BORN: 1914, Mexico City, Mexico
DIED: 1998, Mexico City, Mexico
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
Sun Stone (1957)
A Draft of Shadows (1975)
The intellectual body of work of Octavio Paz is one of the most extensive and important in the history of Latin America. He wrote more than twenty books of poetry (more than thirty if all editions of the books are considered) and as many book-length essays about such topics as literature, eroticism, politics, anthropology, and painting. Until his death, he fueled an intellectual passion that—through his essays and the magazines that he headed—turned him into an indispensable guide for several generations in the area of Spanish language. Not only with his poetry, but also with his prose, Paz renovated Spanish, thanks to his mastery of nuance, the communication between words, and the architecture of syntax.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Spanish Heritage Paz was born in Mexico City. His mother's family had emigrated from Spain and his father's ancestors traced their heritage to early Mexican settlers and indigenous peoples. Paz's paternal grandfather was a journalist and political activist, and his father was an attorney who joined Emiliano Zapata's farmer-backed revolution in the early 1900s. During the Mexican Civil War, a conflict led by Fransisco I against the dictator Poririo Diaz, Paz's family lost their home and relocated to a nearby suburb of Mexico City, where they lived under financially unstable conditions. Nonetheless, Paz received his secondary education at a French Catholic school and later attended the National University of Mexico. While in his late teens, he founded Barrandal, an avant-garde journal, and published his first volume of poems, Luna silvestre (1933). In 1937, he traveled to Spain, which was at the time in the middle of a civil war pitting the ultranationalist/fascist forces of General Francisco Franco against the forces supporting the Spanish Republic. The fascists won the war and Franco became the Spanish dictator until his death in 1975. Paz participated in several antifascist activities in Spain before moving on to France. In Paris, he became interested in surrealism, a highly influential literary and artistic movement dedicated to examining the irrational, paranormal, and subconscious aspects of the human mind.
Disillusionment Paz returned to Mexico from Europe in 1938, just as the continent was heading toward World War II. Paz spent the war in Mexico and the United States, traveling extensively. While in the United States he became influenced by the formal experiments of such modernist poets as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.
Diplomacy and Literary Repute Paz joined the Mexican diplomatic service in 1945 and was assigned to the Mexican embassy in Paris. While in France, he became reacquainted with the aesthetics of surrealism and the philosophy of existentialism, eventually favoring what he termed “the vital attitude” of surrealism. It was during this time he wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude, a collection of essays concerning the importance of loneliness as the core of human—and especially Mexican—identity. This book and Sun Stone (1957), a long poem generally considered his finest achievement in verse, established Paz's international literary reputation. Paz continued to travel extensively as a diplomat. He was named Mexican ambassador to India in 1962 and served in this position until 1968, when he resigned in protest following the killings of student demonstrators in Mexico City's Plaza of Three Cultures by government forces. Later editions of The Labyrinth of Solitude include an additional essay by Paz discussing this tragic event.
Paz continued to lecture and travel around the world. In 1987 Paz published Arbol adentro, his first collection of poetry in eleven years. In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died of cancer in 1998.
Works in Literary Context
Paz was introduced to literature in his grandfather's personal library. Later, he read authors who influenced his work including Gerardo Diego, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Antonio Machado, and D. H. Lawrence. In addition, his philosophical stance was influenced by his exposure to the writings of David Rousset, André Breton, and Albert Camus. His works reflect his knowledge of the history, myths, and landscape of Mexico as well as his interest in surrealism, existentialism, romanticism, Eastern thought, and diverse political ideologies.
Surrealism In his early verse, Paz experiments with such diverse forms as the sonnet and free verse, reflecting his desire to renew and clarify Spanish language by lyrically evoking images and impressions. In many of these poems, Paz employs the surrealist technique of developing a series of related or unrelated images to emphasize sudden moments of perception, a particular emotional state, or a fusion of such polarities as dream and reality or life and death. According to Paz, surrealism is a “negation of the contemporary world and at the same time an attempt to substitute other values for those of democratic bourgeois society: eroticism, poetry, imagination, liberty, spiritual adventure, vision.” Topics of Paz's formative verse include political and social issues, the brutality of war, and eroticism and love. Eagle or Sun? (1951), one of his most important early volumes, is a sequence of visionary prose poems concerning the past, present, and future of Mexico. Selected Poems, published in 1963, and Early Poems: 1935–1955 (1973) contain representative compositions in Spanish and in English translation.
