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 major poetry which has been in no way diminished by his onerous, multifarious activities.
A note in Paz’s Alternating Current (published in Spanish in 1967) indicates the theme of Children of the Mire, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard in 1971-1972:
From the Romantic era onward, a work of art has had to be unique and inimitable. The history of art and literature has since assumed the form of a series of antagonistic movements: Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Symbolism. Tradition is no longer a continuity but a series of sharp breaks. The modern tradition is the tradition of revolt.
Children of the Mire adds very little to this formulation, but it spells it out with a great wealth of epigrams and rashly scattered bright ideas—like the suggestion of an “intimate relation,” a “spiritual link” between Protestantism and Romanticism. It is an interesting thought, although one might wonder, if the relation was all that intimate, why it took 300 years to declare itself. There are remarkable pages here on the German romantics and on Mallarmé, some useful guidelines to modernismo and its consequences in Latin America and Spain. There is a persuasive sketch of Symbolism in France as a late, reflexive form of what had been Romanticism in Germany, and there is a fine insight into analogy (as distinct from symbolism, or metaphor, or imagery, or imagism, or any other partial practice or faith) as the “true religion of modern poetry”—although Paz is not as clear as he might be that this religion is a relic, all that is left of a once magical, harmonious universe, the surviving superstition of unbelievers and half-believers.
Paz’s method is frankly anachronistic, he sees the past through the eyes of André Breton and Surrealism (and of Rimbaud and Freud). He is not writing literary history, he says, not a “detached dissertation,” but an “exploration of my origins.” The result is more like an exfoliation of his origins, a projection of them in all directions. The world is fed into a submerged, but obsessively recurring, fable, a sort of mirror version of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Jekyll becomes smiling repression, the formal, emasculating enemy, and Hyde becomes the lurking natural man, the buried health of humanity. Paz writes in Alternating Current of Breton’s “stubborn refusal to entertain the idea of sin” as a “point of honor” with him: “the notion struck him as being in effect a stain, a blot not on man’s life but on man’s dignity.” Breton’s disciple in this as in other things, Paz insists that there is no sin in nature or in man, only fear and estrangement. We are not ourselves, we have shut ourselves out, locked our true lives away for the sake of the cheap and strangling imitations of life we now lead.
The fable is attractive and powerful, although it remains a hypothesis and a program, the expression of a faith. And Paz’s adherence to this faith lures him into sad and simplistic abuses of it. Paz calls the new, sinless Hyde the other, and not content with giving us all a shadow life, he extends his largesse to culture itself. So that in Children of the Mire, we read of other times, other traditions, other coherences, other voices, other religions, of the other face of modernity, of the other side of a vocation, even of the other Spanish tradition, the other Romanticism and the other avant-garde—italics every time, to indicate that otherness is not merely difference, but the real, secret truth about all these occasions and instances. A brave belief has become an undisciplined bad habit: you take any manifestation of human life, give it its usual name, and then suggest that this hides a scorned, parallel version of the same thing, and this other version is the real one. The whole of history becomes a cabal, a conspiracy of silence.
Conjunctions and Disjunctions is an act of homage to Lévi-Strauss and Norman O. Brown, Paz’s try at playing their games with his own deck of cultural cards. It is an informal essay on the relations between the body and its opposites (soul, spirit, atman, te, psyche, and so on) in several cultures: Buddhist India, Taoist and Confucian China, Christian Europe, the modern world. Paz’s devotion to symmetrical antitheses exceeds even that of Lévi-Strauss and his working principle seems to be that any pair of opposites can be exchanged for any other pair, on the grounds that there are two of them as well. Thus the book begins with a brilliant and witty exploration of a metaphor (taken from Quevedo and Posada) which equates the face and the ass: the face is an ass, the ass is a face. But then ass and face soon become explosion and repression, the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which in turn are converted into the forces behind, respectively, the ruled and the rulers, jokes and pedantry, ignorance and education, vulgarity and good upbringing, wisdom and prudence, and the relative value systems of the poor and the rich.
