of this success stemmed from the Indians’ willingness to blend Aztec religious symbols with Catholic ones. For example, in 1531 an Indian who had recently been converted reported an encounter with the Virgin Mary at the site of a shrine to the Aztec mother goddess, Tonantzin. Identifying herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe, this figure had dark skin and Indian features. When news spread of her appearance, thousands of Indians embraced the Catholic faith and made the Virgin of Guadalupe the religion’s uniquely Mexican symbol.

Another reason that native Mexicans found Catholicism so appealing was the social status it conferred. If all Christians were considered equal in the eyes of God, they reasoned, then surely the Christian Indian must be entitled to fairer treatment from the Spanish than the pagan Indian. The Spanish clergy’s paternalist approach to Indian converts made it clear that truly equal status was not attainable in New Spain, but at least the principle of Christian equality offered converted Indians a tool with which to resist social injustice. As Paz points out, this was a tool unavailable to native North Americans in their confrontations with colonial Protestants, who had no interest in converting them.

In the end, however, the Indians’ acceptance of Catholicism was as much an act of desperation as it was a rational choice. Despite their willingness to condone some symbolic links between Indian deities and their own religious figures (such as Tonantzin/the Virgin of Guadalupe), the Spanish simply refused to allow the practice of any religion in New Spain except Catholicism. From the time of Cortés’s arrival, Aztec pyramids were uniformly replaced with churches and pre-Christian idols and religious records were destroyed.

Spanish clergy members meanwhile sought to ensure that pagan beliefs would fare no better than these physical emblems of paganism. Exploiting the Aztecs’ suspicion that they had been betrayed by their gods during the Conquest, one Spanish friar wrote a widely distributed tract explaining that the Aztecs’ old gods were devils who had tricked them and should be condemned. In the face of such rhetoric and in the midst of a cultural upheaval that left them searching for any source of spiritual comfort, it is not surprising that so many native Mexicans embraced Catholicism in the colonial era.

While Catholicism continued to gain fresh converts in New Spain, the rise of Protestantism reduced the membership of the Catholic Church in Europe. Focused on the outside threat of the Protestant Reformation, Spanish clergy devoted little energy to revitalizing their own religious life. In fact, in both Spain and New Spain, the Tribunal of the Inquisition, an authority dedicated to maintaining the orthodoxy of Catholic doctrine, sought to establish a strict, uniform code of religious belief and behavior, denouncing not only suspected Protestants and Jews, who might be burned at the stake, but any Catholics who strayed from the Inquisition’s definition of orthodoxy.

Needless to say, New Spain in the 1500s and 1600s was not a place where the free exchange of ideas—especially religious ideas—was encouraged. Nevertheless, one writer managed to flourish in the midst of this restrictive atmosphere. Born in 1648, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a child prodigy who became a nun and an accomplished poet and also dabbled in music, science, and philosophy. Her secular interests and unconventional opinions elicited harsh criticism from her fellow nuns and a local bishop, who wrote under an assumed name—Sor Philotea. In a 1691 reply to this bishop (see “Reply to Sister Philotea,” also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), Sor Juana defended her intellectual exploits, explaining that she enhanced her knowledge of God by learning about His creations. This unapologetic response, however, earned her even harsher criticism. Finally in 1694, ostracized and defeated, Sor Juana stopped defending herself and spent the next year of her life, her last, performing acts of penance to atone for her putatively sinful ideas. For Paz, Sor Juana’s story evokes the following conclusion about Mexican colonial life: “It was a world open to participation, was even a living cultural order, but it was implacably closed to all personal expression and all adventure; it was a world closed to the future” (Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 116).

The independence movement

In the three centuries following the defeat of the Aztecs, Spain continued to reap the riches of New Spain through restrictive trade policies and heavy taxes. However, in the 1700s and early 1800s the Spanish government found itself embroiled in a number of wars and other expensive military operations, some in Europe and others in the Americas. To subsidize these activities, Spain’s monarchs raised taxes to an even higher level and added new import duties, including extra taxes on tobacco, wine, and even ice. By the early 1800s only one-half of the income received from New Spain was applied to the colony itself; one-third went to Spain. Furthermore, in 1804 the Spanish king extended to New Spain a Royal Law of Consolidation. This law forced Church institutions to auction off their property and loan the proceeds to the Spanish government. In addition to undermining the power of the Church, this law threatened to destroy the credit system in New Spain because almost all colonial businesses were indebted to the Church to some degree. Mexicans of all classes were adversely affected by the Law of Consolidation, and many staged desperate protests calling for its repeal. Finally, in 1808 the law was suspended.