Radical Diversity The variety of forms and topics in Paz's later poems mirror his diverse interests. Blanco (1967), widely considered his most complex work, consists of three columns of verse arranged in a chapbook format that folds out into a long, single page. Each column develops four main themes relating to language, nature, and the means by which an individual analyzes and orders life. In Ladera este: 1962–1968 (1968), Paz blends simple diction and complicated syntax to create poems that investigate Asian philosophy, religion, and art. In his long poem A Draft of Shadows (1975), Paz examines selfhood and memory by focusing on poignant personal moments in the manner of William Wordsworth's autobiographical poem The Prelude.
Influence The influence of Paz is vast and continues to grow. Writers that have been influenced by Paz include but are certainly not limited to Samuel Beckett, Charles Tomlinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand, and Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. The work of Paz continues to be translated into numerous languages, thus increasing the scope of his enduring influence.
Works in Critical Context
Octavio Paz's reputation as one of the greatest literary figures of Latin America in the twentieth century—and certainly Mexico's most important writer at that time—rests on his extensive output. He wrote more than thirty collections of poetry over the course of fifty years. His essays almost equaled his poetry in quantity, thoughtfulness, and influence. The two categories of writing complement each other. As John M. Fein states in an essay titled “Toward Octavio Paz: A Reading of His Major Poems, 1957– 1976,” “His success in diversified fields is heightened in the ways in which his essays and his poetry are complementary: the core of his creativity is a concern for language in general and for the poetic process in particular.” In other words, critics' positive reaction to Paz's poetry is brought to an even higher level by the fact that his poetry is based on sound principles enumerated in his nonfiction, particularly those regarding the use of language.
Because critical approval of Paz's work is nearly universal, the only question that emerged when he was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature in 1990 was why it had taken so long. In his introduction to a volume about essays on the poet, Harold Bloom noted that giving him the prize was “one of the sounder choices,” alluding to the unusual degree of approval from literary critics around the world. As The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature summarized Paz's career, “There is Spanish American poetry after Octavio Paz: generations of poets who reject his legacy, and others that continue his line of experimentation. Nevertheless, the imprint that Paz has given to the tradition as a whole will be with us for years to come.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Paz's famous contemporaries include:
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973): Oxford professor and fantasy author whose tales of Middle Earth—including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy—brought him widespread critical and popular acclaim.
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954): A Mexican painter and wife of muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo's style was influenced by a combination of European surrealism and indigenous traditions. She was not widely recognized until after her death.
Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962): An iconic beauty of the mid-twentieth century, Monroe starred in classic films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot.
Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957): In 1950, McCarthy was an obscure junior senator from Wisconsin when he began claiming that he had a list of Communists that had infested government agencies. The resulting hearings, as well as McCarthy's blustering, bullying demeanor, came to symbolize the anti-Communist hysteria of the time.
George Balanchine (1904–1983): Of Georgian descent, Russian choreographer Balanchine would prove a major influence on American ballet after his move to New York City in the 1930s. His productions of The Nutcracker every Christmas made the ballet a holiday tradition.
The Labyrinth of Solitude The Labyrinth of Solitude, in which Paz explores Mexican history, mythology, and social behavior, is his most famous prose work. According to Paz, modern Mexico and its people suffer a collective identity crisis resulting from their mixed Indian and Spanish heritage, marginal association with Western cultural traditions, the influence of the United States, and a recurring cycle of war and isolation. While critics debated Paz's contention that this description also symbolizes the modern human condition, The Labyrinth of Solitude received widespread praise. Irving Howe commented: “This book roams through the phases of Mexican past and present seeking to define the outrages, violation and defeats that have left the Mexican personality fixed into a social mask of passive hauteur…. At once brilliant and sad, The Labyrinth of Solitude constitutes an elegy for a people martyred, perhaps destroyed by history. It is a central text of our time.”