Enough? Well, as a matter of fact, all this is “only a variation of the old dichotomy between nature and culture.” This is meant to be dazzling but just makes you dizzy, and it is cruelly reductive, a violent crushing of differences into uniformity. Paz is the editor of a magazine called Plural, and the apostle of a political pluralism for Mexico. He is theoretically committed to a view of the multiplicity of the world, but he can’t resist the swinging simplicity of a fine phrase. “Difference, separation, otherness, plurality, novelty, evolution, revolution, history,” Paz writes in Children of the Mire “—all these words can be condensed into one: future.” Or again: “The grotesque, the strange, the bizarre, the original, the singular, and the unique—all these names…are only different ways of saying the same word: death.” These sentences enact the defeat of the very plurality they evoke, and I find myself remembering a page in a Mexican comic book, a volume in a series on the lives of famous men: Flaubert is seen in his library in boxing gloves, doing battle with several flying dictionaries, shouting, “Synonyms do not exist!”
Still, there are good things in Conjunctions and Disjunctions, notably an elaborate (and genuinely dazzling) display of the inverse relations between Buddhism and Christianity—the religion that points to disincarnation exalts the body, while the religion that rests on the incarnation of its god denies and transfigures the flesh. As always in Paz, there are wonderful epigrams (“Man’s paradises are covered with gibbets”) and a humane, urgent lesson is to be found at the end of the intricate allusions and ratiocinations. We are approaching the end of linear time, Paz says here (and in Alternating Current, and in Children of the Mire), we have exhausted our idea of the future, we are left at last with only the present, the “perpetual present” of one of Paz’s poems: “A carnal time, a mortal time: the present is not unreachable, the present is not forbidden territory.” The present is the age of the body, even of pleasure (“we must not be afraid of the word pleasure: it is beautiful in every language”).
This enticing apocalypse is probably not as close around the corner as Paz thinks it is, but we can certainly wish for it, and a poet is entitled to present our wishes as accomplished events. Poetry is, among other things, an incarnation of desire. “Indeed,” Paz writes in The Bow and the Lyre, “poetry is desire.” Poetry causes us to glimpse what Paz calls, quoting Nietzsche, the “ncomparable vivacity of life.” Of life as it could be, we should add, of life as possibility.
The Bow and the Lyre is Paz’s poetic confession, and is written with an urgency and a care and a tact which none of his later prose works possesses. He asks himself why he writes and answers with a definition of writing itself—do we know what writing is, Mallarmé once asked, that ancient and very vague mystery? Paz’s aesthetic theories are not original, there is very little in them which is not already in Walter Pater. Poetry denies the world of utility, great poets transcend the limits of their language: “The poet does not try to say: he says.” But the book communicates a real sense of an arduous inquest taking place, of a man excavating his profoundest assumptions, putting his thoughts together for himself, wherever they come from and whoever may have thought some of them before. Paz’s rather meandering habits of mind here correspond to the authentic mystery of his subject: one can only prowl around it, circle its fringes, make occasional intuitive raids.
Certainly here as elsewhere Paz is tempted to simplify, but he resists the temptation remarkably well, and this book is full of fine distinctions: “For the Greek, life is not a dream, or a nightmare, or a shadow, but an exploit….” “Pound accumulates quotations with the heroic air of one who robs graves; Eliot orders them as if he were hauling in the relics of a shipwreck.” “Surrealism is not a poetry but a poetics and even more, and more decisively, a vision of the world.” Again, Surrealism is “not an idea but a direction of the human spirit.” Of Paz’s later prose works, only his essays on Duchamp and Lévi-Strauss, and the pages on Breton in Alternating Current, have this discreet and luminous intelligence, and we are back where we began. The decline of Paz’s prose is the price of being an intellectual in Latin America; of having to talk so much; above all of talking so much in a vacuum, in large, empty, unresponding rooms; of being listened to with servile respect or not being listened to at all.
