Octavio Paz Essay - Paz, Octavio (Vol. 6)

Paz, Octavio (Vol. 6)

Paz, Octavio 1914–

See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 4, 10, 19 and 119.

Paz is a Mexican epic poet (one of the finest of our time), a critic, and social philosopher. His search for his own Mexican identity characterizes all his work: he has been called both "a regionalist campaigning for the individual's sense of belonging to a specific people," and a proponent of "political and cultural collaboration … among all underdeveloped nations 'condemned to modernity'."

Paz is never neurotic like Vallejo or like the Neruda of Residencia. No edgy splinters, no humid walls menace him. His demand that the world be different is the demand of a healthy man, untroubled by suffering. It is just that nothing can satisfy him that is not an all-embracing, time-destroying ecstasy. His poetry, whose central topics have remained more or less constant throughout his career, constitutes a search for a single moment of dizzy ecstasy, a splendid instante that will annul the world that is, and germinate instead an altogether new one, where a poplar, a stone, a mountain, or a river—or, above all, Octavio Paz—will become transfigured from what they merely are to something immeasurably more vast and magnificent.

An overwhelming proportion of Paz's poetry is erotic. Like Neruda, Paz searches for the transformation he is aiming at in a woman. And like Neruda's, Paz's women are conspicuously endowed with the resources of nature…. [His woman] is almost indistinguishable from the landscape she inhabits, for not only is she a construct of nature; nature itself is a woman, triumphantly shedding her clothes. (pp. 67-8)

[A] joyful hedonism often pervades Paz's poetry, and the poems are often celebrations of what he frequently calls a festín, a sheer uninhibited feast, where not only clothes, but anything that might inhibit is shed, even one's name. Paz has praised the hippies for asserting a hedonism of the present against societies that impose upon their citizens the tyranny of the future, sheer enjoyment having always to be postponed until the insurance policy expires or until the mortgage is amortized. Certainly, many of his poems constitute a hippie-like assertion that the present must be grasped and lived to the maximum. But Paz's poetry is a great deal more than a recommendation that we all copulate happily in the open air. (p. 68)

Paz's poetry is not recognizably Christian. If anything, he is endeavouring to shed his soul in order to resuscitate his body, if we perhaps irresponsibly take 'soul' to mean 'inhibiting superego'. But by using the language of the [Spanish sixteenth-century] mystics now and then he is acknowledging a similarity between his quest and theirs: they too were involved in a search for something other than what is manifestly given, for a self which though other than the self was yet a part of it, the secret component of a fundamental duality. Paz has frequently equated poetry and religion. He has noted for example that 'in the experience of the supernatural, as in that of love and poetry, man feels torn or separated from himself' and that moreover 'the eucharist, for instance, operates a change in the nature of the believer. The sacred food transmutes us. We become "others" as a result of which we recover our nature or our original condition.' The quest of poetry and the quest of religion are ultimately the same one: to change the world and transmute the self.

The sort of change projected in Christianity is of course well known: the passage posited is one from the world as we know it to God's Paradise. What then does it consist of in Paz's poetry?

Now we note that when we become others, 'we recover our nature or our original condition'. There is indeed in Paz, as there is in Neruda, an urgent search for identity, for a lost nature. And for Paz, as for Neruda, the real nature of American man has been disguised beneath the mask of the conquest…. Like Neruda, but more insistently and perhaps more rigorously, he asserts his right to be Adam, to become rejoined to the man from whom history has separated him.

Adam of course was the first man to speak, and he was also the first man to copulate: Paz converts the writing of a poem and the act of love into Adamic enterprises that are essentially two faces of the same coin. The task of the poet is to rename the world, as Adam named it. He must not accept the definitions of any conquering Adam; his words must erect a wholly new foundation or rediscover the original one. Similarly, to make love is to re-enact the gestures of Adam: the copulating couple is rejoined with the first couple. Their actions destroy the time-gap that separates them and consequently annul the bloody and mendacious trajectory of history.

