Octavio Paz World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2519

Paz not only was a poet of international stature but also incorporated the influences of different and even opposing cultures and literatures: Mexican culture with its pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial traditions and its modern revolution, Spanish art and literature, the French Surrealism of Breton, the works of Stéphane Mallarmé, and...

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Paz not only was a poet of international stature but also incorporated the influences of different and even opposing cultures and literatures: Mexican culture with its pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial traditions and its modern revolution, Spanish art and literature, the French Surrealism of Breton, the works of Stéphane Mallarmé, and Oriental myth and philosophy. Throughout his life, Paz was concerned with the problem of how human beings can recover their wholeness and innocence in a fragmented and corrupt world. He turned to French Surrealism and Oriental philosophy to take a moral stand against the harmful effects of modern society.

For Paz, as for the Surrealists, the primary values of life are love, liberty, and poetry. Although he was not drawn to Surrealist techniques, such as automatic writing, Paz adopted wholeheartedly Surrealism’s call to practice poetry as rebellion against society’s suppression of human freedom. Poetry, he believed, invites the reader to experience ecstatic union with “the other” (woman, nature, or language), an occurrence discouraged, when not forbidden, by society. The world is dominated by science, reason, and materialism, while poetry champions the values of the spirit. Through love, imagination, art, and dreaming, the poet is inwardly transformed, thereby introducing changes in society.

In “Más allá del amor” (“Beyond Love”), Paz exalts woman as the other who makes it possible for him to leave the domain of time. He identifies history as the force that alienates humanity and divides it into national, ideological, and religious camps. As an antidote to the tyranny of time, Paz advocates the poetic moment, an experience of unity and wholeness outside time.

In “Himno entre ruinas” (“Hymn Among the Ruins”), Paz attributes to poetry the power to redeem a world destroyed by World War II. The poem’s pyramid structure and references to Aztec ruins evoke Mexico’s Aztec past. The poet seeks the ultimate origins of humanity and language as an archaeologist seeks to uncover buried treasures of the past, hoping to bring humanity to authentic life. When alienation is conquered, language is alive and makes fully present what it signifies. Words are simultaneously flowers, fruit, and action.

In his collection of prose poems ¿Águila o sol? (1951; Eagle or Sun?, 1970), Paz combines his quest to recover Mexico’s pre-Columbian past and his own childhood with his experience as a Surrealist in Paris. In the first section of the book, “Trabajos del poeta” (“Works of the Poet”), the poet fights with language, striving to transcend it so that duality gives way to unity. The need to choose between eagle or sun yields to the realization that eagle and sun are one. The poet purges himself of corrupt language so that from inner silence he might give birth to a new untainted language and escape alienation. In the last section, “Hacia el poema” (“Toward the Poem”), the poet describes the consequences of restoring language’s purity. Poetry becomes an instrument for changing consciousness and creating a new ideal society.

Sun Stone is one of Paz’s finest poems. It is the culmination of the first period of his poetic work, before he became Mexican ambassador to India in 1962 and incorporated Oriental philosophy into his poetry. The poem addresses Paz’s principal themes: the relationship of self and other, the theme of alienation, and the quest for communion and transcendental experience. The poet searches for true freedom by experiencing the poetic moment in lovemaking. While the poem’s structure is Surrealist in that it is composed of many unrelated images, Paz evokes his Mexican heritage by organizing the poem around the Aztec calendar and employing its notion of circular time.

Salamandra marks a change in Paz’s poetic technique. In this collection, Paz employs fewer words and more space, making his poems visual, as well as oral. Using more space brings the role of silence to the forefront in his poetry. It represents the silence that the reader and poet enjoy beyond words. It also refers to the infinite potential of all meaning available to the still and silent mind. In the title poem, “Salamandra,” Paz attacks science for dehumanizing life. Paz liberates the word “salamander” by associating it with air, fire, water, wind, and many other images in the poem. The word “salamander” thus assumes multiple meanings and is no longer limited to only one. Through wordplay, the poet rediscovers the latent possibilities of language and brings it to life. Liberated and purified language frees people from the grip of alienation.

