Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

Two strong oppositions run through “Vrindaban.” The first of these is the contrast between the poet and the saddu; the second, the distinction between the ego and consciousness on one hand and the concept of nirvana, the cessation of individual existence, on the other. In a broad sense these oppositions may be seen as part of the contrast between East and West (the Orient and the Occident). On a personal level, the poet Octavio Paz, concerned with the poetic process and the insights it affords to beauty, the moments of transparency with their sense of unification between the writer and the world, must reconcile his strongest inclinations with a tradition and a culture that is at once attractive and repulsive. The quandary is accentuated by the fact that Paz’s Mexican heritage also has roots in an Indian civilization that at first glance appears to be divorced from the western tradition brought by the Spaniards to Mexico.

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The saddu disturbs the poet Paz because, as one concerned with poetic states of consciousness, he has respect for the ancient tradition of the Indian seers. Nevertheless, his own background is deeply involved in what might be called the Western European intellectual practice. East meets West in this poem, and it is unsettling. West sees the putrefaction, the drug-induced stare. Perhaps the saddu did see Krishna, the blue-black god, but the gaze that Paz encounters is different from the power of the visionary eye in “Same Time.” Instead of conversation or the advice given to the young poet in “Same Time,” Paz hears the rumblings of the seer’s bowels. Meanwhile, East laughs at West. In Paz’s memory, the mountebank continually watches from the other shore.

During the time of East Slope, Paz fell under the influence of the controversial American composer John Cage, and his poem “Reading John Cage,” published in East Slope, contains the following quote in English: “(The situation must be Yes-and-No,/ not either-or).” What Cage taught Paz comes out in “Vrindaban.” There is no need to choose. Instead of the typical western cultivation of ambiguity, or the search for deeper meaning in paradox, the matter can be best understood in terms of both yes and no. It is this insight that underlies the following lines in which the list of nouns maintains strict neutrality with regard to value: “Saint scoundrel saint” and “Saint clown saint beggar king damned.”

Still Paz appears to make a choice. The tradition of the West hung too heavily upon him. That is the meaning of the lines “The absolute eternities/ their outlying districts/ are not my theme/ I am hungry for life and for death also.” Indian mysticism, as deeply as he admired it, is not for him. He loves the world of phenomena and does not desire to be “gone” across to another shore in which his consciousness is lost, even though he accepts the fact that some day through death, a corollary of life, his consciousness too will disappear.

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