The link between copulating and writing a poem is fundamental to Paz's poetry. Both acts culminate in the same achievement—the liberation of the poet from all that has moulded him against his will, his liberation from history and from time, and the consequent burgeoning of his real, new, or 'other self'. Both acts constitute a return to the origin, to an 'original nakedness'. The clothes that are shed are those that historical necessity has imposed, historical necessity being nowhere more pervasive than in the received images of language. Shed those clothes, and in the unprecedented words of the poem the poet's true nature will be revealed—and not the nature his father willed upon him. For in writing a poem or in making love Paz asserts his right to father himself. He conjugates and there issues a text or a progeny which in either case is the incarnation of his new, self-created self. He conjugates the language or with the female and they are consequently the mother of the new self. But it is his seed that has moulded it…. But the issue is the product of an incestuous union. If he has fathered his new self, he must have slept with its mother, who must therefore be his mother too. Paz is no doubt very conversant with that contemporary French tradition that asserts that language is like a desired mother where the father is the law that invites transgression [Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan are proponents of this concept]. To write a real poem therefore is to betray the father, to shatter the language's proprietor (the Spanish conqueror perhaps, or the inquisitorial colonial priest) in order to appropriate it for himself. To write a poem is ultimately to perform an act that is liberating but also illicit: only the iconoclast (and scarcely, therefore, the subserviently orthodox mystic) will achieve the burgeoning of his other, liberated self; only the iconoclast will recover his lost—and forbidden—identity. (pp. 69-71)

Paz's poetry is its imagery far more than it is any ideas that can be extracted from it, and anyway the ideas are inseparable from the images in which they are embodied. If we as readers ever come near to experiencing the ecstatic instante that Paz is aiming for, it is thanks to the exuberant evocativeness of his images. Yet alas whatever can be written about them will not do them justice. The language of Paz's poetry is energetically plurivalent. No word is allowed to settle down, or to attach itself to one single referent. (p. 73)

Paz's most famous poem is called 'Piedra de sol'—'Sun stone' (1957). Much of his poetry constitutes an enterprise that is summarized in that title: the attempt to turn stones into sun. The title refers to the famous Aztec Calendar Stone, a vast stone block engraved with signs that embrace astronomy, history, and legend, and which bears the head of the Sun-God at its centre. Yet it is not essential to be expert in Aztec mythology to gauge the significance of sun and stone in Paz's work. The Calendar Stone embodies the infinity of the Aztec universe. But it is nothing without the sun. Stone without sun—or without free-flowing water—is petrification. The task of poetry is to unpetrify stone, to bring sun to it and to make it live and breathe like an organism. If not, it will be a dead symbol of a dead people—as dead as the Aztecs, who, too, must be resuscitated. So when poetry is flourishing, 'the stone awakens:/it bears a sun in its belly'. (pp. 73-4)

The idea of an 'other side' that must somehow be attained has always been central to Paz's poetry. (p. 76)

Poems then are journeys, bridges of words between one 'side and another' and the poet travels across those words like an errant pilgrim…. Paz's poetry [like Góngora's] aims ambitiously at the achievement of fusion, where life, death, body, water, earth, light, darkness are one. (pp. 76-7)

Paz's poetry is a heroic enterprise that attempts … to fill blankness—the blankness of an unwritten page but the blankness too that the limiting words available to us leave between each other. His poetry is an endeavour to express the inexpressible. It is also … an attempt to achieve the impossible in that there is in it a heroic determination to change the world, to annul what is given in order to create the world anew and to render invisible all that is visible, visible all that is invisible. (p. 79)

The task of the poet … is to turn perception into conception. A poem must be creative, not descriptive. But what it must set out to create is not just some gratuitous fantasy. It is nothing less than the poet himself…. If a poem is to be a mirror, it must be a mirror not of the given world but rather the secret mirror of a secret, invisible world which it must render visible. [The mirror is an important image for Paz, being a reminder of material reality; on the other hand, a poem can mirror its creator's new, recreated self.] If that secret world can only make its appearance in momentary and passing instantes, and if it must vanish into blankness as often as it appears, no matter. The poet must heroically attempt to capture it,… even if, deep down, he is aware, with Bataille that 'All that is left for us … is to write commentaries/senselessly/on the senselessness of writing'…. And in the end the instant magic of the poem must surrender to the blankness of the space that follows it. (p. 81)

D. P. Gallagher, "Octavio Paz," in his Modern Latin American Literature (© Oxford University Press 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 67-81.

