Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, Mexican writer Octavio Paz served in the Mexican diplomatic corps in a variety of positions for seventeen years, including six years as ambassador to India. He was author of seventeen books, many of which were poetry. A man deeply committed to personal and political integrity, Paz struggled with the inherent flaws of Marxism, Communism, and capitalism. Among his better-known works is El laberinto de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de México (1950, revised and enlarged, 1959; The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961), a meditation on Mexican identity.
In “Notice,” Paz comments that the journey of his life was neither “straight nor circular, but a spiral.” He concludes his first paragraph with: “Strange lesson: there is no turning back but there is no point of arrival. We are in transit.” Thus begins an investigation into the often conflicted relationship that Mexico has historically had with itself and the rest of the world. In “How and Why I Wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude,” Paz describes his earliest experiences as a young Mexican child in Los Angeles where his father had gone for work.
The teasing at school was merciless as American boys singled him out because of his accent. Back at home in Mixcoac (the village that became Mexico City), his parents put him in a French school where he once again suffered discrimination as a “gringo.” The stigma of being a foreigner in his own country remained with Paz for many years. He goes on to discuss the “collective diseases” of mistrust and suspicion as part of the Mexican identity, presenting a conflict that preoccupied him throughout his adolescence.
In a conversation rooted in both an intellectually passionate curiosity and the hindsight of one who has lived an eclectic life, Paz gracefully traverses the intricacies of political history. In his quest, he returns to the American continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, when it stood apart “ignored and ignorant of other people.” The discovery of America, Paz asserts, accomplished nothing less than “the planet’s unification.” The split for Mexico has to do with those who embrace Mesoamerican culture and those who “condemn the Conquest as genocide.” Paz’s youth witnessed the demise of the monarchy and the beginnings of the republic. He read voraciously from his grandfather’s library full of Spanish classical texts by authors such as Miguel de Cervantes and Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas. He went to Spain for the first time in 1937. His second stay in the United States, from 1943 to 1945, took him to San Francisco and New York. The trip exposed him to the works of North American poets, and while Paz loved American Transcendentalist thought, he felt acutely the fate of Mexicans living in exile in the United States.
In December of 1945, Paz went to Paris and drank deeply of the intellectual and social life. It was there that he began to write with real focus about his love/hate affair with Mexico. The Mexican Revolution, according to Paz, “initiated the reconciliation with our past, something that seems to me not less but more imperative than all the projects of modernization.” He compares Mexican history to the explosions and coalescence of physics, acknowledging that its history is not unlike that of other peoples. The Mexican Revolution modeled itself after both the French Revolution and the American War of Independence; in effect, it forced a gutting of society at its base and rebelled against European and indigenous traditions in a quest to establish its own identity.
The Mexican Revolution marked a period beginning in 1910 and ending in 1930 with the Revolutionary Mexican Party’s birth. “Much was destroyed,” Paz comments, “but also plenty was created.” By 1940, he notes that many young writers felt sympathy for the Russian Revolution and Communism. In 1939 Paz began to seriously question the efficacy of Communism as he learned of the horrors of the Soviet concentration camps under Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical rule. Paz, somewhat sorrowfully, describes how his Latin American colleagues took him to task for his criticism in questioning “real socialism.” In looking back on Mexico’s attempts to modernize its people...
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