Analysis

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

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First published in English in 1961, The Labyrinth of Solitude was originally published as a book in Spanish in Octavio Paz’s native Mexico in 1959, while the individual essays had appeared as early as 1950. The “solitude” in the title refers to the isolation of North Americans—not only Mexicans but also residents of the United States—as a result of colonization. They find themselves within a “labyrinth,” a metaphorical maze with no easily located exit. For Mexicans, establishing a unique identity has also involved attempts to free themselves from the imperial legacy of Aztec and other pre-Columbian cultures. Even the successful independence movement and early twentieth-century revolution, Paz argues, generated only limited success in that regard.

Much of the book consists of a historical analysis of the Mexican identity problem, approached through a series of specific cultural cases. While Paz addresses some issues that Mexican Americans have faced in US society, at bottom, his interest is in Mexico itself. Arguing that Mexico has retreated and does not take pride in its unique identity, Paz seeks to explain why.

The nine essays included in this book lay out these specific cases. First, Paz looks at Mexican American toughs, or pachucos, who are often gang members, addressing the challenges to their assimilation into US society. He next considers Mexican “masks,” positing that Mexicans hide and thereby protect their true identities, in part through fear of nothingness. Paz goes on to address the fiesta, analyzing the celebratory complex as the opposite of masks: in fiestas, Mexicans project a happy worldview, which is in its way as misleading as that behind the masks. A different kind of festival is the Day of the Dead; in celebrating All Saints Day, Paz claims, Mexicans not only honor their ancestors but also emphasize their obsession with death.

Turning to gender and race, in perhaps the most controversial essay in the book, Paz examines the “mixed-race” heritage of the Mexican people. He locates the origins of Mexicanness in treason and rape, primarily blaming woman’s betrayal—in the form of Malinche [Malintzin], a native woman who translated for the conquistador Hernan Cortes—for establishing the ongoing identity problems. At the same time, the Spaniards’ rape of native women is equally at fault.

Moving into political economic history—an area where this poet seems less secure—Paz analyzes the independence and revolutionary movements, and the related agrarian reform and its failures. Another essay concerns the intellectuals’ dilemmas in participating and critiquing national and global artistic and literary culture. Returning finally to the "solitude" theme, Paz echoes his earlier claim of isolation as an intrinsic quality of the colonized person.

Because Paz had, by the time the book appeared, already established a considerable reputation as a man of letters, both in Mexico and beyond, his stance as an anti-establishment cultural critic was widely questioned in the wake of this book's publication. His fundamental argument of internalized Mexican inferiority was particularly challenged. In an age of vehement anti-colonial discourse, increasingly coming from Africa as well as from Latin America, Paz’s positions were labeled apolitical or outmoded. Nevertheless, the book’s impact, including its diverse critiques, has become well-established in the Latin American literary canon.

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