While most colonists coped grudgingly with the Spanish Crown’s burdensome financial policies in the first decade of the 1800s, some became increasingly discontented. At the same time, certain Enlightenment ideas about natural rights and social equality—the same ideas that had helped to spur revolutions in the North American colonies and in France—began to circulate among the intellectuals of New Spain. Frustrated criollos (colonists of Spanish descent born in Mexico), who were ineligible for high-ranking Church or state positions because they were not born in Spain, resented being treated as second-class citizens by gachupines (a derogatory term for Spaniards or colonists born in Spain) and added this injustice to their list of complaints against the Spanish government.

Despite frustrations with the policies of their mother country, however, very few colonists of New Spain thought seriously about following the revolutionary example of the North American colonies until 1808, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and proclaimed his brother, Joseph, its new king. The subsequent period of instability in Spain was seen as a window of opportunity by colonists interested in establishing self-rule. In 1808 New Spain’s colonial leader tried to set up an independent colonial government but was ousted and imprisoned by a group of Spaniards; in 1809 a plot to launch a revolution against Spain—led by a group of criollo clergymen and local government officials—was foiled. It was not until September of 1810 that Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a criollo parish priest in his 60s, gave the Grito de Dolores (Cry from Dolores—the priest’s village), the call to arms that began the Mexican War for Independence.

With some 60,000 rebels backing him, Father Hidalgo fought to end “bad government” (a reference to Spanish colonial leaders and Napoleon, not the exiled Spanish king, Ferdinand VII), slavery, and the Indian tribute system. These goals gained him much support from Indians and mestizos (Mexicans of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry), who saw the war as an opportunity to take revenge on the middle and upper class criollos and gachupines who had oppressed them, be they encomenderos, land-grabbing hacienda owners, royal officers, or exploitative mine owners. Father Hidalgo’s war was about social revolution far more than independence; in fact, it was perceived as too radical by most of New Spain’s criollos, even those convinced of the need for Mexico to free itself from Spanish control.

Although Father Hidalgo is widely hailed as the “Father of Mexican Independence,” his troops were defeated by royalist forces only six months after the Grito de Dolores; he was soon executed as a traitor. From 1811 to 1819 various other revolutionaries struggled unsuccessfully for Mexican independence.

In 1820, however, the independence movement took a fascinating turn. Back in Spain, the year marked a radical change in government. The by-now reinstated King Ferdinand VII was forced by a military revolt to uphold the provisions of a liberal constitution—provisions that included the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, freedom of the press, and limits on the power of the Church. Horrified by this course of events, Mexican conservatives and high-ranking Church and government officials—the same group that had always opposed Mexican independence—now began plotting to free Mexico from the corrupting influence of a liberal Spain. Once this group of conservative revolutionaries had formed an alliance with their former enemies, little fighting was necessary to secure Mexico’s independence from Spain. Liberals or conservatives, criollos, mestizos, or gachupines, most of New Spain’s colonists and colonial officials agreed it was time to become Mexicans, and in 1821 they did.

From political independence to cultural independence

In 1821 Mexico was no longer a colony of Spain, but in many ways it was still Spanish. The conservative leader of the independence movement, General Agustín de Itur-bide, made himself emperor, and he set to work creating an elaborate royal court and distributing busts of himself in public buildings. Emperor Agustin’s Spanish-style monarchy, however, failed to address serious Mexican problems, chief among them the economic instability caused by the devastation of the war. As a result, only ten months after his reign began, Agustín was forced out of power by a group of military leaders.