Paz integrated Oriental thought, especially Buddhist philosophy, into his poetry after he became Mexico’s ambassador to India in 1962. His poetry also evidences his constant reading of Mallarmé. In both Mallarmé and Buddhism, Paz found the concept of the negation of the ego. The poet uses poetry to transcend the ego by disappearing into the poem. Like Mallarmé, Paz allows his words to hang suspended in the whiteness of the page. Surrounded by nameless white space, the word is liberated from fixed meanings and freed for the reader to explore an infinite play of meanings.

Ladera este (1969), a collection of travel and love poetry, reflects Paz’s years in India. The long poem Blanco (1967; English translation, 1971) continues the experimentation with the relationship of poetic text and space begun in Salamandra. The poem was originally published on a single continuous sheet of paper. It was printed with black and red ink and several typefaces. Through the use of blank space, ink color, and typeface, Paz breaks the one long poem into several shorter but complementary poems. In Blanco, Paz establishes an analogy between writing a poem and making love to a woman. The woman’s white body is like the paper on which the poet writes his passion. It draws from the Buddhist Tantric tradition, which advocates lovemaking as a technique and ritual for spiritual liberation. Poetry, like woman, leads man to unite with a timeless reality beyond words.

Sun Stone

First published: Piedra de sol, 1957 (English translation, 1963)

Type of work: Poem

The poet embraces women because love allows him to overcome his alienation and the evils of death, destruction, and war.

In Sun Stone, the poet searches for the experience of the poetic moment through making love. The quest is framed by a structure modeled after the Aztec sun stone, a calendar divided into 584 days. The poem is composed of 584 lines and opens and closes with the same six lines. Setting the tone for the entire poem, these six lines invoke a world free of alienation, a paradise outside of time. Sun Stone rushes forward without any breaks, leading to an ending that returns the reader to the beginning. Even as the calendar is round, time is cyclical. The protagonist’s experience is also repetitive, alternating between ecstasy and alienation.

The opening lines of Sun Stone point to a reality outside the passage of time where opposites are united. The poet describes a river flowing backward and forward, always returning to the same point. On its bank is a tree at once firmly rooted and dancing.

Alienation intrudes. The protagonist becomes disoriented and confused in the urban landscape. He cannot even remember his name. He is confronted with the horrors of history: bombings, concentration camps, and assassinations. He recalls Socrates’ death, the assassination of Julius Caesar, the betrayal of Montezuma, the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Yet in Madrid, in 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, the protagonist manages to overcome the atrocities of history through love. Love brings human beings to a timeless paradise where individual identity is lost in oneness:

these nakednesses, woven together,can overleap time and are invulnerable,nothing can touch them, they go to the origins,there is no You nor I, tomorrow, yesterday, names.

After the protagonist has succeeded in stepping out of history through love, he finds himself once again subject to alienation. He feels isolated, separated from others by barbed-wire fences, spikes, and bars. Love is his only defense against isolation and death. Through love, he is free from all forces that dehumanize him. The world changes when love is practiced. It is a means for transforming society: “The world grows fresh and green while you are smiling and eating an orange.” The bliss of lovers anticipates an ideal world where all are lovers and poets.

The protagonist pays tribute to woman, who makes him whole. Woman is a goddess, the female principle that redeems him from isolation and the horrors of history. He evokes women from many times and places, figures of myth and women immortalized in famous poems: Laura, Isabel, Eloise, Persephone, and Mary. Woman is the gateway to vision and knowledge. Alienation is broken by ecstasy, and history is undermined through the mediation of the woman. She is the “flower of resurrection and grape of life.”

Sun Stone is perhaps Paz’s most important poem. The reader experiences a full cycle of history, starting and ending with an eternal present before time and history. Through the mediation of woman, the protagonist is able periodically to escape the tyranny of history and his own alienation.

Blanco

First published: 1967 (English translation, 1971)

Type of work: Poem

The poet compares writing poetry to making love to a woman.

In Blanco, Paz experiments with poetry as a visual and oral art form. The poem was first published on one continuous sheet of paper, using various typefaces and two colors of ink. A single column of text alternates with two parallel columns. These in turn are either spaced separately or joined together and are only distinguishable from each other by their contrasting typefaces. Paz arranges the poetic text in such a way that the words are able to interact with each other. On the theory that the poet should not manipulate language, he denies his ego any role in the creative process. Paz applies the Tantric tradition to the poetic text. The words set free on the page, surrounded by space, assume a life of their own. They are erotic objects free to attract, repel, and unite with each other. The use of different columns of text running separately or parallel to each other allows many alternative readings. This one long poem has fourteen texts that can be read separately or in different combinations.