Octavio Paz is a living incarnation of those tensions in modern poetry between human commitment and aesthetic concern, a dialectic that is fundamental to the art of all nations. And his poetics is important, for it places the poet at the heart of modern life, singing his solitary song in company with the massed voices of human solitude. In his view, the poet does not speak the language of society but turns away from it, gaining strength in exile.

In our time poets, pressed to a keen awareness of human misery, have worked toward an austere art. At an extreme, poets who are acutely conscious of modern horror have subordinated the music of poetry to argument and sacrificed the personal vision that informs their art. Since around 1925, a reaction against individuality, as well as against rhetorical devices, has grown more severe with each generation. Often it appears as if the greater an artist's revulsion from destruction, the stronger is his reluctance to indulge his personal perceptions.

In fact, the Renaissance concept of the individual has dwindled in that modern poetry of which Hopkins, Whitman and Baudelaire were progenitors…. And after around 1945, consciousness of brutality became so acute, especially in European writers, that poetry of the person, however divided, was considered an impossible indulgence. The poet who reports the world in crisis writes of inner fragmentation as well as outward disaster, and often retreats into silence under the pressure of that disruption.

Despite his acquaintance with suffering, however, Octavio Paz has a vision of personal integrity. He maintains that the artist, rebuffed by a community that would substitute technological priorities for spiritual growth, transcends those social limitations and ransoms his dying world. What is more, Paz believes that political crisis nourishes great literature, although the people may not be aware of a poet's genius at the time he is writing. And that is natural, for poetry, with its plurality of meanings, seldom is read for what the words convey: the works of St. John of the Cross, for example, were read originally for their exemplary value, rather than for their beauty.

Even in times of crisis, Octavio Paz asserts, poetry lives on the deepest levels of being, while ideology constitutes superficial layers of consciousness. His faith in the power of language to reveal truth makes him affirm that poetry renews daily life and creates meaning in the present. Just as Confucius was said to have called for the reform of language when asked what he would do to administer his country, Paz believes that the poet who is committed to his art rebuilds empires.

Unending emphasis is laid by Octavio Paz on the poet's power to resuscitate a lifeless world. Paz feels that the poet finds a sacred knowledge by confronting his deepest feelings in the practice of his art. In that encounter, he perceives unity in a universe that had appeared fragmented…. By seizing the truth revealed to him in the present moment, he knows that all faces are one face and centuries are confined to an instant. (pp. 382-83)

Between the collectivist leanings of his youth and the spiritual vision of his later years, the poet's life followed a dialectic pattern that is, curiously, analogous to the lives or poetic roles of other Western writers. At an extreme, Baudelaire wavered between aristocratic and revolutionary positions, while Rilke shifted continually between the personae of nobleman and outcast. In the case of Octavio Paz, various political and literary influences molded his thought…. [He] withdrew from political activity at the time of the Munich pact…. [He] met [surrealist artists] … and discovered in his own response to surrealism a liberating vitality that recalled his attractions to Blake, Novalis and Hölderlin. For, according to the tenets of surrealism, the poet's imagination, cleansed in the fire of the creative act, had the sacred power to rescue the contemporary world.

For all his divagation, these works of the nineteen-fifties and sixties read like the testimony of a man who has witnessed the destruction of all images and then found in the resurrection of those images a creative, sustaining force. In Alternating Current, a collection of short essays, and in The Bow and the Lyre, a treatise on aesthetics, Paz describes a poetic universe that transcends a world he knows well. Vacillating between patriotism and rebellion, wavering between political activity and artistic solitude, Paz found in pure art the preserving strength of our world. It was as though he had found stars at the bottom of hell.

If Paz envisions an art that goes beyond contraries, he allows that it normally moves between two poles which he calls the magical and the revolutionary. In The Bow and the Lyre, he says that the magical extreme consists of a desire to return to the natural world, "to sink forever into animal innocence or to free oneself from the weight of history." The revolutionary endeavor, on the other hand, requires a recovery of the alienated consciousness. And although his poetry is alive with a constant dialectical tension between the magical and the revolutionary aims, the impulse that commands his art is the drive to surpass those poles.

