Octavio Paz 1914–1998
Mexican poet, essayist, critic, nonfiction writer, editor, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Paz's career through 1998. See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 4, 6, 10 and 19.
An internationally acclaimed poet and essayist, Paz became the first Mexican to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Recognized by the Swedish Academy in 1990 "for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity," Paz sought to reconcile contradictory and divergent forces of modern life, wrestling throughout his literary career with such antithetical constructs as art and nature, mind and body, and linear and cyclical time. Above all, Paz stressed that both communal harmony and psychic wholeness can be achieved through language and love. His writings reflect his knowledge of Mexican history, myth, and landscapes as well as his interest in surrealism, existentialism, oriental mysticism, and leftist politics. In his poems Paz experimented with prosodic form and aimed for lucid, direct expression and syntactic vigor, and in his essays he combined epigrammatic wit and a lyrical prose style with thoughtful insights on art, literature, language, culture, and political ideologies. An adept translator fluent in several languages, Paz also founded and edited many literary periodicals that introduced Latin American readers to writers and movements from around the world. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once described Paz as the "greatest living Mexican writer, great renovator of the Spanish language, great universal poet and essayist."
The son of a diplomat who had represented Mexican revolutionaries during the 1910s, Paz wrote poetry as a teenager and founded an avant-garde literary review while studying at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. His first poetry collection, Luna silvestre, appeared in 1933. In 1937, he went to Spain to support the antifascists during the Spanish civil war, and he briefly visited France, where he met several proponents of surrealism and existentialism. Upon returning to Mexico in 1938, Paz founded and edited two literary journals and wrote newspaper columns on international affairs. At the onset of World War II he entered the Mexican Foreign Service which sent him to posts on both coasts of the United States, where he acquainted himself with the formal techniques of modernist poets. In 1945, Paz began a twenty-three-year career with the Mexican diplomatic corps, as was customary among intellectuals. While abroad, he filled his spare time by writing essays and poetry, notably his most famous prose work, El laberinto de la soledad (1950; The Labyrinth of Solitude), which contains an influential series of critical essays addressing unique sociocultural forces that shaped the modern Mexican national identity, and Piedra de sol (1957; Sun Stone), which comprises 584 eleven-syllable lines of poetry patterned on the format of the Aztec calendar and is generally considered his finest achievement in verse. Initially assigned to the embassy in Paris, Paz served in Tokyo during the early 1950s and then in New Delhi from 1959 until 1962, when he became the ambassador to India. In Asia, he availed himself of Eastern literature and art as well as Taosit and Buddhist philosophies—acquiring themes he later explored in such poetry collections as Salamandra (1962), Blanco (1967), and Ladera este (1969). In 1968, Paz resigned his Indian ambassadorship in protest against the massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City by government troops, detailing his reasons and the communication breakdown between officials and students in Posdata (1970; The Other Mexico). Afterwards, Paz held a number of visiting professorships in the United States and England until 1972. By then he was editing the literary journal Plural in Mexico City, and in 1976 he founded what has since become one of Latin America's leading literary periodicals, Vuelta. Although Paz continued to publish poetry until the year before his death, most critics have agreed that his best verse antecedes Configurations (1971), an omnibus of Paz's most significant poetry. "He is one of the greatest poets that the Spanish-language world has produced," remarked Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. However, most commentators have recognized that Paz's prose writings attracted a larger audience. His numerous essay collections of the last quarter century address such diverse matters as linguistics (El mono gramático [1974; The Monkey Grammarian]), literary theory (Los hijos del limo [1974; Children of the Mire], literary history (Sor Juana ), political history (Tiempo nublado [1984; On Earth, Four or Five Worlds], art (Essays on Mexican Art ), the nature of human love (The Double Flame ), and the relationship between eroticism and literature (An Erotic Beyond: Sade ). Roberto González Echevarría has observed: "As an essayist Paz has taken the role [turn-of-the-century Spanish philosopher] José Ortega y Gasset played earlier; he has been a translator in the broadest and profoundest sense. He has made the leading artistic and ideological trends in the world intelligible and relevant to Hispanic culture. And he has fashioned a Spanish capable of speaking the discourse of modernity; even when those of us who write in Spanish disagree with Paz, we must do so in the language he has given us." According to Fuentes, Paz "forever changed the face of Mexican literature."