Octavio Paz

 

"El sentimiento de soledad, por otra parte, no es una ilusión -como a veces lo es el de inferioridad- sino la expresión de un hecho real: somos, de verdad, distintos.  Y, de verdad, estamos solos."  -El laberinto de la soledad

 
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 His Life 

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        Octavio Paz, who searches for the identity of the Mexican people in his study entitled El laberinto de la soledad, does not need to search for his own identity as one of the great Latin American poets and essayists in the twentieth century.  Born in Mexico City in 1914 to a family embedded in politics, literature, and journalism, Paz began to immerse himself in writing about cultural and political issues at a very early age.  He attended a Roman Catholic school as a child and later studied at the University of Mexico.  He turned to writing as an escape from the financial strains his family suffered due to the Mexican Civil War, and at age 19 published his first book of poetry, Luna silvestre.

     In 1937 Paz traveled to Spain and befriended Republicans at the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers.  His trip influenced the work Bajo tu clara sombra y otros poemas, a collection which he wrote on his experiences in Spain in the midst of its civil war.  Surrealism also influenced his work as he passed through Paris before his return home.  Returning to Mexico, Paz founded Taller, the first of several magazines, which indicated a new generation of Mexican writers.  Later, he founded two other arts and politics magazines in Mexico, Plural (1971-1976) and Vuelta, which he has been publishing and editing since 1976.

    His service as a Mexican diplomat took him to France where he wrote renowned essay, El laberinto de la soledad, analyzing the Mexican people by means of their culture and history.  He also served as Mexican ambassador to India from 1962-1968, where he wrote The Grammarian Monkey and East Slope, two pivotal works in his career.  He resigned from Mexico's diplomacy in 1968 because he opposed the government brutally suppressing a student demonstration at the Olympic Gamed in Tlateloco.  After the 1968 tragedy, Paz changed his views about Mexico and added the Posdata to El laberinto de la soledad.

    Recent honors and awards for Paz include an honorary doctorate at Harvard in 1980, the most coveted honor in the Hispanic world, the Cervantes award, in 1981, and of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.  Paz has demonstrated his capacity of thought and his ability as a writer through both his influential essays and powerful poetry.
     

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His Work 

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THEMES
PURPOSES and STYLISTIC CHARACTERISTICS
 


THEMES 

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       As a product of many "isms," including Marxism, Surrealism, existentialism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Paz's extremely complex and diverse work incorporates a multitude of themes.  His essays are personal accounts rather than historical analyses, and his true talent lies in his ability to connect his own beliefs with all of these different schools of thought in his work.

    Paz is recognized throughout Latin America and the world for his literary work in cultural studies, which is perhaps the most repeated theme of his work.  It is difficult to place his essays into a certain field of study; his thoughts and views reflect sociology, anthropology, and philosophy simultaneously.  For example, the theme of El laberinto de la soledad is the identification of the Mexican people derived from both Mexican history and the comparison of Mexico with its neighbors, especially the United States.  This theme has foundations in sociology, such as the way present day Mexico is a product of its past, but also in philosophy, in the existential sense that the Mexicans are searching for who they are and feel inferior to the United States.
 
PURPOSES AND STYLISTIC CHARACTERISTICS 

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    Unlike the straightforward poetry of Neruda and other Nobel Laureates, Octavio Paz employs a more abstract style in his poetic work.  His poetry is frigid and unflowing, which requires more effort to analyze, as do many of the works of post-modernist poets.  As a poet, Paz searched for poetic modernity only to discover that in order to find what is modern, he ironically has to look back in history to the origins of his culture.  This idea that present day society is a product of a long chain of history continually surfaces in Paz’s prose and poetry.  In discovering this connection between past and present, he realizes that “the poet is a pulse in the rhythmic flow of generations” (Paz, In Search of the Present, 22).

    Although difficult to analyze, Paz’s poetry deserves attention and praise for its creativity and imagery.  His 1957 poem Sun Stone contains 584 lines that coincide with the 584 days in the Aztec calendar and is a perfect example of the complexity and imagery found in Paz’s poetry (The Nobel Prize for Literature- Press Release, 1990).
 
    Paz’s non-fiction prose essays exhibit abstract descriptions and are equally as complex as his poetry, but the central focuses of his writing become more apparent in his prose work, because his personal reflections and inner beliefs are revealed in his analyses of culture and society.  His 1982 prose work Sor Juana: The Traps of Faith accomplishes one of his purposes by criticizing seventeenth century society through a portrait of the female poet’s life.  By using actual facts for validity, this work caused much controversy due to the criticism of her culture.  However, Paz’s central purpose, as he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, is to “search for the present,” which “is not the pursuit of an earthly paradise or of a timeless eternity; it is the search for reality” (Paz, In Search of the Present, 16).
 