Soon the monarchy was replaced by a republic modeled on the United States (though Catholicism was still the only religion permitted). This new form of government was not a guarantee of stability, however. A rift quickly developed between two political groups within the new republic. Liberals supported states’ rights, freedom of the press and religion, public education free of Church control, and equal rights for Mexicans of all classes and races. Conservatives, on the other hand, wanted a strong central government, a censored press, an exclusively Catholic country, Church-run education, and a class system that preserved the rule of the elite. As these two groups struggled for control of Mexico, economic problems persisted. Few solutions could be effectively implemented because as soon as one group gained power, it would replace all government personnel and rewrite laws and parts of the constitution to reflect its views. For most of the 1800s this political instability continued, although the Reform movement of the 1850s produced a liberal constitution, the Constitution of 1857, with more staying power than previous ones.

The Mexican Revolution

The liberal reforms detailed in the Constitution of 1857 promised more to Mexico’s citizens than was delivered. Toward the end of the century, under the 34-year rule of Porfirio Díaz, a president-cum-dictator who claimed to be a liberal, the Catholic Church retained most of its power, the free exchange of ideas was violently suppressed, and grave social inequalities persisted. While Diaz was able to bring economic stability to the country, the benefits of this stability did not extend to large numbers of Mexicans.

In November 1910 Francisco Madero, a liberal-minded hacienda owner, called for a national uprising against Diaz. Tired of Diaz’s abuses of power and anxious for reform, Mexicans gradually joined the fight. For some, the Revolution was about improving public education, curtailing Church power, or enacting fair labor laws. For others, like the peasants who fought behind agrarian reformer Emiliano Zapata, it was about getting back their land from the government-sponsored criollos who had seized it.

The many different goals of the Revolution made it long, devastating, and complicated. As they came to power, rebels would seize the presidency and implement some of the changes they had fought for, but these changes were never sufficient to quell the fighting of remaining factions, and the government changed hands frequently. When the fighting finally stopped in 1920, 15 million people had died, and much of the country was in ruins. During the next two decades, however, more of the ideas they had died for—those legislated in the Constitution of 1917—were implemented by the Mexican government.

The Ateneo confronts positivism

The driving force behind the Diaz dictatorship (1876-1910) was the philosophy of positivism. Based on the work of the French thinker August Comte, who stressed notions of order and progress, Diaz’s brand of positivism extolled the use of science to explain and solve all manners of social and financial problems in Mexico. Thus, his advisors became known as científicos (scientists). While the science of economics certainly aided Diaz’s efforts to bring financial stability to Mexico, the social science that his regime subscribed to was more suspect. Along with Comte’s ideas, the científicos adopted the internationally popular social Darwinist notions of Herbert Spencer. Citing the doctrine of “survival of the fittest,” the científicos justified the marginalization of Indian peasants. The científicos argued that Indians were genetically inferior to criollos and therefore destined to die out eventually, so the government should not waste its resources on educating them or protecting their supposed rights. Given this attitude, it comes as no surprise that during the Diaz regime powerful criollos continued to seize land from Indians and to otherwise mistreat them.


While Mexico was establishing friendlier relations with the United States, relations between many Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans in the United States were strained. One common target of Anglo criticism at this timé was the pachuco—the rebellious Mexican American teenage type who dressed in a flashy zoot suit. The pachuco is described by Paz in the first chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude; though not detailed in his essay, the zoot suit ensemble consisted of colorful tailored shirts, tapered coats, baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles, shiny shoes, wide-brimmed porkpie hats, and duck-tail haircuts, in the summer of 1943 pachucos in Los Angeles, considered by many local police to be innately violent, or predisposed ‘’to kill, or at least to let blood’’(Ayres in Gutiérrez, p 125), became involved in a series of violent encounters with American servicemen that became known as the “Zoot-Suit Riots/Although scores of Mexican American young men were arrested during these encounters for disturbing the peace, it was later discovered that the servicemen had initiated the violence.

