Octavio Paz Paz, Octavio (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paz, Octavio 1914–

A Mexican poet, essayist, diplomat, and social philosopher, Paz is known primarily as an epic poet. His surrealistic verse departs from traditional concepts of linear time, reality, and consciousness. Like Whitman, Paz uses the concept of the Self to merge metaphorically with other sensibilities and to make personal discoveries at a deeply psychic level. (See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 4, 6, 10 and 119.)

Richard J. Callan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Labyrinth of Solitude] Paz shifts the focus of his analysis away from the Mexican ethos to a universal level, recognizing that the problems he has been discussing are basic to human nature.

Paz develops his central ideas, solitude and search for communion, as follows: the foetus, at one with the world that surrounds it, senses loss and rejection at birth. As self-consciousness develops, this original sensation turns into one of loneliness. Self-awareness means solitude, and because of our solitude, we yearn to transcend ourselves…. All our being longs to escape from the opposites that tear at us and to be reborn to the fullness of being in which life, death, time, eternity, and all other dualities are reconciled. Love …, which takes us out of ourselves, is a craving for communion, a need to die and be reborn in the other; and in the union of love, a union of opposites, man perceives, if only for an instant, that more perfect state which has been lost. (p. 916)

Paz says that while love is a means of transcending solitude and self-consciousness, it is not the only means …: a child overcomes loneliness through play; the adult does it through work. But the adolescent is one who, having suddenly become aware of himself, finds himself alone between two alien worlds, childhood and adulthood. His solitude, having the two-fold meaning of withdrawal from the world and preparation to return and conquer it, is a period of transformation consecrated by myth and history. For adolescence is predisposed toward heroism, sacrifice, and love, which provide the impetus to transcend solitude and self-absorption…. (p. 917)

Paz applies the withdrawal-return principle to the development of peoples: for primitive man the group is the sole source of well-being, and to be separated from it is tantamount to a death sentence. If circumstances should disperse the group, each separate member is engulfed in solitude and experiences his condition as a state of congenital sin…. The center of well-being that the group represented is remembered as a Golden Age, an ideal kingdom beyond the barriers of time. Thus a new mythology evolves, built on the need for redemption. The fertility god with his death-and-rebirth cycle becomes a savior promising a perfect society beyond the grave—a hope based on nostalgia for the group. (p. 918)

Opposed to [the] expansion of consciousness, a progressive movement forward, though inward bound, is … a regressive surrender to unconsciousness. Paz believes that man can transcend the temporal opposition between life and death, but that such...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Roger Shattuck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Octavio Paz, an important public and literary figure in Mexico today, has published several volumes of condensed and highly metaphoric poetry in Spanish that display his close ties to Surrealism…. [In "Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare"] Mr. Paz has revised and extended two essays on Duchamp written over the last 10 years. This short vigorous book shuns the psychoanalytic speculation that weakens many of the 20-odd existing studies and probes deeply into Duchamp's relations to Eastern and Western culture. Even Duchamp cannot escape history.

"The Castle of Purity," the first essay, opens with a consideration of Duchamp's origins and his radical yet calm responses to the modern Midas myth…. The following 60-page description and interpretation of the "Great Glass," or "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" (1915–23) treats the two partially painted clear panes … as belonging to the ancient Western tradition of theological art conveying idea and myth. In our era, however, the only powerful idea at hand, according to Mr. Paz, is the antimyth of criticism; Duchamp employs it ironically. Therefore, the meaning of the "Bride" resides in complex allusions to absence (or multiplicity) of meaning. Next to this intellectual complexity, Duchamp's Ready-mades seem simple-minded. (pp. 13, 32)

Mr. Paz's second essay "∗Water Writes Always in∗ Plural," concentrates on the assemblage Duchamp was secretly...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Jason Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Octavio Paz] is a poet whose reading of surrealism enabled him to revalue and affirm the role of poetry in the twentieth century in terms of a liberating, quasi-religious vocation. (p. 3)

Surrealism did not influence Octavio Paz in the sense that it suddenly transformed his poetry and life-stance, for Paz was seeking what he found. (p. 6)

[Surrealism] affected Paz mentally, as ideas. For Paz, surrealism is an attitude of mind based on the possibility of using poetry to transcend life's inherent contradictions; to make man whole again, communing with his fellows, participating and reintegrated in experiences that defy time; a poetics of the timeless moment, the instante poético. (p. 22)

[All] that he writes falls within the opposition between attitude and activity. What Paz accepts and rejects follows a clear pattern of values based on that opposition. For Paz, surrealism as a historical movement degenerated into style and convention. All that is tainted with history, all that is subject to time's corrosion, is rejected by Paz.

Paz has lifted surrealism out of time and social context, elevating it into an attitude of mind. This was possible because he arrived late at the surrealists' table. Sifting theory from practice also enabled Paz to view surrealism as eternal, a universal constant impervious to time and change. Circumstantial involvement did not blur these clear distinctions….