—and this our life, when was it truly ours?
and when are we truly whatever we are?
for surely we are not, we never are
anything alone but spinning emp- tiness,
crazy faces made in the mirror
—Octavio Paz, “Sun Stone”
Love is the privileged subject of Paz’s poetry, the center of his poetic world. “If we are a metaphor of the universe,” he writes in his essay on Breton, “the human couple is the metaphor par excellence, the point of intersection of all forces and the seed of all forms. The couple is time recaptured, the return to the time before time….” Thus in “Sun Stone” (1957) the world is a woman and a woman is a world, and the poet walks these landscapes in wonder:
el mundo ya es visible por tu cuerpo,
es transparente por tu transparen- cia….
voy por tu cuerpo como por el mundo….
(now the world stands, visible through your body,
and is transparent through your transparency….
I go among your body as among the world….)
—Translation by Muriel Rukeyser, in Configurations, a bilingual
selection of Paz’s later verse, published in 1971
Again, in “Blanco” (1966: the title means target, aim, blank, white), we read of a
mujer tendida hecha a la imagen del mundo El mundo haz de tus imágenes
(spread-out woman made in the world’s image The world a bundle of your images)
—Translation by Charles Tomlinson and G. Aroul, also in
But then in both poems this clarified woman-world is dispersed or mislaid, lost in complication and self-consciousness, the wondrous landscape dwindles to a house of phantoms—
corredores sin fin de la memoria,
puertas abiertas a un salón vacío
donde se pudren todos los vera- nos….
(the limitless corridors of memory
the doors that open on empty living-rooms
where every springtime withers and rots away….)
—“Sun Stone,” translation by Muriel Rukeyser
—or is bleached into wispy nightmare:
Pierdo mi sombra,
Entre los bosques, impalpables,
Las esculturas rápidas del viento,
Avanzo, Mis pasos
En un espacio que se desvanece
En pensamientos que no pien- so….
(I lose my shadow,
Among impalpable woods,
Rapid sculptures of the wind,
Along the endless,
My steps Dissolve
In a space that vanishes
In thoughts I do not think….)
—“Blanco,” translation by Tomlinson and Aroul
The poet struggles to find his way back to his original perception, to his woman and his world, and the poems, “Sun Stone” and “Blanco,” are his struggles. “Against wind and tide,” Paz writes, again in the essay on Breton, “I have endeavored to be faithful to that revelation [Breton’s insistence on the authority and centrality of love]: the powers the word love has over me have remained intact.” The wind and the tide in most of Paz’s poems have the faces of doubt and weariness and solipsism. The poet is alone in the “circular desert of the world,” a prisoner, like de Sade in a poem addressed to him, in a castle of crystal, a palace of mirrors; a prisoner, as another poem has it, of his thoughts, weaving and unweaving the fabric of his introspection, shouting “Who goes there?”, dizzy from self-questioning.
Oddly enough, Paz, who believes in Surrealism, writes very much like Surrealism’s antithesis, Paul Valéry, the poet of intricate, debilitating lucidity. Paz puts his faith in love, but devotes his poems to the travails of consciousness. Paz’s diction and vocabulary, like Valéry’s, are decorous and formal, almost classical. Indeed, Paz’s whole work often looks like an extended meditation on Valéry’s “Cimetière marin,” an offering of the world to the glare of the noonday sun. Yet there is a curious composite effect here. Valéry’s Mediterranean landscapes, which are literally taken up by Paz in poems like “Hymn among the Ruins” (set in Naples) and “Ustica” (set in the Sicilian sea), become Mexican landscapes too, or at least make miraculously apt analogues for the dry, hot, sun-stricken spaces of the central Mexican plateau. Mexico and the Mediterranean meet in these poems, much as Spanish American and French traditions meet in Paz, and just as Valéry’s European bafflement, the predicament of a glittering mind at the end of its tether, joins hands with Paz’s Latin American loneliness, his sense of the unreality of everything around him, so that only the mind is left, the mirror that devours mirrors.