The poetics of Octavio Paz is built on his belief in pure time, to which the poet has access. Where calendar time, the rhythm that governs daily life, attaches an end to days and years, mythical time creates life: "The mythical date arrives if a series of circumstances combine to reproduce the event," Paz writes in The Bow and the Lyre. (pp. 384-85)

By the process of rhythmic repetition, the poem invokes the myth that returns to begin a new cycle. Octavio Paz believes that language, like the universe, is generated by rhythms that manage separation and union, harmony and discord. That double rhythm is the scaffolding of most cultures, he says: just as the ancient Chinese saw the universe as the cyclical combination of Yin and Yang that form the Tao, the Greeks conceived the cosmos as a struggle and fusion of opposites. And his conjecture recalls that modern poetry is heir to William Blake's union of antinomies in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as well as to the truth of his assertion: "Without Contraries is no progression."

Although he had embraced contraries from the beginning of his writing career, [as] Mexican Ambassador to India [he] found in Tantric thought and in Hindu religious life dualities that enforced his conviction that history turns on reciprocal rhythms. In Alternating Current, he writes that the Hindu gods, creators or destroyers according to their name and region, manifest contradiction. "Duality," he says, "a basic feature of Tantrism, permeates all of Hindu religious life: male and female, pure and impure, left and right…. In Eastern thought, these opposites can co-exist; in Western philosophy, they disappear for the worst reasons: far from being resolved into a higher synthesis, they cancel each other out, due to a gradual deterioration of values."

In fact, the title, Alternating Current, refers to those opposites the poet contains either in joy or in anguish: language and silence, solitude and communion, fall and resurrection. The image, of an electric flow that reverses its direction at regular intervals, suggests the galvanic excitement that oscillating rhythms can generate in art.

"Another art is dawning," Paz declares, and predicts that poetry's departure from the linear time of modern progress will be even more radical than the change that two centuries ago altered the Christian notion of a motionless eternity. The art he foresees will be based on a concept of time that recurs, as in ritual, and on a present that incorporates the past and future. Paz writes that the new poetry was inaugurated by Apollinaire, who juxtaposed different spaces within a single poem, and by Eliot and Pound, who used texts from other times and languages in their works. Paz calls the rising poetry an "art of conjugation"; he sees the artist as one who exists in a state of blessed confusion, for he holds in his mind other eras, languages and continents.

Paz assumes that the modern "ritual" of hallucinogenic drugs implies a severe criticism of our world's linear time. When people use drugs, he speculates, they perceive the wholeness of life and death, the unity of men and women. Their sensibilities altered, they see the absence of frontiers between people and nations. But Paz feels that the drug experience—like meditation, fasting and ascetic discipline—is a false road to the spiritual oneness that poetry provides. He maintains that the total surrender required by Buddhism and Tantrism is only analogous to the dedication poetry demands. For the poet actually creates new life, making the day begin again and compressing all time into an instant. (pp. 385-86)

The structure of Alternating Current supports its argument that completeness depends upon the rhythmic assertion of contradictory realities. The essays of its framework—prose poems, really—shine like revelations. His blazing prose, though, dwindles in the English translation, and the periodic structure, however integrated with the theme, is not the clearest setting for his luminous ideas.

The Bow and the Lyre, on the other hand, his most comprehensive discourse on poetic theory, is a book to be grateful for….

In that book, Paz writes that rhythm and imagery reveal the world's unity. While rhythm is an alternating current that moves language and the universe, imagery, which also oscillates between contraries, reconciles disparate meanings without suppressing any. (St. John's "silent music" combines antithetical things as does the tragic heroine, Antigone, who is torn between divine piety and human law.) Like rhythm, imagery comes from primordial time: if rhythm generates new cycles, imagery closes the gap between name and object that was unknown to primitive man.