In Paz's version of surrealism, all the techniques became commonplaces, or inevitable conventions because forming part of history. His attitude towards automatism became his attitude to hypnosis, dream récits, the mode of poem-objects, the collective games and so on. (p. 23)

Paz was relatively indifferent to surrealism's explorations of madness, or of black humour, and he did not hold 'chance' in Breton's high (early) esteem; Paz did not share the passion for coincidences, chance meetings, trouvailles. Yet, because he was so close to Breton, he did hold that erotic love was regenerative; that woman was the answer to the riddle or mediatrix, and poetry was the key to life's problems He prized surrealism's explorations of 'inspiration', related to the concept of the 'other' as against the dominant ego, the false persona and its various roles. He singled out the notions of utopia, of analogy and the instante poético as the constants that universalised surrealism beyond mere literary style. (p. 24)

Poetry as self-defence, as exorcism, as life-enhancing in a moment when life had been cheapened; this is the centre of Paz's Bretonian surrealism, and it echoes an earlier epoch when Breton also defined poetry as 'self-defence'. That Paz played down his actual activity only strengthens the claim of his 'principles'. But Paz did not start from ideas, but experiences.

'Mariposa de obsidiana', Paz's first surrealist contribution, reiterates on another level Paz's family ties with Breton. The prose poem's surface is 'decorative' Mexican pre-columbian exotica … and the poem functions both as a gloss on Paz's researches into the mythic substrata of Mexican culture in his El laberinto de la soledad, and as (another) poetics involving the fertile 'eternal feminine' where the ancient goddess Itzpapálotl ('our mother') is transformed into Tonantzin and the Virgin of Guadalupe (thus defying historical change)…. (p. 26)

Paz turned to surrealism as part of his rejection of post-revolutionary Mexican nationalism, Stalinism, or official ideologies of any sort…. He seeks a critical stance, hostile to and free from official, repressive culture. This is where surrealism, first within the Mexican context, then more universally, offered him a way out…. (p. 28)

Surrealist poetics is an answer to the enigma and stigma of death. After the failure of the sciences, the collapse of organised religions and philosophy and metaphysics, twentieth-century man … ['will seek a Poetics']. This 'poetics' (surrealist lived poetry, utopian dream) is the new wisdom. (pp. 28-9)

Paz correctly intuited surrealism's quasi-religious function. According to him, modern poetry is the 'new sacred'…. (p. 29)

Paz consciously separated attitude from activity, raising surrealism to the category of idea, thought, spiritual orientation; but only because he could reject the historical and anecdotal side: he had lived it with Breton in Paris and not through 'books', and so he transcended it. Surrealism answered many of Paz's problems; it was a … ['desperate attempt to find the way out']. Surrealism was, then, the new wisdom based on a system of values personified and embodied in Péret's and Breton's moral examples. It was an extra-religious religion that answered the question in the poem '¿No hay salida?' (Is there no way out?). Yes, there is—through poetry…. It is a poetry that is both written and lived. Surrealism is thus a quest for the 'true life' so desperately sought by Breton and still sought by Paz. (pp. 32-3)

[The poem 'El prisionero' (The prisoner)] perfectly formulates his adhesion to surrealist concerns…. [It is a] poetics dealing with a reputation [the Marquis de Sade's]. (p. 34)

Paz suggests that Sade, who was against the world, has become a 'name', a 'leader' and a 'flag' for a whole group of people, from erudites to madmen and poets, who … ['fight like dogs over the scraps of your work']. Paz separates himself from these 'dogs'.

Those who particularly invoked Sade were the surrealists; Sade's position in their hierarchy was unequivocal…. However, the surrealists' relationship with Sade was ambiguous, especially in Breton's case; and this is what Paz siezes on.

The surrealists find little...

(The entire section is 2419 words.)

Susnigdha Dey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Breaking new ground has been for Octavio Paz a serious preoccupation. The Orient provided him with new style and concepts. The haiku drew him naturally, and so did the renga. A few years ago he took up the Japanese poetic tradition of composing a poem simultaneously with three major European poets. In this first renga ever to appear in the West, each of these poets wrote successively short, unrhymed, syllabically controlled stanzas in four different languages. Air Born/Hijos del aire is yet another experiment that the Mexican poet undertook with Charles Tomlinson when they decided to make a "postal meditation in sonnet form" writing alternatively the two quartets and the two tercets in their native Spanish and English with translation from the one into the other….

There are altogether eight sonnets, six of which were written together and two separately by each poet on two themes, "House" and "Day." As stated in one of the prefaces, time was the "general and secret concern" of the Mexican and the Englishman, and this has a bearing on the twin subjects as "day" can be seen as time that passes and "house" as time measured by a place….

Tomlinson opens the very first poem with "One builds a house of what is there," and Paz writes in the same poem, "yet we are born in houses we did not make" and goes on to say, "time unmakes and builds the house again." For the Mexican, moreover, houses become a theme of the continuity of life and death resurrected by memory. For the Englishman, on the other hand, a house is a time and space capsule that holds many things.

Susnigdha Dey, "Spanish: 'Air Born/Hijos del aire'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1980 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter, 1980, p. 78.

Nereo E. Condini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this anthology of Octavio Paz's works [A Draft of Shadows],… the impression we receive initially is that of a Mexican poet exposed for the first time to his European peers' influence and submerged in a rhetorical roil of surrealist images smacking more of virtuosity than honesty. The poems mirror Paz's experiences as his country's ambassador to India and his subsequent trips to England, France, and the United States. They are charged, even humorous, forcedly brilliant. But in them there is none of the drama faced by Paz on his return to Mexico. If at all, the joyful paganism of the Indian experience is interesting because it anticipates the essential humanism of the poet, staunch enemy of the city of...

(The entire section is 564 words.)