The poem begins with a wordplay about the origins of language before its corruption by history. The text of the single central column deals with the poet’s labor to bring forth poetry. The lamp represents the poet’s alertness. He waits patiently for language to rise into his consciousness. When it does so, the words of the poem flow forth, and the poet dissolves with his mistress in an experience of pure language.

The double column is a love poem. The two columns separate and join together, opening and closing like legs in imitation of Tantric texts. The poet penetrates his beloved. He fertilizes words, and they ascend the stalk that produces the flow of poetry in the central column.

The influences of Mallarmé and Tantric Buddhism are most evident in this long and very complex poem. Blanco likens writing poetry to making love. Paz follows Mallarmé’s position that living language is carnal and that words have flesh like a woman. The graphic layout of the poem and the use of white space between the words encourage the reader to explore the infinite possibilities in words. In Tantric Buddhism, erotic love serves as a means to gain spiritual liberation. In Blanco, erotic love and the inception of poetry are aspects of the same experience of transcending time and language.

The Labyrinth of Solitude

First published: El laberinto de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de México, 1950 (English translation, 1961)

Type of work: Nonfiction

Within the labyrinth of solitude, which is everyone’s existence, Mexican identity has created itself and Mexican history has evolved into the modern Mexico.

Although The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico is a work of prose, it has been hailed as Paz’s greatest poetic achievement. It is written in a rich, poetic language, and it explores the themes and ideas that Paz expresses in his poetry.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz discusses Mexican identity, what it means to be Mexican, the history of Mexico and its importance in shaping the Mexican identity, and finally the solitude which is the condition not only of Mexicans but of all human beings. The book is composed of nine essays, each of which can be read as an independent work. The first four essays deal with who the Mexicans are, their identity, and how they acquired it; these essays reflect the influence of existentialism on Paz.

The first essay, “El pachuco y otros extremos” (“The Pachuco and Other Extremes”), looks at the pachuco, or Mexican living in North America, who emphasizes his difference and yet is ashamed of his ancestry. He is an individual who does everything possible to isolate himself, to shut himself off from everyone else, including his own compatriots. This solitude surrounds the Mexican, who, caught between his Indian and his Spanish past, between primitive religion and Spanish Catholicism, is deprived of an origin that he can embrace.

“Máscaras mexicanas” (“Mexican Masks”) explores the concept of solitude and expands upon Paz’s belief that the Mexican refuses to reveal his true self. He hides behind masks until he becomes the mask. Paz discusses the Mexican preference for order and ceremony. Inherited from both Indian and Spanish tradition, this desire for regulation and stability derives from the need to protect oneself, to hide one’s true self. At its extreme point, the mask provides nonexistence for the Mexican; he seeks not only his own nonexistence but also the nonexistence of others.

In contrast to this desire for nothingness, the Mexican’s love of fiesta and noisy celebration is examined in “Todos santos, día de muertos” (“The Day of the Dead”). The fiesta is a true explosion of the individual; he opens out in chaos and excess. Yet this excess leads to the void and connects the Mexican to death—his constant companion. Death, like life, has no meaning for him.

In “Los hijos de La Malinche”(“The Sons of La Malinche”) Paz examines the Mexican attitude toward women, work, the working class, and language and how these attitudes isolate the Mexican from his past and from others. His solitude is all around him as he rejects his traditions, whether they are Indian or Spanish.

The next four essays treat Mexican history. Paz concentrates on the different concepts of landownership and the problems caused by eliminating the common lands, the inadequacies of the revolution, and the difficulties faced by the intelligentsia who are participating in government while critiquing it objectively.

In the final essay “La dialéctica de la solitude” (“The Dialectic of Solitude”), Paz examines solitude as the lot of each human being. He analyzes how social control virtually eliminates the experience of love, which is the escape from solitude. He postulates that what humankind seeks is a return to freedom and primitive purity and the flinging away of the masks.

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