Because of the unity they provide, the poet has access to a primordial sensibility in which opposites are one, a state reminiscent of Freud's description of the unconscious as a place where antithetical things appear to be the same. This state, though fundamental to art, horrifies Western man. The truth we learn from Paz is that in magical moments—when we see light strike water or watch rock-hollows such sea—we know that life and death are a totality, not a dilemma. (p. 387)

Nor does he feel languages are separable. All languages, he believes, have in common the split between words and the things they signify. If language itself is a translation, then the gap between languages is far less compelling than the distance between names and objects. (p. 388)

Early Poems covers the period of surrealist influence; Configurations, enclosing the work of the late nineteen-fifties and sixties, is the title given to Paz's innovative work. In Configurations, a name signifying the form produced by the relative disposition of parts, meanings emerge from explosive phrases that correspond to a universe that we see in an alternating current, as a whole and as bits of a whole. As novel as this may sound, however, the power of his art lies in his vibrant marriage of opposites—sound and silence, attraction and repulsion—in methods as traditional as Blake's fusion of heaven and hell, or Dante's union of light and dark. And although Paz's images of opposition may flow from the alternating rhythms of separation and union he found in the cultures of the world, they suggest very strongly the antinomies found in all great poetry. But then, the most original poetry always tends to draw its newness from conventional means.

It must be said at once that, ironically, inaccuracies of translation are even more apparent in a poetry that transcends language barriers. (pp. 388-89)

These are, however, important books. The poetry is at once of Mexico and of the world, moving beyond nations to reach the inner lives of people everywhere. That universality is what the surrealists hoped to achieve when they diminished the role of author and called for the intervention of the unconscious in poetic creation. Paz is a characteristic Mexican. He draws on a rich Aztec heritage and on his American Indian ancestry. If his mind is disciplined by European poetic forms, he envisions the vast empty areas of space that are central to poets born in the Americas. (p. 389)

Like Whitman, Paz uses the self as metaphor to permit discoveries on a deep psychic level, and to merge with others. Just as Whitman creates in Leaves of Grass an observer who identifies with every leaf, star and atom, Paz constructs a speaker who sees nature as an organic part of the soul: "I go forward slowly and I people the night with stars, with speech, with the breathing of distant water waiting for me where the dawn appears." (p. 390)

For Paz, poetry is an alchemy whose agents of transmutation are fire and water….

In fact, the dominating image of his poetry is the mystic oxymoron of burned water. (p. 391)

The poetry of Octavio Paz is an urgent matter because it insists on the wholeness of life, love, and nations, a unity that only art can reveal. And if I have always known that poetry lives on the deepest levels of the world's being, the voice of Octavio Paz commands me to admit the rightness of this knowledge. For Paz sees the world burning, and knows with visionary clarity that opposites are resolved in a place beyond contraries, in a moment of pure vision: in that place, there are no frontiers between men and women, life and death. If his poetry incarnates the mind's journey toward insight, his voyage is my voyage, his passion my passion…. (p. 395)

Grace Schulman, "Man of Two Worlds," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1974, pp. 381-96.

A man of exceptional and diverse intelligence, [Paz] has produced works on literature and art, anthropology, culture and politics and has earned the reputation for being one of Mexico's finest poets: but the specialised nature of some of his writings, such as the studies of Lévi-Strauss and Marcel Duchamp, and others that deal with cultural issues outside the Anglo-American hemisphere (his Labyrinth of Solitude is a classic survey of modern Mexico), have confined him so far to select and predominantly academic circles.

Alternating Current should ease the taboo. It marks the appearance of another Paz persona, the essayist, and assembles articles, reviews and lyrical pieces dating for the most part from the Sixties. He refers to them as 'reflections on life in our time', which may sound grandiloquent or opaque to an English audience, for whom the essay has progressively declined into a piecemeal ancillary to a writer's permanent work. But it is an accurate phrase for the range of contemporary subject material that he engages and the seriousness with which he does so. The texts are arranged in three sections that deal with literature and art, with theology and with ethical and political issues; and it is a testament to the binding concerns that have absorbed Paz throughout his career that the collection is not a litter of thematic fragments but possesses, on the contrary, a distinct contrapuntal unity. (p. 512)

Peter Kerr-Jarrett, "Regionalist," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 11, 1974, pp. 512-13.

[It] is the effort to achieve [a unity of] plurality which characterizes Paz's work, whether we are talking of the Mexican cosmopolitanism of his criticism in Alternating Current or the wheeling rigor of his verse form in "Blanco," a poem in Configurations. And, in turn, it is this character which guarantees Paz's greatness because he has invaded a great subject—"the dynamic and necessary co-existence of opposites, but also their ultimate identity"—with a style of "contradictory dialogue" deployed in a rhetoric based on "the principles of complementary contradiction."

