Octavio Paz is the author of many shorter and book-length essays of literary and multifaceted cultural analysis; these studies are often centered on Mexico, but are not limited to that country. For many years now the first publication in Spanish of his essays, whether collections of shorter pieces or books, has been quickly followed by translation into the principal European languages. Paz’s most important current editorial position is as founder in 1976 of the monthly magazine Vuelta (Return), titled to mark his return to Mexico from voluntary exile following the 1968 government massacre of protesting students in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City. In Vuelta, as contributor and editor, Paz publishes literary, artistic, political and historical essays by leading writers and intellectuals from all over the world.
The central theme of Paz’s essays and, indeed, of much of his writing, is a dialectic between the fact of the individual’s solitude and its need for suprapersonal reality. Paz views the individual as alone by virtue of the totally solitary manner of birth and death; all else is the Other. He seems to have come to this basic notion in the process of writing his first and perhaps most famous essay, El laberinto de la soledad (1950; The Labyrinth of Solitude). There he states: “The Mexican and his Mexicanism must be defined as separation and negation.” This notion, with time, is not limited to the Mexican context; rather it becomes in Paz’s view a hallmark of human life. Paz then points to how the Mexican reacts to his solitude: his life can also be defined “as a search, a desire to transcend this state of exile.” As Paz’s thought evolves, this search becomes another hallmark of human beings as they try to communicate, to form community, to make society and life a communion through understanding and love.
Given Paz’s self-image as being primarily a poet, and only secondarily an intellectual who writes essays and scholarly studies, it may not be surprising that he sees poetry as one of the ways in which humankind may best transcend its solitude. In “La otra orilla” (“The Other Shore”), an essay contained in his 1956 book El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre), Paz suggests succinctly how poetry may create such experience:
“Poetic rhythm does not fail to offer analogies to mythical time; the image, to mystical utterance; participation, to magical alchemy and religious communion. Everything leads us to insert the poetic act into the realm of the sacred.” He believes that poetry and religion “spring from the same source and that it is not possible to dissociate the poem from its pretension to change man without the risk of turning the poem into an inoffensive form of literature.” Paz notes that the public festivals which are so much a part of Hispanic life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and which have their roots in popular, pre-Christian religions, are also a striving to overcome solitude and engage in communion.
As a theorist of cultural identity and difference, for example in both The Labyrinth of Solitude and the later Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; o, Las trampas de la fe (1982.; Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith), Paz may be at his best when he compares and contrasts Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon culture in the Old and New Worlds. In addition to his explanation of the more positive role of public festivals in Hispanic culture than in Anglo-Saxon, Paz’s analysis of the reasons for the traditional—not necessarily contemporary—Hispanic rejection of the scientific method based on criticism and reason is especially compelling. Most interesting is the way he links this issue to the different cultures’ positions in the Reformation and Counter Reformation.
At the same time, Paz is keenly aware that an increasingly dominant theme in the Hispanic world is the acceptance of the cultural models of post-industrial societies. In Postdata (1970; The Other Mexico) and the 1975 interview “Vuelta a El laberinto de la soledad” (Return to The Labyrinth of Solitude), Paz reacts to such sociohistorical change in Mexico. Subsequently he discusses the conflicts created, for instance in the Miskito Indian homelands of Nicaragua or in the Mexican state of Chiapas, when pressure builds on underdeveloped Hispanic and third-world countries to reach the levels of material prosperity and political maturity which developed countries have achieved as part of their organic evolution.
While Paz takes very seriously the specific themes, issues, and problems treated in his essays, it may be argued that there is something more important to him than the content of any of his essays: the commitment to disinterested observation and thought guided by critical reason. For Paz human life and history are totally dynamic. He habituaily approaches his subject by means of a historical study, and identifies the ongoing synthesis of new and old which is the history of the entity being considered. The fact of change and the need to understand its direction and consequences make the method of critical thought more important than any specific subject to be studied.
Born 31 March 1914 in Mexico City. Studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, 1931–37. Stayed in Spain during Civil War, 1937 (on Republican side). Founder or editor of the literary journals Barandal (The railing), 1931, El Popular, late 19305, Taller (Studio), 1938–41, El Hijo Pródigo (The prodigal son), 1943–46, and Plural, 1971–75, later Vuelta, from 1976. Married Elena Garro, 1937 (later divorced): one daughter. Won Guggenheim Award to study and travel in the United States. Worked for the Mexican Embassy, Paris, 1946 and 1959–61, and Tokyo, 1951 and 1953–58; Mexican ambassador to India, 1961–68 (resigned). Married Marie José Tramini, 1964.
