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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

The Labyrinth of Solitude is an essay by the renowned poet Octavio Paz. This essay discusses life in Mexico and how the Mexican people struggled to adapt to the modern world while holding on to their traditions and culture.

The essay begins with a discussion about pachucos , Latino youths...

(The entire section contains 1455 words.)

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The Labyrinth of Solitude is an essay by the renowned poet Octavio Paz. This essay discusses life in Mexico and how the Mexican people struggled to adapt to the modern world while holding on to their traditions and culture.

The essay begins with a discussion about pachucos, Latino youths whose behavior, and the combination of Mexican and American culture, alarmed Mexican society during the 1940s and 50s. Paz claims the hostile attitudes pachucos were famous for was caused by their alienation from both the United States and Mexico.

Paz also states that Americans are bound by three laws: Calvinism, the political code of the Founding Fathers, and the moral code of the Victorians. North Americans deal with the complex universe by denying anything that conflicts with these laws. Paz says Mexicans are not bound by these laws and allow themselves to recognize the complexity of the universe.

However, Paz also admits that Mexico lacks a sense of community, and life in the country is highly combative. This results in a focus on self-preservation, instead of charity and compassion. This combative lifestyle ceases only during the fiesta, when Mexicans can let down their guard and escape their social and cultural solitude. Paz provides historical background on the creation of Mexico, such as the combination of Spanish and Aztec culture, to explain this lack of community ties.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230

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 torture, and his or her exterior defensiveness destroys even the possibility of the communion that might bring happiness. Hence the Mexican’s world is hollow, self-consuming, masochistic, and more or less devoid of love, for what love a Mexican knows is merely a form of narcissism. Paz says that Mexicans refuse to progress beyond themselves, to free themselves, to expose themselves to the outside world. If North American happiness exists only in illusions, Mexican happiness exists only in remotest theory.

Relief comes to a certain extent with the fiesta, a uniquely Mexican plunge into chaos from which the group emerges purified and strengthened, a drunken rapture during which people briefly confront themselves. The fiesta, however, cannot wholly offset the lack of communion; it is too impermanent, short-lived, and unstable. Mexicans oscillate between intimacy and withdrawal, shouting and silence, fiesta and wake, without ever surrendering to anything but themselves. Despite fiestas, Mexicans never really transcend their solitude.

Paz sees this solitude in Mexico as largely the result of the reform movement, which, following so many years after independence, finally disrupted both the Aztec and the colonial traditions. The new Spanish American nations are not new, he claims. Instead, they are static or decadent societies, remnants of older, more integrated cultures. Reform was thus an attempt at social reanimation. Its method, however, was based not on indigenous realities but on abstract and geometrical reasoning imported from Europe. The most profound effect of Mexico’s liberal Constitution of 1857 was therefore the creation of a split between the individual Mexican and the native past. Mexicans became inevitably, at the moment of that split, orphaned from themselves.

The revolution that came after reform may be seen as a movement meant to overcome this orphanhood, to reconquer the past, to assimilate it, and to make it live in the present. Paz finds particular significance in the Zapatistas, whose program to reinstitute the ancient systems of land tenure epitomized the revolution on its ideological side. The revolution was above all, however, a “fiesta of bullets,” the orgiastic celebration of a total Mexico daring at length to be, and to be in communion with itself.

Mexico’s success in maintaining this communion after the shooting stopped has been, for various historical reasons, sharply limited. The essential solitude that Paz describes in his earlier chapters still stands, of course, as tragic as ever, with its accompanying problems. These problems are not merely Mexican; they are universal. In Paz’s view the crisis of time is not the opposition of two great and different cultures but an inward struggle of one civilization that, unrivaled, is shaping the future of the whole world. Each person’s fate involves all of humanity. Thus, Mexicans cannot solve their problems as Mexicans, for they are involved in matters that are universal, not merely national.

The existence of “underdeveloped” countries and of totalitarian “socialist” regimes in the twentieth century Paz regards as equally anomalous, equally scandalous, equally symptomatic of the social chaos that is the outward and visible sign of the labyrinth of solitude. Too often, an undeveloped country attempting to emerge from its economic prison becomes merely another victim of totalitarianism. The real cure for chaos and sterility, says Paz, must therefore lie in an outgrowing and a rejection of those false divinities that rule the modern world: endless, infinite work and fixed, finite, chronometric time.

People today pretend they are always wide awake when they are thinking, but this is not true; usually thinking leads one into the nightmare of reason. After the nightmare is over one may realize that one was dreaming, not wide awake, and that dreams of reason are unbearable. With this in mind one may then close one’s eyes to dream again. The only alternatives to the continuing frustration of labyrinthine solitude are suicide or some new kind of creative involvement and participation, the exercise of loving imagination in communion with the rest of the world.

The Labyrinth of Solitude is a wise book. Years spent in Paris did not seduce Paz into succumbing to the pathetic charms held out by existentialism. In this work he avoids the promulgation of a doctrine, achieving instead the kind of essential statement that one should expect from a poet. Anyone who thinks about the world in which people live and what that world does to people should find the book stimulating; it also provides perhaps the best gloss available on Paz’s poetic work.

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