For Paz, it is poetry and, more specifically, the image which best accomplishes this "relation of opposition" because all images and comparisons have as "their common function to preserve the world's plurality of meanings without destroying the syntactical unity of the phrase or group of phrases." The dual image of the Mexican coin which gives Eagle or Sun? its title epitomizes Paz's technique and credo, for we see that there is no question of eagle or sun but rather of eagle and sun which together in their oppositeness are the same coin: "Today I fight alone with a word. That which concerns me, to which I concern: heads or tails? eagle or sun?"

In other words, Paz, like Borges, has an individualizing subject matter as well as a characterizing style which ultimately is that matter. But while Borges writes with lucid melancholy and wit in projecting an insomniac's dream life, Paz writes with luminous coolness and conviction in reasoning the unreasonable. His writing has the geometric and natural beauty of frost ferns on winter windows. And their elegant, Lalique translucence too. Both men, in fact, are great poets of light; but, as Borges' title In Praise of Darkness helps make clear, the Argentine finally chooses shadow and Paz moonshafts. Both, too, are learned and legendarily well-read, but in the end Borges offers his erudition as the substance of his art—it is the stuff of life for him—while Paz uses his learning to get at life and art and politics. Each has written interrelated poetry and fiction; essentially, though, Borges is the storytelling feigner, Paz the critical intellect.

I do not mean, however, to place Paz's art on a lower level than that of Borges. For as Paz observes repeatedly, modern art is critical and "What distinguishes our modernity from that of other ages is not our cult of the new and surprising, important though it is, but the fact that it is a rejection, a criticism of the immediate past." Like the modernity he reconnoiters, Paz's own writing constantly seeks the dissimilar: a great artist, he cultivates criticism; a Westerner, he extols the East, obviously influenced by his stay in India. In The Bow and the Lyre, Paz writes: "… Western history can be seen as the history of an error, a going astray…. The Western world is the world of 'this or that'; the Eastern, of 'this and that' and even 'this is that.'" The engagement Paz favors is fundamentally Eastern, a "polemical tradition" which encourages balanced countersaying.

In Children of the Mire, for example, Paz argues that "once a man realizes that he belongs to a tradition, he knows implicitly that he is different from that tradition; sooner or later this knowledge impels him to question, examine, and sometimes deny it." The specific tradition in question is the "modern tradition," which Paz challenges by asking "How can the modern be traditional?" and equally typically responds: "Modernity is never itself: it is always the other." This passage, without the rhetorical displays of twin words in dancing doubles that have become a sign of his operation in language and argument, corrects the Western error Paz referred to in The Bow and the Lyre. In fact, the soul of what Paz has to say is incarnate in that early formulation and its recent antiphonal response, Children of the Mire, so the two books make a perfect introduction to Paz's work as a whole. (p. 85)

The Bow and the Lyre is thunder, Children of the Mire lightning; both flash and crash in jets of revelation to be found in no other writer.

Each is concerned with the way poetry can change the world by creating it anew through the image—again, metaphor and symbol are the ideal locus of different things made identical—and each asserts the primacy of criticism in our times, which may be why I find Paz's essays more satisfying than his undeniably wonderful poems. Of course it is in keeping with a man who searches books "not for what we are, but for the thing that denies what we are" to write about art as criticism since criticism is the other of art. It is equally appropriate for Paz to write that "Revolution is criticism translated into action." Apply that statement to poetry, prose and politics. It is indicative of the way these books, beginning with aesthetic questions, leave such topics to touch on many others: history, psychology, eroticism, religion and economics—a few of Paz's themes—only to return to aesthetics with full understanding that the way to answer one question is to also ask its opposite.

By contraries then, by polarities and divergences converging in a rhetoric of opposites, Paz establishes himself as a brilliant stylist balancing the tension of East and West, art and criticism, the many and the one in the figures of his writing. Paz is thus not only a great writer: he is also an indispensable corrective to our cultural tradition and a critic in the highest sense in which he himself uses that word. (p. 86)

Ronald Christ, "The Master of Contraries," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 2, 1975, pp. 85-6.