One Earth, Four or Five Worlds

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History is unique in the overall output of Octavio Paz—it is about contemporary politics. He is primarily a poet. In addition, he has written many prose works about literary topics; his well-known study of Mexico, El labertino de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de México (1950, revised and enlarged edition, 1954; The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961), touched on politics, but it stressed the cultural and historical background; Los hijos del limo: Del romanticismo a la vanguardia (1974; Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, 1974), El arco y la lira (1956; The Bow and the Lyre, 1973), Corriente alterna (1967; Alternating Current, 1973), and Conjunciones y disyunciones (1969; Conjunctions and Disjunctions, 1974) were studies of literature and poetry. The book One Earth, Four or Five Worlds (originally published in Spain in 1984 as Tiempo nublado with three additional essays) addresses head-on the major international political issues of the times. It has a broad range of reference, however, which makes it more interesting than most political studies that ignore the connection between politics and broader cultural, historical trends. The closest parallel is with the prose works of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesaw Milosz, for example his Zniewolony umysl (1953; Captive Mind, 1953)—both poets have succeeded in writing about politics with greater incisiveness and depth than the majority of specialized political historians and journalistic commentators.

The book has great strengths and also some weaknesses. Its strengths are originality and broad range of reference, both horizontal—Paz is informed about many regions: the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union; also the Third World, Mexico, Latin America, India, and the Muslim countries—and vertical, ranging far back in time and history. He has great erudition, and his knowledge of underdeveloped countries provides a special perspective to his commentary on the United States and the Soviet Union. For the reader in the United States, one of the most important and insistent points raised by Paz is the destructive influence of that country on the development of democracy in Latin America. He writes, “The United States has fostered divisions between countries, parties, and leaders; it has threatened to use force, and has not hesitated to use force every time it has seen its interests endangered; when this was to its advantage, it has backed rebellions or strengthened tyrannies.”

This is not entirely new, but Paz presents an image of the United States that will surprise many American readers. He shows how Alexis de Tocqueville predicted long ago, in 1845, that the foreign policy of the United States would not necessarily reflect the democratic nature of the society itself—or, as de Tocqueville wrote, “Almost all the defects inherent in democratic institutions are brought to light in the conduct of foreign affairs; their advantages are less perceptible.” Paz presents an image of the United States that many Americans will not recognize or want to recognize. Is it a true image? This reviewer believes that it is and does not think that Paz overstates his case. The journalistic origins of One Earth, Four or Five Worlds do not permit Paz a methodical and detailed historical analysis. He presents a critique that America should have the courage to make itself—American journalists, investigative reporters, and historians—yet it seems that America prefers to remain blind.

According to Octavio Paz, the United States is a country that has very little ability to understand the outside world. A genuine democracy itself, founded upon and still practicing the ideals of the Enlightenment, it drops those ideals once it acts beyond its borders and turns into an empire, an imperium. Paz is puzzled by this strange duality or double standard of Americans, and he traces its origin to the intense concern of the early Puritans for the state of their own consciences. One of their favorite activities was soul-searching—a type of humility, perhaps, but also a form of self-absorbed egotism that put the fate of the individual’s own soul before outside concerns. Not intent upon the conversion of others, this self-righteousness permitted the individual to ignore the outer world with complacency. The point is made briefly; Paz’s knowledge of Protestantism and of the pre-Revolutionary history of the United States is skimpy, but his theory is extremely suggestive.

Americans instinctively seem to draw a curtain over what happens south of the border without being aware that they are doing so. There are additional reasons for this that Paz does not mention. American foreign policy is almost never debated in elections, and there is great confusion about the concept of foreign aid. Investigative reporting by the American press rarely extends beyond the borders of the United States or to the actions of its embassies abroad; ambassadors rarely come from the...

(The entire section is 2120 words.)