    Paz’s greatest example of the search for the present is shown in his attempt to portray the Mexican people in the 1950 essay El laberinto de la soledad.  He sets out to define the identity of Mexicans by pointing out differences between the people of Mexico and their North American neighbors, but in doing so only reveals their feelings of inferiority that push them further into solitude.  The labyrinth metaphor, a characteristic of Paz’s abstract style, explains how Mexicans are so concerned with their inferiority to the United States that they become trapped in their solitude and close themselves to the external world.  El laberinto de la soledad best incorporates the purposes, themes, and styles of Paz’s work as he analyzes Mexican culture both scientifically and philosophically.  It is Paz’s search for the present in Mexico, and it is his attempt to determine reasons for the evolution of Mexican culture into its current labyrinth of inferiority and solitude.
 

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El laberinto de la soledad 

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      Octavio Paz believes that the Mexican culture, termed “mexicanidad,” floats in the air in America  “porque no se mezcla ni se funde con el otro mundo…no acaba de ser, no acaba de desaparecer” (Paz, El laberinto de la soledad, 34).  The purpose of his collection of prose essays entitled El laberinto de la soledad is to find an identity for the Mexican people so they will no longer float in limbo wondering who they are.  Paz tries to answer the recurring question, “¿quienes somos?” that still haunts Mexicans today in the search for identity by means of an intense cultural and sociological analysis, a comparison of Mexican and North American attitudes, and finally, with the argument that the events in Mexico’s history have had significant influence on the feelings of solitude and inferiority that characterize the Mexican people.

    Solitude is the consequence the Mexican people have suffered as a result of losing contact with the rest of the world, and more importantly, with themselves and their history.  A central theme in El laberinto de la soledad is the comparison of the closed culture of Mexico to the open culture of North America.  Secrets are never revealed for fear of “permitir que el mundo exterior penetre en su intimidad”(51).  "Máscaras Mexicanas," the title of section II, further shows this desire to remain hidden from the world.  By living behind a metaphorical mask, the Mexicans become separated from their own identity and become distant, “lejos, lejos del mundo y de los demás.  Lejos, también, de sí mismo”(51).  The more distant they become, the more solitude presses upon the Mexican pueblo.

    Paz compares Mexican and North American attitudes on certain issues in order to show why Mexico may feel so severed from the external world.  Mexicans see realism in America as pessimism and rely on fantasy instead of actuality and legends rather than historical accounts.  The take pleasure in telling lies because  it creates the fantasy of “lo que no somos y lo que deseamos ser” (62).

    Paz felt his own solitude as a young child living in Los Angeles, just as the pachucos in America today represent the segment of Mexico’s population so fed up with the solitude and separation from the world that they cut off all ties of Mexican heritage  and in an outward expression of discontent, strive to create a new culture.  Ironically, in attempting to distinguish themselves from Mexican culture, the pachucos have come to represent many Americans’ perceptions of who Mexico’s people are.

    Paz uses the term hermetismo to define the way Mexicans close off the external world, arguing that Mexicans bring their solitude upon themselves and becomes hermits, figuratively and literally.  Mimetismo is another effect of the solitude, resulting as the extreme form of “disimularse” or hiding oneself.  Mexicans attempting to mimic aspects of other cultures such as holiday celebrations, clothing, and overall lifestyle, including the pachucos, exemplify the cultural concept of mimetismo.  Paz fears that mimetismo will eventually erase Mexican culture and tradition in saying that “nos disimulamos con tal ahínco que casi no existimos” (65).

    Solitude has captured the Mexican people, and it seems that they are trapped within this labyrinth.  Any attempts at breaking away from the solitude, such as the pachuco, or opening up to external society with mimetismo, only sever connections to the cultural past and take Mexico further away from its goal of finding its identity—de quienes son.

    Paz agrees that one of the causes of the solitude of Mexico is the suppressed feeling of inferiority Mexicans direct toward the United States.  However, he argues throughout the essay that the theme of inferiority is not so much derived in comparison to their northern neighbors, as much as it is a consequence of two thousand years of historical events.

    The sentiment of inferiority leads to an immense apathy concerning many issues of importance in the United States.  An example of this apathy is the way Mexicans treat death: they joke about it, treat it with disdain and view it as “el fin inevitable de un proceso natural.  En un mundo de hechos, a muerte es un hecho más” (78).  However, the “indiferencia del mexicano ante la muerte se nutre de su indiferencia ante la vida,” (79) which may show that because Mexico feels inferior, they see no purpose in life and therefore see no purpose in death.