Even Paz’s early poems reveal a poet of formidable talent, of easy and commanding presence:
Ni el sueño y su pueblo de imágenes rotas,
ni el delirio y su espuma profética,
ni el amor con sus dientes y uñas, nos bastan….
(Not dream, peopled with broken images,
nor delirium and its prophetic foam,
no, nor love with its teeth and claws, are enough….)
—Translation by Muriel Rukeyser
They range from fragile verses suspended somewhere between Surrealism and the Pre-Raphaelites (“Bones, untouched violins / delicate and dark vertebrae, / lips which dream lips, / hands which dream birds”) to a dense and powerful sonnet in the manner of Quevedo, beginning, “A fugitive from my own being, which decimates / My old assurance of myself….” Yet range, and talent, and presence are not a voice, and Paz has a poetic voice too. It speaks eloquently, it seems to me, in the lines I have quoted from “Sun Stone” and “Blanco”; and naturally enough it speaks more often, on the whole, in the later verse. But it speaks unmistakably in Early Poems too, a much revised reissue of Muriel Rukeyser’s bilingual Selected Poems of Paz (1963)—except that it speaks here not as a presiding, or defining quality, as it does in Configurations, but as an irruption, as the miracle of those moments when a good poet writes a great poem, as in “Native Stone,” where we see it happening; or rather having read as far as this poem, we see that it has happened:
La luz devasta las alturas
Manadas de imperios en derrota
El ojo retrocede cercado de re- flejos
Países vastos como el insomnio
Pedregales de hueso
Otoño sin confines
Alza la sed sus invisibles surtidores
Un último pirú predica en el desierto
Cierra los ojos y oye cantar la luz:
El mediodía anida en tu tímpano
Cierra los ojos y ábrelos:
No hay nadie ni siquiera tú mismo
Lo que no es piedra es luz
(Light is laying waste the heavens
Droves of dominions in stampede
The eye retreats surrounded by mirrors
Landscapes enormous as insomnia
Stony ground of bone
Thirst lifts its invisible fountains
One last peppertree preaches in the desert
Close your eyes and hear the song of the light:
Noon takes shelter in your inner ear
Close your eyes and open them:
There is nobody not even yourself
Whatever is not stone is light)
—Translation by Muriel Rukeyser
The poem is worthy of Mallarmé or Pessoa. Its subject, of course, is the harsh sunlight and inhospitable rocks of Mexico, but it is also a state of mind, the lure of an absolute clarity: that state of mind whose objective correlative is a landscape that will not sustain or even tolerate the presence of human life. The landscape is recognizably the same in the other great poem in this volume, “The Broken Waterjar,” but its meanings are different. It is now human poverty and abandonment rather than inhuman beauty, it is the dry, dusty despair of a Mexican valley of bones (“listen to the teeth colliding, / listen to the bones crushing bones”), a wasteland neglected not by God but by history and hope. Fittingly, Early Poems closes with this powerful, haunting piece which comes just before “Sun Stone” in the Spanish text it is taken from. We leave Paz on the edge of his greatest work, awaiting, as he says in a later poem, his own arrival:
Dime, sequía, piedra pulida por el tiempo sin dientes, por el ham- bre sin dientes,
polvo molido por dientes que son siglos, por siglos que son hom- bres,
dime, cántaro roto caído en el polvo, dime,
¿la luz nace frotando hueso contra hueso, hombre contra hombre, hambre contra hambre,
hasta que surja al fin la chispa, el grito, la palabra,
hasta que brote al fin el agua y crezca el árbol de anchas hojas de turquesa?
(Tell me, drouth, stone polished smooth by toothless time, by toothless hunger,
dust ground to dust by teeth that are centuries, by centuries that are hunger,
tell me, broken waterjar in the dust, tell me,
is the light born to rub bone against bone, man against man, hunger against hunger,
till the spark, the cry, the word spurts forth at last,
till the water flows and the tree with wide turquoise leaves arises at last?)
—Translation by Lysander Kemp
May 16, 1974