Responses to Literature
- Paz often addressed themes concerning the impact of the ancient native cultures of Mexico on twentiethcentury Mexican culture and society. Read Sun Stone. In what ways does it reflect ancient Aztec beliefs?
- In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz contends that humans are unique among living things for their awareness of their own loneliness. Do you agree? If possible, provide reasons to support your position based on your own firsthand experiences with animals.
- One of the main ideas in The Labyrinth of Solitude is that Mexican culture is a sort of orphan child of Spanish settlers and pre-Columbian societies such as the Aztecs. How do you think this is related to the feelings of solitude Paz mentions in the title?
- Although Paz was born in Mexico City and died there, he spent many years in other countries and cultures around the world. Provide examples of how his exposure to other cultures—particularly European artists and Hinduism—influenced his writing.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Paz was strongly influenced by the French literary movement of the post–World War I era known as surrealism; his early poetry, particularly Sun Stone, incorporated surrealist elements. Here are some other works that focus on surrealist conventions or ideas:
Manifestoes of Surrealism (1924), a nonfiction book by André Breton. Breton is the father of surrealism in literature; this text lays out the tenets of that movement that other authors would eagerly follow.
Naked Lunch (1959), a novel by William S. Burroughs. This story is about the world travels of a junkie, told in a weirdly disjointed narrative; Burroughs claimed it could be read in any order.
The Capital of Pain (1926), a poetry collection by Paul Éluard. This work is a seminal collection of surrealist poetry; the poems would inspire the landmark 1965 French film Alphaville, directed by Jean-Luc Goddard.
Thomas the Obscure (1941), a novel by Maurice Blanchot. A philosopher primarily, Blanchot wrote this abstract, challenging novel over the course of nearly ten years.
Ivask, Ivar. The Perpetual Present: The Poetry and Prose of Octavio Paz. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.
Roman, Joseph. Octavio Paz. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
Salgado, María A., ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 290: Modern Spanish American Poets, Second Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Wilson, Jason, Octavio Paz. New York: Twayne, 1986.
American Book Review (August–September, 1992): 3.
Los Angeles Times Book Review (September 18, 1988): 3. ———(April 30, 1995): 6.
New York Times Book Review (December 27, 1981): 12. ———(December 25, 1988): 12.
Publishers Weekly (January 16, 1995): 444.
London Times (June 8, 1989).
Times Literary Supplement (December 30, 1988–January 5, 1989): 1435.
———(July 24, 1992): 6.
———(August 2, 1996): 7.
The Mexican diplomat, playwright, and essayist, Octavio Paz (born 1914) was internationally regarded as one of the principal poets of the twentieth century. His work was formally recognized in 1990 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, the first Mexican to be so honored.
"Poetry," wrote Octavio Paz in El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre), "is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation." According to Paz, poetry is a form of transcendence, removing the self from history and offering in its place a vision of pure or essential being and time. Poetry is sacred, providing salvation in a secular world.
Paz was born March 31, 1914, to a distinguished Mexican family. His father, a lawyer from a mixed Spanish and Indian background, participated in the Mexican Revolution and was politically prominent. The family lost much of its wealth, however. While Paz was growing up they could not maintain the grand house near Mexico City in which they lived. The elegant furnishings, Paz once said, had to be moved to different parts of the house as various rooms became uninhabitable. For a while he occupied a room with one of its walls gone and only screens to keep out the weather. The surrealist character of his early work may owe something to that curious world he knew as a boy.
Although reared as a Roman Catholic, he broke from the Church when he was still young. His poetry may perhaps be understood in part as an effort to find a substitute for it. He published his first book in 1933 when he was 19. Four years later he went to Spain and participated in the civil war there. In Paris and then back in Mexico he met various members of the surrealist movement. Returning to Europe once again, he met André Breton, and his association with surrealism deepened. Paz was soon recognized as a major surrealist poet. ¿Aguila o sol? (1950) collects some of his strongest work from that period.
