Octavio Paz Paz, Octavio (Vol. 4) - Essay

Paz, Octavio (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paz, Octavio 1914–

See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 6, 10, 19 and 119.

Paz, a Mexican, is a brilliant poet, essayist, and social philosopher.

Paz has never been one to hold his rhetoric (in prose) on any kind of rein, and I sometimes feel that a very good prose style could be created for Paz if a kindly friend or editor would simply cut out every third sentence he writes. Still, this too is part of being an intellectual in Latin America. There is the constant obligation to keep talking, and one senses that Paz's brilliantly vacuous remarks ("but the differences between civilizations hide a secret unity: man"—that is, human societies are inhabited by human beings) are perhaps a means of bearing the burden without being crushed by it: you take the job, but you don't take it too seriously. Paz has not been bought off by a reactionary government; he has not taken flight into formalism or aesthetics; he has sanctioned neither Stalinism nor terrorism. He has sustained a high critical intelligence where it was desperately needed; and above all, or at least above all for us, at this distance from the Latin American scene, he has written major poetry which has been in no way diminished by his onerous, multifarious activities….

Conjunctions and Disjunctions is an act of homage to Lévi-Strauss and Norman O. Brown, Paz's try at playing their games with his own deck of cultural cards…. Paz's devotion to symmetrical antitheses exceeds even that of Lévi-Strauss and his working principle seems to be that any pair of opposites can be exchanged for any other pair, on the grounds that there are two of them as well. Thus the book begins with a brilliant and witty exploration of a metaphor (taken from Quevedo and Posada) which equates the face and the ass: the face is an ass, the ass is a face. But then ass and face soon become explosion and repression, the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which in turn are converted into the forces behind, respectively, the ruled and the rulers, jokes and pedantry, ignorance and education, vulgarity and good upbringing, wisdom and prudence, and the relative value systems of the poor and the rich….

Enough? Well, as a matter of fact, all this is "only a variation of the old dichotomy between nature and culture." This is meant to be dazzling but just makes you dizzy, and it is cruelly reductive, a violent crushing of differences into uniformity….

Still, there are good things in Conjunctions and Disjunctions, notably an elaborate (and genuinely dazzling) display of the inverse relations between Buddhism and Christianity—the religion that points to disincarnation exalts the body, while the religion that rests on the incarnation of its god denies and transfigures the flesh. As always in Paz, there are wonderful epigrams ("Man's paradises are covered with gibbets") and a humane, urgent lesson is to be found at the end of the intricate allusions and ratiocinations….

The Bow and the Lyre is Paz's poetic confession, and is written with an urgency and a care and a tact which none of his later prose works possesses…. [The] book communicates a real sense of an arduous inquest taking place, of a man excavating his profoundest assumptions, putting his thoughts together for himself, wherever they come from and whoever may have thought some of them before. Paz's rather meandering habits of mind here correspond to the authentic mystery of his subject: one can only prowl around it, circle its fringes, make occasional intuitive raids….

Certainly here as elsewhere Paz is tempted to simplify, but he resists the temptation remarkably well, and this book is full of fine distinctions…. Of Paz's later prose works, only his essays on Duchamp and Lévi-Strauss, and the pages on Breton in Alternating Current, have this discreet and luminous intelligence, and we are back where we began. The decline of Paz's prose is the price of being an intellectual in Latin America; of having to talk so much; above all of talking so much in a vacuum, in large, empty, unresponding rooms; of being listened to with servile respect or not being listened to at all….

Oddly enough, Paz, who believes in Surrealism, writes very much like Surrealism's antithesis, Paul Valéry, the poet of intricate, debilitating lucidity. Paz puts his faith in love, but devotes his poems to the travails of consciousness. Paz's diction and vocabulary, like Valéry's, are decorous and formal, almost classical. Indeed, Paz's whole work often looks like an extended meditation on Valéry's "Cimetière marin," an offering of the world to the glare of the noonday sun. Yet there is a curious composite effect here. Valéry's Mediterranean landscapes, which are literally taken up by Paz in poems like "Hymn among the Ruins" (set in Naples) and "Ustica" (set in the Sicilian sea), become Mexican landscapes too, or at least make miraculously apt analogues for the dry, hot, sun-stricken spaces of the central Mexican plateau. Mexico and the Mediterranean meet in these poems, much as Spanish American and French traditions meet in Paz, and just as Valéry's European bafflement, the predicament of a glittering mind at the end of its tether, joins hands with Paz's Latin American loneliness, his sense of the unreality of everything around him, so that only the mind is left, the mirror that devours mirrors.

