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In Memory of Octavio Paz (1914–1998)

In 1968, Octavio Paz founded a culture of intellectual dissidence in Mexico. The Mexican political system had no concentration camps. It proposed no ideology of a Supreme State. But it did exercise an almost absolute power based on precedents drawn from Spanish and pre-Hispanic culture. It was a government opposed to free discussion and criticism. Intellectuals had traditionally been integrated into the structure of the state. Their function was to collaborate in the “building of the nation,” as educators, advisers, ideologues, ambassadors. When there were exceptions—intellectuals who tried to form opposition parties or offer independent criticism—the machinery of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional would crush their efforts.

On October 2, 1968, the government of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz massacred hundreds of students in the ancient Plaza of Tlatelolco. Their crime had been to raise the flag of political liberty. On the following day, Octavio Paz resigned as Mexican ambassador to India. It was his finest hour, an unheard-of gesture in Mexico. And it would not only change his life but the intellectual life of Mexico and, to a great degree, of Latin America.

Shortly afterward, Paz would begin to publish his first bitter criticisms of the PRI: “In Mexico there is no greater dictatorship than that of the PRI and no greater danger of anarchy than that provoked by the unnatural prolongation of the PRI’s political monopoly.” Since 1943, Paz had lived largely abroad, as a Mexican diplomat, primarily in France and later in India. It was natural that now, on his return, the youth of Mexico—with their feelings of intense and recent grievance—should expect him to become a leader of revolutionary opposition to the petrified regime of the PRI. But Paz opted for a different gesture of dissidence, not only with respect to the PRI but toward the dominant political culture of the left. He ruptured the ideological unity in the intellectual life of the country and founded the magazine Plural (1972-1976), which, following the much earlier tradition of Partisan Review, criticized—from a democratic and liberal standpoint—not only the military dictatorships of South America but also Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba and various guerrilla movements that had begun to proliferate throughout most of Latin America.

In 1976, the government engineered an internal coup against the newspaper Excelsior, which published Plural. The magazine closed, but Paz almost immediately founded Vuelta, an independent monthly magazine of literature and criticism. It would be distributed throughout the Spanish-speaking world, initiating an intellectual debate that sometimes seemed to verge on civil war. It was then that I first met him. And for the next twenty years, along with a small group of kindred writers, I was privileged to work with him in carrying on that debate.

Vuelta was his fortress but also his literary workshop. From his library, in his apartment on the historic avenue of the Paseo de la Reforma where he lived for almost all those twenty years, he spoke with me daily by telephone. He would propose or discuss articles, reviews, translations, stories, poems. Alfonso Reyes, the prolific man of letters who had preceded Octavio Paz as the presiding eminence of Mexican literature, had once complained that “Latin America is a late arrival at the feast of world culture.” Since his early youth, Paz had decided to join that feast, and Vuelta would set out places for the earliest companions of his intellectual life: Ortega y Gasset, Sartre, Camus, Breton, Neruda, Buñuel. Right up until his death, on April 19, at age 84, he saw himself as an ally and interpreter of the Surrealists, and he was, in fact, the most distinguished survivor of that movement. But Vuelta would also create a banquet of its own, with the presence of Borges, Kundera, Brodsky, Milosz, Kolakowski, the Americans Irving Howe and Daniel Bell, and hundreds of others.

Paz gave no classes nor did he ever pontificate. Conversation with him was a constant exploration. Although he did have the “irritable nature” that Horace ascribes to poets and was invariably serious about all issues, he could also show an almost childlike enthusiasm in the breadth and degree of his intellectual curiosity. Large themes fascinated him and he wrote about them at length: reflections on poetic creation and language; his vision of the course of Western poetry from the enthusiasms of Romanticism to the ironic vision of the modern avant-garde, in which he compared not only works in different languages but placed them against the background of other, non-Western poetics; his thoughts on modern culture, politics, and society, always emphasizing the need for a careful, critical outlook on the world. And he was excited by new scientific discoveries or intellectual inquiries: the latest theory on the Big Bang, debates about the nature of the mind or the decipherment of the Mayan script. As he wrote in these pages:

The immense and prolonged historical solitude of Mesoamerica is the reason for its grandeur and its weakness. Grand because it was one of the few truly original civilizations in history: it owed nothing to the others. Weak because its isolation made it vulnerable to that essential experience, the same in social life as in biology: the encounter with the Other.

Then unexpectedly—and the idea of “unexpectedly” signaled by a sudden change of gesture or of manner marks my memories of him—his conversation would swerve toward unpredictable subjects: French erotic literature of the eighteenth century, the political maxims of an ancient Chinese scholar, medieval theories on love or melancholy…

I remember that I once felt tempted to become his Boswell and take notes on everything he said and did. Fortunately I resisted the temptation, and our friendship flowed more easily for it. He was a man who lived in a constant state of exaltation. He looked like a lion with a full mane and that was how he behaved. Other great Latin American writers built up, as he did, their personal body of work, but either they inhabited Olympus, like Borges, practiced a cult of personality like a political caudillo (García Márquez), or thought of Marxist or populist “revolution” as the only possible road for Latin America (as did practically all the writers of the Latin American Renaissance except Ernesto Sábato, the later Vargas Llosa, and Heberto Padilla). None of them founded or directed a literary and political magazine. Paz continually did so, almost without interruption, since the 1930s.