Little more than a year before the Mexican Revolution began, a group of young scholars formed the “Ateneo de la Juventud,” or “Youth Atheneum,” to promote a philosophical alternative to positivism. Disturbed by the abuses per-petrated by Diaz in the name of positivism and by the cientificos’s reliance on foreign modes of thought, the Ateneo sought to return Mexican culture to its Indian and Spanish origins and to change education policy to reflect this return. Including such figures as artist Diego Rivera and essayists José Vasconcelos, Alfonso Reyes, and Antonio Caso, the Ateneo was encouraged by Justo Sierra, Diaz’s anti-positivist minister of public instruction and fine arts; thanks to Sierra’s influence, this group had a major impact on the direction of Mexican arts and education in the 20th century.

Mexico in 1950

When Paz writes in The Labyñnth of Solitude about “present day” Mexico, he is speaking of a country caught between an agrarian past and an increasingly industrial future, and also a country experiencing mafor social changes. In the 1940s the Mexican government invested heavily in resources in industry and infrastructure, adding new refineries, pipelines, and wells to Pemex, the national oil company, and extending national rail and highway networks considerably. Irrigation projects under President Miguel Alemán (1946-52) converted thousands of hectares of desert into farmland and used dams to triple Mexico’s production of electrical energy. On the social front, a literacy initiative brought the percentage of illiterate Mexicans down from 58 to 42.5. And in 1943 President Manuel Ávila Camacho established Mexico’s first social security system.

Despite this progress, however, problems remained. Mexico’s agricultural production could not match the rate of population increase; food shortages in 1943 and 1944 led to riots. Political corruption on the local, state, and national levels was common, with bribes and payoffs influencing government policy and contracts.

Another mafor change in 1940s Mexico, for better or for worse, was its increased involvement in foreign affairs. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Mexico ended diplomatic relations with Japan, and in 1942, after a German submarine attack on two of its tankers, Mexico entered World War II on the side of the United States and other Allied powers. This act was just one example of Mexico’s increasing cooperation with the United States. In 1943 President Ávila Camacho initiated the bracero (hired hand) program with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This program brought Mexican laborers to the United States to perform agricultural and railroad jobs left vacant because of the war. Many Mexican businesses were also stimulated by the war, supplying Allied military forces with necessary raw materials such as copper and rubber. Not every business arrangement between Mexico and the United States was a fair deal, however, nor were the profits of all Mexican businesses justly distributed. During the 1940s, despite a growing middle class, a significant gap between Mexico’s rich and poor remained.

The Essay in Focus

Contents summary

The Labyrinth of Solitude consists of nine chapters. In chapters 1 through 4 the essay illustrates Paz’s concept of the Mexican character and introduces some universal notions about history and existence that reappear throughout the piece. Chapters 5 through 8 trace Mexico’s history, from the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortés to the status of Mexico in the Cold War era—that is, in the post-World War II era of struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for world leadership. The final chapter, added in the second (1959) edition, explains the full significance of Paz’s concept of solitude. Overall, the essay analyzes the collective “unconscious” of Mexico, notions engrained in the people, of which they may be unaware.

In the first chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude, “The Pachuco and Other Extremes,” Paz introduces the subject of Mexican identity by describing the pachuco, a type of Mexican American adolescent of the 1930s and 1940s who dressed in flashy clothes and rebelled against both his Mexican heritage and his adopted American culture. “His whole being is sheer negative impulse,” Paz writes, “a tangle of contradictions, an enigma” (Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 14). While the pachuco represents an extreme, Paz nevertheless uses him to symbolize the alienation and uprootedness of Mexicans in general. After sketching a few differences between the North American and the Mexican character, Paz concludes the chapter with some thoughts about solitude, hope, and the search for meaning—thoughts he applies not just to Mexico but to all of humanity.

In the next three chapters, “Mexican Masks,” “The Day of the Dead,” and “The Sons of La Ma-linche,” Paz describes some fundamental aspects of the Mexican’s hidden character. Gradually the following picture of the Mexican man emerges: he is distant, guarded, disingenuous, and suspicious, and speaks in metaphors and unfinished phrases to protect himself from being understood too well. He represses his true feelings until moments of explosion, such as fiestas or acts of passion or violence. His greatest fear is that he might be “opened,” or violated, by someone else, as his symbolic mother, La Malinche (Cortés’s Indian mistress), was violated by Cortés. Because of La Malinche’s betrayal of her Indian culture by coupling with a Spaniard, the Mexican man rejects her and thus must confront life as an orphan, separated from his origins. Under a mask of stoicism, he “locks himself up in” the resulting solitude (Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 64).

