Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde
Conjunctions and Disjunctions
The Bow and the Lyre
Early Poems 1935-1955
This is the mirror that devours mirrors
—Octavio Paz, “Masks of Dawn”
Playful and pompous by turns, cosmopolitan, provincial, lucid, hazy, brave, evasive, Octavio Paz is the Platonic idea of a Latin American intellectual; and not the least of his achievements is to fill with charm and distinction and irony that difficult and wearying role. For the intellectual in Latin America is critic, clown, priest, radical agitator, and Victorian school-master all at once—a man for far too many seasons. He must evaluate the past, scoff at the present, bless new movements in literature and art, discreetly encourage the right kind of revolution, and compose ritual letters of recommendation for his country and countrymen. Among other things. What is surprising about Paz is not that he should have written a certain amount of nonsense in recent years but that he should have done nothing worse than write nonsense; and better still, that he should have written a great deal of poetry that is far from being nonsense.
Certainly a man of tact and integrity, and above all a man who resigned his diplomatic post because of the events of 1968 in Mexico, should not find himself suggesting, as Paz has suggested on more than one occasion, that the massacre of 300 people (at a sober estimate) at Tlatelolco in 1968 was a reversion to an old Aztec rite of sacrifice. Perhaps it was (how would we ever know?), but it was mainly a shameful moment of contemporary history, and the analogy is frivolous, tasteless, and fussy. A man of decency and generosity should not find himself writing, as Paz writes in Conjunctions and Disjunctions (published in Spanish in 1969), that “in the West, homosexuals tend to be vindictive and their rites are something like meetings of conspirators and plotters.” In both these cases, as in many others, Paz prefers a fancy, simplifying metaphor to a complex, painful, or shifting reality.
But then 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 …