Paz converted Mexico into a sacred text that cried out to be deciphered, to be revealed. He was a miner and an alchemist of Mexican identity. Through his explorations, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, among the images and rites of his culture, its desires and popular myths; through the poetic freedom of the prose poems of Eagle or Sun (the direct predecessor of Latin American Magic Realism); through his books on the writers and artists of Mexico and especially his brilliant meditation on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; in his essays of historical interpretation or political criticism; and through a number of long poems (“Pasado en claro,” “Nocturno de San Ildefonso,” “Vuelta”), Paz attempted, in his own words, “to tear the veil and see”:

I felt myself alone and I felt that Mexico was a lonely country, isolated, far from the central flow of history…. Thinking about the strangeness of being Mexican, I discovered an old truth: everyone carries a stranger hidden within himself…. I wanted to dive within myself, to dig up this stranger, to speak with him.

For Paz, a poet of love, “woman is the gate of reconciliation with the world.” His mother, his aunt (the first to encourage him as a writer), the women he loved as a young man, and especially Marie José, his wife since 1964, with whom he found a very special happiness—they lessened his sense of emptiness, his feelings of need; they were the inspiration of his passion for poetry, and they saved him from the labyrinth.

Your gaze scatters seed.
It planted a tree.
I speak
because you stir the leaves.

His father, on the other hand, was not a gate for him but a mute wall. There perhaps, I remember thinking, lay the key to unearthing the stranger, a way for me to understand the fighter that Octavio Paz was: within the Mexico of the Revolution that forever changed the life of his family, in the old house on the outskirts of Mexico City where his grandfather, Ireneo Paz, and his father, Octavio Paz Solorzano, argued about the future of a country dramatically linked to the course of their own lives. And in that house, the poet as a child was the silent witness to their differences.

His grandfather had been a nineteenth-century liberal rebel, a participant in numerous uprisings, a soldier in the war against the French intervention that tried to create, out of the raw material of the European nobles Maximilian and Carlota, an emperor and empress of Mexico. Later Ireneo Paz became a novelist and was for many years the editor of a famous newspaper, La Patria. And he wrote about power and about freedom. He had satirized Benito Juárez in poetry and been a companion of Porfirio Díaz, but at the age of seventy-five he turned against the old dictator, welcomed the democratic revolution led by Madero in 1910, endured imprisonment, and would finally retire to die in his bed, a very old man, in 1924, close by his huge library of history and literature, and surrounded by images of Danton, Mirabeau, Victor Hugo, and Lamartine. Uneasy with the “anarchy of the chieftains and petty chieftains,” he saw them as threats to his Mexico. In the watching eyes of his ten-year-old grandson, he was a wise and powerful patriarch.

Ireneo Paz’s son, Octavio Paz Solorzano, was a different being, a sort of “mutineer,” the kind of man to whom phrases later written by his son could well be applied, “the macho, the caudillo, the terrifying man, the ‘hell-of-a-guy,’ the man who left his wife and children” under the spell of the Revolution, “the magic word, that will change everything and grant us intense pleasure and a quick death.” In 1914, the year his only son was born, Octavio Paz Solorzano joined the peasant army of Emiliano Zapata. He would rise to be Zapata’s personal emissary in the United States. And his obsessions would be equality and social justice, his life a string of misfortunes: defeat, frustration, alcoholism, exile in San Antonio and Los Angeles, and a passionate revolutionary vocation that would eventually, in 1936, end with a premature and violent death:

Between vomiting and thirst,
lashed to the colt of alcohol,
my father passed back and forth in flames.
Among the sleeping cars and the rails
of a fly-blown, dusty railroad station,
one evening, we picked up the pieces of him.

It was natural enough that the young man, the poet Octavio Paz, should identify with both his grandfather and his father, and yearn to be “a revolutionary, a hero, dying by the bullet, a liberator.” On his own, he had to seek out not only the innocent liberal rebellion of his grandfather, who merely wanted a democratic political life for Mexico, and not only the rousing Zapatista cry of Revolution by his father, who sought to recover a lost unity between humanity and the earth. He had to do more, he had to serve the Revolution, “the great Goddess, the eternal Beloved, the great Whore of poets and novelists.”