In Chapters 5 through 8 of The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz’s focus shifts from psychological description to historical analysis. In an attempt to understand how Mexicans’ solitude came about and “how we have attempted to transcend our solitude” (Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 88), Paz considers the significance of mafor events in Mexican history in regard to the Mexican psyche.

In Chapter 5, “The Conquest and Colonialism,” Paz traces the Mexican sense of orphanhood to the Aztecs’ betrayal by the gods when they were conquered by Cortés. He goes on to defend some aspects of Spanish colonialism in Mexico, especially its ability to unite previously diverse cultures under a common government and religion. But he also critiques the “sterility” of Spanish colonial Catholicism by telling the story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s persecution by the Church for her intellectual endeavors. The experience of Sor Juana taught Mexicans, he concludes, that “to be ourselves, we had to break with [the] exitless [colonial] order, even at the risk of becoming orphans” (Labynnth of Solitude, p. 116).

In Chapter 6, “From Independence to the Revolution,” Paz describes the break with colonial traditions as a long, difficult process that extended far beyond the moment in which Mexico gained its political independence from Spain. Although the War for Independence began primarily as a class war, Paz explains, its goals were essentially reversed when the conservative opponents of newly liberalized Spain chose to make it their war as well; rather than reducing inequalities between the classes, the separation from Spain actually helped to preserve the status quo of class power in Mexico. In the decades following independence, other elements of colonial society also proved difficult to relinquish. Liberal reformers, attempting to create a Mexico modeled on the United States, fought against conservatives, who looked to the traditions of Europe for guidance. In the end, Paz explains, the reform movement gave “true meaning” to the independence movement by negating Mexico’s Spanish heritage, its pre-colonial past, and its Catholicism; Mexicans were orphaned again, this time by a “necessary matricide” (Labynnth of Solitude, p. 126). In addition, their own social tensions remained, leading inevitably to the Mexican Revolution, “an explosive and authentic revelation of our real nature”—an “opening out” (Labynnth of Solitude, p. 135).

In Chapter 7, “The Mexican Intelligentsia,” Paz discusses the history of Mexican writing about Mexico, describing the contributions of the republic’s great thinkers to an understanding of Mexican identity and to the nation’s ongoing attempt to transcend its historical solitude. Paz determines that “the Mexican intelligentsia has not been able to resolve the conflict between the insufficiencies of our tradition and our need and desire for universality” (Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 168). However, in the emotional aftermath of World War II people of all nations now confront a common alienation and must invent a common future.

Chapter 8, “The Present Day,” begins with some reflections on the accomplishments and failures of the Mexican Revolution and the persistent problem of rural poverty in Mexico. Paz then describes the changes in Mexico’s economy and society in recent years and explains the challenges that his country faces in its attempt to reduce the financial gap between itself and the “advanced” nations of the world. Finally, Paz discusses the current worldwide political situation, stressing the increasing importance of formerly peripheral countries in determining the course of world history. For the first time in more than 300 years, he declares, Latin Americans are ceasing to be the objects and starting to be the agents of historical change.

In the final chapter, “The Dialectic of Solitude,” Paz develops his thoughts about solitude into a treatise on love, history, and myth. “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition,” he begins. “[Man’s] nature … consists in his longing to realize himself in another” (Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 195). It is solitude that makes love possible, for if we did not feel alone we would not seek companionship. Love relationships require a constant motion between self and other, a cycle of departure from one world to the creation or re-creation of another (a process akin to the Mexican man opening himself)• This cycle is mirrored, Paz contends, in the history of all societies. According to one myth, he writes, “we have been expelled from the center of the world and are condemned to search for it through jungles and deserts or in the underground mazes of the labyrinth” (Labynnth of Solitude, p. 209). Societies’ attempts to save themselves from the real nightmares of history are often predicated on the dream of returning to this “center of the world,” where time stops and history becomes myth. However, until such a return is possible, Paz concludes, contemporary society must find a new way of participating in the world.

