Although best known as a poet, Octavio Paz is also a prolific essayist and cultural critic. His range of interests is extraordinarily wide, as the present volume testifies: Here are essays on language and translation, painting and sculpture, television, eroticism and love, and the revival of traditional crafts in modern industrial societies. Paz’s literary subjects are equally eclectic: the seventeenth century Spanish satirist Quevedo, “The Tradition of the Haiku,” Andre Breton, Latin American and North American poetry. The richest essay in the book (and the longest) is entitled “Reading and Contemplation"; it centers on Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory of “linguistic relativity,” the notion that each language embodies a distinct worldview that shapes the perceptions of its speakers.
For Paz, this delight in diversity is not merely a matter of taste. In an interview included in this collection, he states his credo: “We must cultivate and defend particularity, individuality, and irregularity-- life.” This imperative, it appears, is Paz’s moral absolute. He calls on it, explicitly or implicitly, in separating himself from the Catholicism that dominated his boyhood and early education, from the Marxism that many of his fellow Latin American intellectuals have embraced, and from any system which, in his view, imposes a reductive order on the multiplicity of experience.
Most readers of this collection will wish for an index; many will wish for an introduction or at least a publisher’s note with information on the sources from which these essays were translated. (Some of the essays are dated; several which originated as lectures, introductions to books, and so on are accompanied by a note identifying their provenance; others appear without any such data.) There are other, more substantive irritations: In his prose, Paz dos not always resist the temptation to pontificate, sounding more like an ambassador than a world-class poet. Nevertheless, this volume, like any new book by Paz, is welcome.