Widely acknowledged as the greatest poet of his time in Mexico, Octavio Paz led a life that in many ways was typical of the Mexican intelligentsia he describes in The Labyrinth of Solitude. He published more than thirty books of poetry, fought with the Loyalists in Spain, and served his country as a diplomat. Deeply involved in the future of the Mexican land, he fitted himself out for defining it to the world by engaging in a career that included experiences of both intense action and intense contemplation.
The Labyrinth of Solitude was first published in 1950 by Jesús Silva Herzog’s famous and influential magazine Cuadernos Americanos. The version that came to North Americans in 1961 through Lysander Kemp’s translation is based on a second edition, revised and expanded, published by the Fondo de Cultura Economica in 1959. This book is in effect the result of labors that spanned a decade, labors that show themselves best in Paz’s understanding of his own implications: The labyrinth he describes is the modern world.
Paz begins with an analysis of the phenomenon of the pachucos, those youths of Latin descent who during the 1940’s and 1950’s alarmed the cities of the American Southwest with their “antisocial” behavior, their peculiar dress, and their hostile acts and attitudes. He sees the pachuco as standing between Mexican culture and U.S. culture, in a limbo, unable to accept the values of either, equally alienated from both. Moreover, says Paz, the pachuco has, without understanding them, reasons for his attitude. Both cultures have cut themselves off from the flux of life, have failed in their separate ways to reconcile the individual and the universe. Unable to partake of communion, both the Mexican and the North American have thus become spiritual orphans, imprisoned in the sterility of solitude. If the Mexican seclusion is similar to stagnant water, Paz says, North America is similar to a mirror. Neither contains life anymore.
The forces that confine the North American are summarized in the three sets of laws to which Paz pays due attention: the seventeenth century religious code of Calvinism, the eighteenth century political code of the Founders, and the nineteenth century moral code of the American Victorians. Caged by these sets of laws, North Americans have let themselves become ciphers, handling the universe easily by simply denying any part of it that might conflict with these codes. North Americans, therefore, live in a wholly artificial world, creating psychological mothers and fathers out of the delusions of Panglossism (Pangloss is the fictional philosopher who states that this is the best of all possible worlds). Mexicans, on the other hand, have no such delusions, but see themselves more or less clearly in their orphanhood, without a mother and without a father.
For a Mexican, life is a combat in which the role of an isolated individual can only be defensive. The Mexican’s interior turbulence is a...
(The entire section is 1230 words.)