An ongoing debate

Though Paz’s essay on the Mexican personality joins others by previous essayists, such as Samuel Ramos (who will be discussed later), it goes beyond their attempts to define Mexicanness by concerning itself also with the Mexican connection to the universal human condition. A sentence in the seventh chapter shows this concern: “The whole history of Mexico, from the Conquest to the Revolution, can be regarded as a search for our own selves, which have been deformed or disguised by alien institutions, and for a form that will express them” (Labynnth of Solitude, p. 166). Just a few pages later, Paz concludes the chapter with the following thought:

Ever since World War II we have been aware that the self-creation demanded of us by our national realities is no different from that which similar realities are demanding of others. The past has left us orphans, as it has the rest of the planet, and we must join together in inventing our common future.

(Labynnth of Solitude, p. 173)

Together, these two quotes seem puzzling. If, on the one hand, Mexicans have been seeking for years to free themselves from foreign influence, or “alien institutions,” why would Paz propose that Mexico “join together” with other countries to invent a common future? These ostensibly contradictory concepts reflect a central tension within Paz’s essay—a tension between “Mexi-canism” and universalism.

In the decades following the Mexican Revolution, a wave of nationalism spread across Mexico, sweeping up many intellectuals in its path. In order to help rebuild their war-torn country, “many who might have been complacent office holders or ‘pure’ intellectuals or alienated reformers were thrust into public roles of improvisation and reconstruction” (Morse in Bethell, p. 35). Those who did write fiction wrote mainly about Mexico—novels about the Mexican Revolution were especially popular—and writers like the Contemporáneos group (see “Literary context”) who expressed an interest in the literary experimentation going on in Europe and the United States were dismissed as elitist, Europeanizing, and sometimes even “effeminate” (Morse in Bethell, p. 36).

Octavio Paz was a young poet in Mexico in the 1930s, and it is clear that even then he was confronting the tension between nationalism and universalism. He collaborated for a while with the Contemporáneos and learned a great deal from them about poetry; as he became increasingly involved in Mexican politics, however, he broke with them, determining that he could not separate his poetry from his Mexican nationalism.

When Paz began writing The Labyrinth of Solitude in Paris a decade later, in the 1940s, he was a more mature poet with an attachment to the universal ideas of Surrealism about love and poetry. He was also a Mexican who had lived outside his country for many years. Whatever effect these circumstances had on his essay, the result was a careful synthesis of nationalistic ideas about Mexicanism and universal ideas about humankind. In the end, the essay connects the two sets of ideas with the notion that, by confronting one’s Mexicanness, one can reach the universal: Although the identities of Mexico and of Mexicans are unique, both consist of a series of masks, added to by the passing of history. When the series of masks are removed and Mexicans and their country must face their nakedness, they will discover their true universality. In Paz’s words, “Mexicanism will become a mask, which, when taken off, reveals at last the genuine human being it disguised” (Labynnth of Solitude, p. 171). It follows that this would relieve the solitude Paz perceives as plaguing Mexicans in his own time.

Surrealism in post-war France

Although Paz writes about 1940s Mexico in The Labyrinth of Solitude, he actually saw very few of the changes he describes. From 1945 to 1951, after spending two years in the United States, Paz lived in Paris, where he worked as a cultural attaché. The Paris of this time was a demoralized place; it had survived the Nazi occupation and bombing attacks of World War II, but a feeling of desolation pervaded the city. Paz was not immune to this feeling; fortunately he befriended a Parisian poet who helped him to cope. This poet, André Breton, was at the center of a literary and artistic movement known as Surrealism. In an attempt to convey the workings of the subconscious, the Surrealists experimented with techniques such as “automatic writing” (writing devoid of conscious thought) and produced art with fantastic, dreamlike images. For the Surrealists, poetry and love had an almost religious power; each had an ability to restore one’s inner life—an ability that was especially necessary in postwar France. While the Surrealists acknowledged that poetry and love could not change the world, they were convinced that both could save them from despair. As Breton writes in a 1948 poem, “The poetic embrace/like the flesh embrace/as long as it lasts/forbids all fall into the world’s misery” (Breton in Wilson, p. 40).

