Octavio Paz World Literature Analysis - Essay

Octavio Paz World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2519 words.)