Michael Wood, "Dazzling and Dizzying," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), May 16, 1974, pp. 12-16.

[One] way we ignore South America is by denying it any philosophy, any fund of critical, esthetic or systematic thought—in short, any wisdom. Even so vulgar an index as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations reflects this neglect by quoting Ortega y Gasset but not Octavio Paz, Yevtushenko but not Neruda. But such wisdom in both its systematic and quotable forms does exist and nowhere more impressively than in the works of Octavio Paz which are a colossal piñata, spilling prizes, unexpected and fabulous, stylistic and topical, for any who will crack the books.

(No, not a piñata, a fiesta—one of Paz's favorite images—where individual aperçus explode brilliantly in throngs of thought.)

At the same time, Paz is cool. He writes as with a diamond-tipped stylus on sheets of clearest crystal and what he writes is incandesced by a lunar imagination streaming in images like moonlight through stained glass: Paz illuminates glowing hues in whatever he writes but always pours through, pure, fine, uncolored by anything but himself.

Like that unpolarized moonlight, whether in poetry or prose, Paz is always inspiring even when not inspired, always novel and always consistent. Sometimes the richness of his production, only partially reflected in [Early Poems, Alternating Current, Conjunctions and Disjunctions, and The Bow and The Lyre], obscures the dialogue of unity and multiplicity which is both his persona and his theme but any prolonged acquaintance with his work discovers that inhering principle. The title Conjunctions and Disjunctions, for example, fits both Paz's general method as well as his specific subject in that book: the differing approaches of East and West to an integrated view of reality expressed in a subtle, erudite choreography of words and notions like Siamese twins: "life with death, sex with spirit, body with soul."

This "binary relation between the I and the Thou" is again the form and content of the mimetically entitled Alternating Current, a small masterpiece of miscellaneous fragments of which Paz writes: "I believe the fragment to be the form that best reflects the ever-changing reality that we live and are. The fragment is not so much a seed as a stray atom that can be defined only by situating it relative to other atoms: it is nothing more nor less than a relation. This book is a tissue of relations," so is the best of all Paz's work and Alternating Current is among the very best. Ranging over literature, mysticism, eroticism, ethics and politics—with especially charged passages on Cernuda and André Breton—Paz creates a "contrapuntal unity" echoed in his contrary title The Bow and the Lyre.

Among these books, The Bow and the Lyre is the most ambitious with the least pretense. Here, Paz has worked a poetic of dominion and majesty from sources as diverse as Mallarmé, Whitman and Juan Ramon Jiménez and done it in such a way as to implicate us fully—socially, spiritually and sexually.

The major sections of this book correspond to the phases of that implication. In "The Poem," Paz concentrates on elements of poetry, culminating with imagery containing "many opposite or disparate meanings," which it embraces or reconciles without suppressing, thus providing "the key to the human condition"—just as Paz does. In the second section, "The Poetic Revelation," Paz links the poetic with the sacred by means of wonder which inspires man: "he poetizes, loves, divinizes" under its spell. In the third, "Poetry and History," Paz argues that "man's true history is the history of his images: mythology" and explains surrealism as the poetic attempt to ground society on a poetic, imagistic and, thus, a liberated basis correspondent to a world view. Surrealism, he recognizes, failed and in a section of his epilogue, Paz looks back to the Aztecs whose works of art were literally their religion…. In this backward glance, Paz returns us to his originating notion of the image as synthesizing without suppressing. Similarly, we see that Paz's own work fully lives up to his definition of the image in "The Poem" so that his own critique is also his best example.

I say that not forgetting Paz's many poems…. Paz is a very good poet but by the measure of his own prose he is not a great one. Yet that judgment in itself is a disjunction. When I view the coolness in his "dialogues of transparencies" as disassociation toward sensibility, then I see Paz's verse as the negative charge to his positive prose, his essays as the poetry of prose.

Either way—as well as both—Paz is a great writer who has determined a great subject—relation: the universal, existential—and a perfectly adjusted means for expressing that subject—conjunctive units of imagery and grammatical parallelism. If at times you get impatient with his subject or his representation, his praise of the East, his pairs of tugging doubles, you should remember, rephrasing what Hugh Kenner said of G. K. Chesterton, that Paz is not a great writer because he is important; Octavio Paz is a great writer because he is right.