Paz’s involvement with Breton’s Surrealist group in France had an obvious impact on the concept of poetry and love in the essay’s final chapter, “The Dialectic of Solitude.” Just as Breton envisioned poetry and love as a means of preventing those who create them from falling into the world’s misery, Paz’s essay describes love (or “true erotic communion”) as a transformative experience that we must struggle to find in the face of society’s and history’s attempts to frustrate it. The essay’s debt to Breton is clear when it explains how poetry and love both provide exits from the labyrinth of solitude.

Literary context

Octavio Paz drew on the work of Mexican and European writers in composing The Labyrinth of Solitude. Essays on Mexican identity were common in the era of the Ateneo scholars, and Paz discusses the work of two Ateneo essayists, José Vasconcelos and Alfonso Reyes, in his chapter on the Mexican intelligentsia. Another group of young men that helped to establish Mexico’s essayistic tradition was known as the Contemporáneos Group. Writing in the journal Contemporáneos in the 1920s, these young men, including Forge Cuesta, argued for a cosmopolitan Mexican literature that did not lose sight of its Mexican roots but also reflected some of the literary experiments and innovation going on at the time in Europe and the United States. Paz likely had the work of this group in mind when he wrote Labyrinth.

More influential, however, was the work of Samuel Ramos. In constructing his essay, Paz borrows most substantially from Ramos’s 1934 Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico. Ramos’s book is a psychological exploration of Mexican character that discusses the Mexican’s inferiority complex and “masked” identity. The similarities between Ramos’s and Paz’s approaches led one critic writing in 1959 to accuse Paz of neglecting to credit Ramos sufficiently for his ideas. Paz does mention Ramos’s work often in The Labyrinth of Solitude, but usually as a starting point for his own observations. In a response to this critic, Paz explains the main difference between their work as follows: Ramos “does not touch Mexican history or the Mexican’s vital relationship with certain universal ideologies… . He is not interested in situating us in the world” (Paz in Wilson, p. 52).


The year in which the first edition of The Labyrinth of Solitude appeared (1950), Mexico was still in the midst of a nationalist revival, so Paz’s universalist notions were not well received. Mexican critics pointed to a trend in Paz’s poetry and prose toward obscurity, elitism, and Europeanization.

When the English translation of the second edition was published in 1961, however, the book received more positive international reviews. One British critic praised the “lucid, thoughtful, provocative” history in the book while faulting the “psycho-literary generalities” in which Paz indulges to “cover his uncertainty” about whether he can accurately define his country (Wood in Foster and Ramos Foster, pp. 173-74). But other reviewers responded to the essay with more wholehearted applause. One critic writing in the journal Améñcas shared the sentiments of many when he described the essay as “some of the most profound pages that have been written about the soul of [Paz’s] people” (Durand in Foster and Ramos Foster, p. 170). Another critic praised the essay’s blend of myth and concrete reality, explaining that the image of Mexico that Paz creates is “truer than the profound truths it reveals for presenting them in a mythos made entirely beautiful” (Christ in Foster and Ramos Foster, p. 177). Its beauty and power were recognized again in 1990, when The Labyrinth of Solitude was cited as one of the mafor reasons for awarding Paz the Nobel Prize for Literature.

—Allison Weisz

For More Information

Aguilar Camín, Héctor, and Lorenzo Meyer, In the Shadow of the Mexican Revolution: Contemporary Mexican History, 1910-1989. Trans. Luis Alberto Fierro. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Foster, David William, and Virginia Ramos Foster, eds. Modern Latin American Literature: A Library of Literary Criticism. Vol. 2. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975.

Gutiérrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

MacLachlan, Colin M., and Jaime E. Rodriguez O.The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Miller, Robert Ryal. Mexico: A History. Norman:University of Oklahoma, 1985.

Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings. Trans. Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, and Rachel Phillips Belash. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

_____ Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1988.

Werner, Michael S., ed. Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society, and Culture. 2 vols. Chicago:Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.

Wilson, Jason. Octavio Paz. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

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The Labyrinth of Solitude

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