Paz remained obsessed by the idea of the Revolution, but he discovered and reworked it in only one part of experience, the incessant subversion and free experimentation of his poetry. He came to feel that Surrealism, with its emphasis on releasing emotions through access to the unconscious (and its interest in non-European cultures), was an ideal poetic and intellectual medium for confronting the multilayered reality of Mexico. With less luck but with nobility and enthusiasm, he sought the Revolution also in action: he worked as a country schoolmaster in the henequen country of Yucatan, with its tragic social history of racial conflict and economic slavery; he wrote for revolutionary Mexican newspapers; he went to Spain during the Civil War because he saw—on the side of the Republic—the unforgettable visage of hope, of possible fraternity, the “creative spontaneity and direct and daily participation of the people.” But perhaps, above all, he went looking for the Revolution in the world of thought, among the great “possessed” writers of Russia, in the canonic texts of Marxism, the heretical texts of Trotsky, and, later, the polemics of Camus and Sartre.

Like many other European and Latin American intellectuals, Paz fell in love with the Revolution, but his disenchantment, though gradual, would be irreversible. It began with the Hitler-Stalin pact, and continued to grow. During the Sixties, he still saw hope in some revolutionary movements but rapidly became skeptical about Cuba. With the definitive revelations by Solzhenitsyn of the Soviet Gulag, his love affair with the Revolution ended for good: “Now we know that the splendor, which seemed to us the coming of dawn, was a blood-soaked, burning pyre.”

In a sense, it can be said that this too was the source of his combativeness—his awareness that the Revolution had turned against itself. During the full cultural hegemony of the Latin American left, intolerant of the slightest criticism directed toward Cuba or the slightest doubt about the “globally positive” balance of “genuine socialism” in Eastern Europe, Paz declared his dissenting opinion. And, in Mexico, the scholastic and inquisitorial instincts of its Catholic culture reappeared in a new form to combat his “heterodoxy.” He was accused of being a reactionary, insulted in the halls of the universities, in newspapers and academic reviews. In 1984, his effigy was burned before the American embassy. (A cruel paradox, since no one in Latin America had looked more closely at the United States and criticized the provincial, puritanical, and materialistic aspects of its culture and the shortsightedness of American diplomacy.)

We Mexicans must reconcile ourselves with our past,” Paz insisted. In The Labyrinth ofx Solitude, he had reconciled himself with his father and with the Zapatista revolt, seeing in that Revolution “a communion of Mexico with itself,” with its Indian and Spanish roots. But during the last decades of his life, another character sat down at his table—his grandfather, Ireneo Paz. Confronted with the corrupt, inefficient, paternalistic, and authoritarian Mexican state, it seemed right to recover liberal and democratic values. From the time he resigned his ambassadorship in 1968, Paz no longer had faith in the Revolution but he still wore the badge of individual rebellion his grandfather had worn. In 1985, he published “The PRI, Its Final Hour,” and in 1986 denounced the PRI’s electoral fraud in the state of Chihuahua, which would initiate a long and as yet incomplete Mexican transition toward democracy.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and—no less a miracle—Latin America began to move toward democracy, Paz felt that history had justified his convictions. In 1990, Vuelta organized a conference called “The Experience of Freedom” during which, without any trace of triumphalism, an international group of intellectuals analyzed the glow and the shadows of that watershed of history. During the same year Paz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. After that, in the Spanish-speaking world, he held a place that had only been matched earlier by Ortega y Gasset. Paz had emerged from the labyrinth and had—to a considerable degree—brought Mexico out of its tangential position and into the full light of Western culture.

Toward the end, even his face began to look more and more like that of his grandfather. He said he wanted a quick and serene death, like Don Ireneo, but that final blessing was not granted to him. He had been born during the historic conflagration of 1914, and the final stage of his life would be marked by a tragic fire, which, in 1996, destroyed much of his apartment and library. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed as having spinal cancer. And toward the end, just like his grandfather, he became concerned about the shadow of anarchy that seemed to be spreading over Mexico.

During a public ceremony of farewell, he turned once again to the image of Don Ireneo, the protective, wise patriarch. He repeated his favorite metaphor of Mexico as “a country of the sun” but then immediately reminded the audience about the darkness of our history, our “luminous and cruel” duality that already reigned within the cosmogony of the Aztec gods and had been an obsession for him since childhood. He wished that some Socrates might appear who could free his people of the darker side, of all the destructive passions. Unusual for him, he was actually preaching “like my grandfather,” he said, “who loved to preach after a meal.” And suddenly he looked up toward the cloudy sky, as if he wanted to touch it with his hand. “Up there,” he said, “there are clouds and sun. Clouds and sun are related words. Let us be worthy of the clouds of the Valley of Mexico. Let us be worthy of the sun of the Valley of Mexico.” For an instant the sky cleared, leaving only the sun, and then Octavio Paz said, “The Valley of Mexico, that phrase lit up my childhood, my maturity, and my old age.”

During the following weeks, both his father and grandfather dropped out of his consciousness. He was left with only the memory of his mother and the presence of his wife. And one day, unexpectedly, she heard him whisper to her, “You are my Valley of Mexico.”

Translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz

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