Ronald Christ, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 31, 1974, pp. 316-17.

Though [The Bow and the Lyre] is not a new book (the first edition, in Spanish, appeared in Mexico in 1955), it is a book so timeless and so profound that it will always be new. The subtitles read: "The Poem. The Poetic Revelation. Poetry and History," topics inexhaustible to thought, modified by the appearance of each new poet, forever provisional, and forever readdressed. These are "solitary thinkings, such as dodge/Conception to the very bourne of heaven," appearing as aphorism, epigram and prophecy as well as exposition and argument. The torrent of Paz's writing claims assent by passion; the book has the indisputable truth of testimony, and whatever its serviceability as a generalized poetic, it is unquestionably one of the strongest and most eloquent diaries of the poetic process in our century….

Poems are, says Paz, expressions of something lived and suffered; that conviction is balanced by the equal conviction of the peculiarity and opacity of the poetic medium; together, these beliefs ensure that Paz's work is neither an argument for the direct transcription of experience, nor a defense of specious hermeticism. The indispensable participation of the reader, by which the instant of creation is recreated, is not forgotten either, and is in fact raised by Paz to the level of coordinate reincarnation of experience….

For Paz, poetry is a brink, a precipice, an abyss, where, silent before a void, the poet leaves historical time to reenter the time of desire, a time always within us, for which our myths of the Golden Age are only a representation. That entry, made through abandon of props, supports, defenses and hesitations alike, is as accessible, at least in a secondary sense, to the reader as to the poet. In this entry, the rhythm and flow of life are present and sustained, but in a rhythm formed by yearning rather than by fact, a rhythm not describable in the short titles of meters but rather comparable with the long cyclical undulations by which biological movements rise, extend themselves and subside….

The poet's utterance transmutes man and converts him in turn into an image, as Paz's brilliant formulation has it; man himself becomes a space where opposites fuse. In this passage lies the heart of Paz's poetics.

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 30, 1974, pp. 23-4, 26.

Two dovetailed theses [in Children of the Mire]: the "creative self-destruction" of modernity, and its dissolution in mass democratic divinations of "the unalterable principle that is the root of change." One the second Paz is hasty, too brief, unpinned. On the first, however, he writes with such lucid density, such dialectical panache, such agreement of scope and precision, such flings of the hooks of reference, that his book is an instant classic. There is nothing to compare with it in modern poetry in the Western world—a poetry that, whether Anglo-American, French, German or Hispanic (and this worldly Mexican is fresh and expert on all these and more) is, as Paz says, "one." Children of the Mire reveals how high the subject of poetry can rise on the wave of an immense human culture….

Graciela Palau de Nemes, surveying modern Hispanic poetry from Jiménez to the present, concludes that Paz climaxes the gradual rebellion against ancient Spanish morbidity. At home, then, his erotic mysticism may seem new and necessary indeed, though to us it has the thud of Lawrence all over again.

However that may be, where most of Children of the Mire has a lookout of breathtaking universality, the conclusion seems to pour from the Romantic steam bath of Paz's Early Poems.

This last … is a needed complement to … Configurations, with its later and still better work. Here are the first short pieces in all their weakness of relation, their random piercing beauty; here the first surging long poems, attempting to be, like a river, "a long word that never ends."

And here, it must be said—though the voices in The Perpetual Present seem to conspire not to say it—is too willed a Romanticism, however refreshing in a land where the hot wounded days creep "along the length of time" and never finish "with dying." "… Let … the poem be an implacable radiance that advances/and may the soul be the blackened grass after fire…." Could any poem live up to this? Paz, in mid-poem, will abruptly declare himself out of time, at the "source." But can words reach us from there? Paz never seems to say what he does not know. His Romanticism is as direct as a lesson.

Still he is great enough, in his own terms, to show his fissures. He leaps into Romanticism from a conscious void. "Here we are not who are not," he says, envying "a flock of trees drinking at the stream," trees "all there." Paz is Romantic partly in open defiance of the blood "that goes and comes," that "says nothing and carries me with it."

In sum, at his most complete Paz himself represents the modern "dialogue"—Romanticism pursuing the mystical seed puff that jumps away precisely because the hand reaches for it; Modernism in its sour irony, its days that never finish with dying.

Calvin Bedient, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 27 & August 3, 1974, pp. 23-4.