Octavio Paz

Americas (English Edition), August 1998 | Go to article overview
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Octavio Paz


The death earlier this year of Nobel laureate Octavio Paz marked the end of an epoch. Spanning most of the twentieth century, Paz's literary career helped to define modern poetry and the Mexican personality.

As a poet, Paz transformed and universalized the contemporary lyric, incorporating influences as diverse as romanticism, existentialism, surrealism, French symbolism, haiku, and tantric art. Yet, it would be simplistic to try to reduce Paz's poetry to a set of influences. Over the years Paz developed his own poetic sensitivities and worldview, assimilating artistic approaches in which he found areas of coincidence with his own.

For Paz, poetry, like love, represented the effort to transcend the self, to escape one's isolation. Yet, he believed that the attempt was doomed because true communication was impossible. For him, the pith of poetry was signs and meanings through which the poet strove to reach the other; poetry was a bridge between the inner self and the outside world. In this system, the word was the key, fundamental unit. Paz shared with the symbolists the notion that since the word is the means by which we attempt to communicate, it is essential to seek words' most pristine sense and hidden meanings. Yet, human beings can never break down the barriers of their solitude; even poets cannot expresses the inexpressible at the very core of the soul.

Although Paz was renowned as a poet, he was probably more widely read as an essayist. The Labyrinth of Solitude, his thoughtful evaluation of the Mexican personality written in 1950, is basic reading for students of Latin American culture. In it Paz argues that Mexicans see themselves as children of the conquering Spanish father who abandoned his offspring and the treacherous Indian mother who turned against her own people. Because of the wounds that Mexicans suffer as a result of their dual cultural heritage, they have developed a defensive stance, hiding behind masks and taking refuge in a "labyrinth of solitude." Their unwillingness to open up and to recognize their own sense of vulnerability has kept them from developing to their full potential, argued Paz. Although many Mexican intellectuals took offense at Paz's assertions when the book was first published, the next generation embraced his vision.

In the 1950s Carlos Fuentes further demolished the idealized view of post-Revolutionary Mexico in La region mas transparente [Where the Air Is Clear] and La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz].

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