Taught at various American and British universities, 1968–71. Awards: many, including the Jerusalem Prize, 1977; Critics’ Prize (Spain), 1977; National Prize for Letters, 1977; Grand Aigle d’Or (Nice), 1979; Yoliztli Prize, 1980; Cervantes Prize, 1981; Heinse Medal (Germany), 1984; Gran Cruz de Alfonso X el Sabio, 1986; Ingersoll Foundation T.S.Eliot Award, 1987; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
El laberinto de la soledad, 1950; revised edition, 1959; edited by Enrico Mario Santí, 1993; as The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, translated by Lysander Kemp, 1961, enlarged edition, 1985
El arco y la lira: El poema, la revelación poética, poesía e historia, 1956; revised edition, 1967; as The Bow and the Lyre: The Poem, the Poetic Revelation, Poetry and History, translated by Ruth L.C.Simms, 1973
Las peras del olmo, 1957
Los signos en rotación, 1965
Puertas al campo, 1966
Claude Lévi-Strauss; o, El nuevo festín de Esopo, 1967; as Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction, translated by J.S.and Maxine Bernstein, 1970
Corriente alterna, 1967; as Alternating Current, translated by Helen Lane, 1973
Marcel Duchamp; o, El castillo de la pureza, 1968; as Marcel Duchamp; or, The Castle of Purity, translated by Donald Gardner, 1970
México: La última década, 1969
Conjunciones y disyunciones, 1969; as Conjunctions and Disjunctions, translated by Helen Lane, 1974
Postdata, 1970; as The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid, translated by Lysander Kemp, 1972,
Traducción: Literatura y literalidad, 1971
Las cosas en su sitio: Sobre la literatura española del siglo XX, with Juan Marichal, 1971
Los signos en rotación y otros ensayos, edited by Carlos Fuentes, 1971
El signo y el garabato, 1973
Apariencia desnuda: La obra de Marcel Duchamp, 1973; as Marcel
Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, translated by Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardner, 1978
La búsqueda del comienzo: Escritos sobre el surrealismo, 1974
Los hijos del limo: Del romanticismo a la vanguardia, 1974; as Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, translated by Rachel Phillips, 1974, revised, enlarged edition, 1991
Teatro de signos/Transparencias, edited by Julián Ríos, 1974
The Siren and the Seashells and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry, translated by Lysander Kemp and Margaret Sayers Peden, 1976
Xavier Villaurrutia en persona y en obra, 1978
México en la obra de Octavio Paz, edited by Luis Mario Schneider, 1979; enlarged edition, 4 vols., 1987
El ogro filantrópico: Historia y política, 1971–1978, 1979; as The Philanthropic Ogre, translated by Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, and Rachel Phillips, 1985
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; o, Las trampas de la fe, 1982.; as Sor Juana: Her Life and World, and as Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1988
Sombras de obras: Arte y literatura, 1983
Tiempo nublado, 1983; as One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on
Contemporary History, translated by Helen Lane, 1985
Hombres en su siglo y otros ensayos, 1984; as On Poets and Others, translated by Michael Schmidt, 1986
Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature, translated by Helen Lane, 1987
Primeras letras (1931–1943), edited by Enrico Mario Santí, 1988
La otra voz, 1990; as The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, translated by Helen Lane, 1991
Essays on Mexican Art, translated by Helen Lane, 1993
The Double Flame: Essays on Love and Eroticism, translated by Helen Lane, 1996
Other writings: many collections of poetry, a play, and works on literature and culture.
Foster, David William, in Mexican Literature: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1992, Valencia, Juan O., and Edward Coughlin, Bibliografía selecta y crítica de Octavio Paz,
Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 1973
Verani, Hugo J., Octavio Paz: Bibliografía critica, Mexico City: National Autonomous University of Mexico, 1983
Antípodas issue on Camilo José Cela, Gabriel García Márquez, and Paz, 4 (December 1991):171–250
Gullón, Ricardo, “The Universalism of Octavio Paz,” Books Abroad (October 1972)
Jiménez Cataño, Rafael, Octavio Paz: Poética del hombre, Pamplona: EUNSA, 1992
Montoya Ramírez, Enríque, coordinator, Octavio Paz (week’s conference on Paz in Madrid, 9–12 May 1988, at the Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana), Madrid:
Cultura Hispánica, 1989
Ruy Sánchez, Alberto, Una introducción a Octavio Paz, Mexico City: Planeta, 1990
Wilson, Jason, Octavio Paz: A Study of His Poetics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979
Wilson, Jason, Octavio Paz, Boston: Twayne, 1986
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