Surrealism may have appealed to Paz partly because of its effort to locate a reality greater than that immediate to the senses. Oriental philosophy promised a similar release from the material world. Paz not only became a profound student of Eastern culture, but lived for a while in Japan. Between 1962 and 1968 he served as the Mexican ambassador to India. He resigned in 1968 as a protest against the massacre of student demonstrators by the Mexican government.
The Eastern vision of a non-dualistic, non-Cartesian universe is central to Paz's work. For the Hindu, as he told Rita Guibert in an interview, the real is outside time and history. So is it in his poetry, too. Eastern philosophy, like surrealism, probably did not so much influence Paz as provide correspondences or parallels to central ambitions in his poetry. It is Mexico which seems to be the great abiding fact in his work. In a sense, Paz's poetry begins with the recognition that isolation and solitude are inevitable for everyone, and that they are especially characteristic of Mexican life. The individual is divided not only from the world but also from his or her true self. "We are condemned to live alone," he wrote in El larerinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). "Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves."
Solitude can be transcended both in the creation of poems and in the re-creation which occurs whenever they are understood. The function of the poem then is essentially ritualistic. It exorcises the anxieties and fears that rise from the inevitable alienation of modern life and, through rhythmic configuration and image, initiates the reader into an awareness beyond time. In part the poem derives its power from eros as in the world of medieval troubadours for whom transfiguration was possible through love and sexuality.
In addition to his poetry, Paz was a major critic of his country's social and political life. In a succession of books beginning with El larerinto de la soledad, he saw the Mexican dilemma as arising in part from the fact that its culture has roots in both Spanish colonial and native Indian traditions. One tradition buttresses the other in maintaining a hierarchical and in some ways conservative society, vastly different from the world to the north. The United States seems either to have no origins or to have origins that are fundamentally European, but Mexican culture derives from Spain and the Counter-Reformation on the one hand and distinctly non-European cultures and values on the other. The United States and Mexico share the same continent, but their cultures and values are hugely different.
Paz was very interested in the world to his north. He lived at various times in the United States and taught at Harvard and the University of Texas. His only play is an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," and his poems include meditations on John Cage and Joseph Cornell, those masters of silence and stillness. Perhaps the American poet who most shares his epic and transcendent poetics is Walt Whitman.
Paz also published books on Marcel Duchamp and Claude Lévi-Strauss. He wrote on politics, religion, anthropology, archaeology, and poetics. He edited various anthologies and translated from Japanese, Portuguese, English, French, Swedish, and other languages. He also worked on joint projects with various artists and edited a series of literary magazines. He taught at various universities, including Cambridge.
Paz distinguished himself as a diplomat, critic, editor, translator, playwright, and essayist, but it was as a poet that he was internationally known. His poetic theories are widely respected, and his poetry is considered among the best any poet of his generation has yet published. This was confirmed by the Swedish Academy of Letters, which awarded Paz the 1990 Nobel Prize in literature, citing his work's "sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity." The Academy also quoted one of his love poems:
Woman fountain in the night. I am bound to her quiet flowing
Since winning the Nobel Prize, Paz has continued to write. In 1994 he produced The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, an exploration of the current state of love in Western cultures. Two other prose pieces from 1994 include Essays on Mexican Art and My Life with the Wave.
A great poet often attracts prominent poets as translators, and much of Paz's work is available in excellent English versions. Muriel Rukeyser was among his first translators, and her version of "Sun Stone" is itself a major poem. All of his poetry from 1957 to 1987 has been translated by Eliot Weinberger, and individual poems have been translated by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, and William Carlos Williams, among others. The two major collections in English are Early Poems: 1935-1955 (1973) and The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz: 1957-1987 (1987), edited by Eliot Weinberger. The essential prose works include The Labyrinth of Solitude, translated by Lysander Kemp (1961), and The Bow and the Lyre, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms (1973). Paz generated a formidable amount of commentary in English as well as Spanish. See especially The Perpetual Present: The Poetry and Prose of Octavio Paz, edited by Ivar Ivask (1973) and Toward Octavio Paz: A Reading of His Major Poems, 1957-1976 by John M. Fein (1986). □