    Although present-day Mexico may not realize it, their inferiority stems from two centuries of history, not simply from the current situation.  Paz tries to clarify this to readers throughout El laberinto de la soledad, and especially in the chronological sections comprising the second half of the book.  Perhaps the crucial aspect of Mexico’s history  accountable for its inferiority is the concept of La Chingada and the relation she has to the origins of the Mexican people.

    In section IV, "Los Hijos de la Malinche," Paz explains how the word “chingar” has many meanings for the Mexican people, ranging from failure to violation, which is perhaps the meaning that best reveals their inferiority complex.  La Chingada “…es la Madre.  No una madre de carne y hueso, sino una figura mítica. La Chingada es la madre que ha sufrido, metafórica o realmente, la acción corrosiva e infamante implícita en el verbo que le da nombre” (98).  Earlier in the work, Paz states that Mexicans view the woman as the “sufrida mujer mexicana”(60) because original sin left her vulnerable to becoming the eternal victim of suffering.  This view applies to the portrayal of La Chingada as the metaphorical victim of  Spanish invasion.

    The historical basis of La Chingada comes from the Spanish invasion of Mexico, and the mixture of European and Latin American cultures that ensued from European domination and violation of Mexican women.  Because of this violation, a Mexican today will view himself as the illegitimate, bastard son of a raped woman.

    The problem with this concept lies in the fact that Mexicans blame the Spanish for the initial violation of “La Chingada” and the mixing of cultures that caused inferiority, but Paz points out that the history of Mexico is marked by a continuous chain of conquests, not just that of the Spanish.  Indigenous groups such as the Aztecs and the Toltecs eradicated previous cultures just as the Mexicans claim the Spanish did in the sixteenth century.  The fact that the entire history of Mexico has been a series of conquests could be the reason that “el mexicano considera la vida como lucha,” (52) and is definitely one of the principal reasons for the Mexican sentiment of inferiority.
 
     The repercussions surrounding this thought obviously damage the confidence of the Mexican people and force them to question their history, culture, and identity.  Without identity, Mexicans have no origin and no purpose and therefore feel inferior to the outside world, a feeling that results in solitude.  The question of origin is the central basis of Mexican anxiety that creates the labyrinth of solitude.
 
    With a history of domination and intervention by a multitude of cultures, it is not unusual that the Mexican people find it difficult to define their origins.  Mexico blames the Spanish for their lack of identity, but Paz emphasizes in El laberinto de la soledad that it is inherent that the people of Mexico understand all of the significant historical events of their past so that they will come to understand their present.  As he states in his speech about searching for the present, “the feeling of separation is universal and not peculiar to Spanish Americans…this never-healing wound is the unfathomable depth of every man.  All our ventures and exploits, all our acts and dreams, are bridges designed to overcome the separation and reunite us with the world and our fellow beings” (Paz, In Search of the Present, 11).
 
    The labyrinth of solitude is derived from the existential separation of Mexicans from their history, and has become more and more complex as Mexico becomes more and more oblivious to its past.  In this essay, Paz accurately demonstrates that Mexicans are going through an identity crisis and how their problem with identity only increases their solitude and inferiority to the external world.  Mexicans who subscribe to mimetismo and try to copy other cultures not only show their feelings of inferiority toward the United States, but also remove any possibility of saving their Mexican heritage.  The people of Mexico must  know and understand their history so that they will know and understand their present; otherwise, they will fall further into solitude and inferiority.  Paz warns that “el mexicano…no transciende su soledad.  Al contrario, se encierra en ella” (El laberinto de la soledad, 87).  If the Mexican people are unwilling to make the effort to escape their solitude and define their identity, Paz warns that they will eternally remain “encerrados en nosotros mismos” (87).

 
 
 

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Bibliography 

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    "Paz, Octavio" Britannica Online.
http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/455/91.html
[Accessed 16 March 1998].

"Biography of Octavio Paz." Nobel Foundation Page.
http://www.nobel.se/laureates/literature-1990-1-bio.html

"Nobel Prize for Literature 1990- Press Release."
http://www.nobel.se/laureates/literature-1990-1-press.html

Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad y otras obras. Penguin Books:
            New York, 1997.

Paz, Octavio. In Search of the Present: 1990 Nobel Lecture (bilingual edition).  
            Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego, 1990.
  



Selected works 
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 Luna silvestre
Bajo tu clara sombre y otros poemas
El hijo pródigo
Plural
Vuelta
No pasarán!
Piedra del sol
El laberinto de la soledad
El arco y la lira
El mono gramático
Ladera este
Sor Juana Inés de la cruz o las trampas de la fe
Posdata
In Search of the Present, 1990 Nobel Lecture