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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.