There is simply no parallel in the United States to the influence the poet Octavio Paz enjoyed in Mexico. I lived in Mexico City from the fall of 1989 through the following spring. Those were heady days for Paz. For years, he had challenged the uncritical left-wing rhetoric that dominated Mexico’s intellectual life, and now Eastern Europe’s abandonment of communism was proving him correct. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was renegotiating the national debt, getting foreigners to invest again, and in general becoming an international darling (this was four years before he would be unmasked as a criminal and thrown out of the country). Paz was one of his biggest fans.
I remember a TV commercial that seemed to appear every three seconds. (At this point there was still for all practical purposes one network, owned by Emilio Azcárraga, a Mexican Rupert Murdoch with whom Paz was rumored to be friendly.) The commercial advertised an exhibit at the contemporary art museum. The show was of, basically, things Octavio Paz found interesting. I looked in the day before I left Mexico and was fascinated and appalled. The first thing you saw was a gallery of pre-Colombian artifacts that had sparked his imagination. There followed a room hung exclusively with colonial-era portraits of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th century poet whose life Paz told in a superb 1982 biography. And so it went, with room after room displaying whatever caught Paz’s fancy. A nook devoted to playful gewgaws by Marcel Duchamp, whom Paz adored. A painting given to Paz by Jasper Johns. But the most amazing feature of the exhibit was in the lobby: Dozens of TV monitors were stacked to create a giant image of the great man’s head as he discoursed on this and that. The whole thing looked like a homage to some ancient emperor. It was a creepy, discouraging display.
An ironic one, too, given Paz’s record as a critic of Mexico’s addiction to patriarchal power. All his life, he had seen the temptations up close, and many times he had resisted. His grandfather, a publisher, was allied with the turn of the century dictator whose highhanded rule provoked the Mexican revolution. Late in life he switched sides and took up the doomed cause of liberal democracy. Paz’s father worked in turn with the anarchist peasant guerrilla leader Emiliano Zapata, who wanted Mexico to return to its pre-Hispanic, agricultural roots. When that cause, too, failed and, after a decade of blood-spilling, the country ended up with a Byzantine coalition of interests presided over by a strongman, the Paz family went into exile in Los Angeles. So before he was even a teen-ager, Paz had experience in liberalism, anarchism, revolution–not to mention the loneliness of the Mexican kid in inhospitable America.
Enthralled by Marx and socialism (even in later years, when foes called him conservative, Paz would insist he was a socialist at heart), the young Paz went to fight Franco in Spain. But it was the idea of instantaneous action by the people that he loved, not the Spanish Communists, with their rigid principles and ugly totalitarian tendencies. He went to Paris and hung out with Surrealists, deepening his sense that a writer’s job is to reveal what society tries to repress. Like many well-connected, artistically inclined Mexicans, he got into cushy work that supplied living expenses and food for the imagination: diplomacy.
It was while working as a diplomat in Paris that he wrote the book he’ll be remembered by. In The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, Paz drew on his reading of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche to explore the Mexican cult of death, the phenomenon of the macho, and explosive rituals such as the fiesta. His conclusion: Mexican customs were a kind of mask, a defensive camouflage worn to hide the country’s unresolved past. “The whole history of Mexico, from the Conquest to the Revolution, can be regarded as a search for our own selves, which have been deformed or disguised by alien institutions,” he wrote. The Revolutionary Institutional Party that took power after the revolution had promised Mexico a new beginning. But instead of providing Mexicans with an idea they could organize a modern community around, it was a touchy compromise that preserved backward attitudes toward power leftover from the Aztecs and colonial Spain:
The patriarch protects, is good, powerful, wise. The macho is the terrible man, the chingon, the father who has left, who has abandoned a wife and children. The image of Mexican authority is inspired by these two extremes: Señor Presidente and Caudillo.
Much of The Labyrinth now feels dated. It’s infused with a mournful 1950s-era Existentialism, and Paz’s French influence pushes him into abstraction. In places, his indictment of certain aspects of the Mexican character is so harsh–he accuses his fellow countrymen of pathological passivity and a love of lying–that it verges on masochism. But the book single-handedly invented the way people think about modern Mexico, and it has a tough truthfulness that’s still palpable today. Never academic, it proceeds from a simple, urgent question: “What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are?” This is a poet’s or a philosopher’s approach to history that could fruitfully be applied to any country in the world. (Click here to see, for example, how he applies it, with not very flattering results, to the United States.)
Paz cemented his reputation for integrity in 1968, when the Mexican government murdered hundreds of students, and he resigned his post as ambassador to India in protest. But gradually, it has to be admitted, he came to suffer a mild case of the very power sickness he had diagnosed. He set up a magazine, Vuelta, to pursue intellectual inquiry free of the Mexican left’s more overblown rhetoric. The magazine was and is serious and fresh and distinguished. But Paz’s omnipresence was sometimes unhealthy. From high up on his throne, he conducted feuds with those–Carlos Fuentes was one–who disagreed with him. For decades, too much of what was published in Mexico was written either in argument with him or to court his favor.
That said, Paz could not have remained on top if he had not remained relevant. Some shrewd inner compass and an unholy supply of curiosity saved him from becoming a relic of the past or an embattled opponent of the present. I won’t argue for his poetry, which, while frequently beautiful, is never quite as beautiful to me as his prose. That is gentle and clear, yet so packed with suggestive ideas that it is almost painful to read. While other writers struggled with Paz’s definition of the Mexican condition, he wrote about Chinese calligraphy, Japanese haiku, the Marquis de Sade (“an enemy of love,” yet paradoxically, a generous man), or obstacles to democracy in India (he always thought there were useful parallels between Mexico’s and India’s struggles to set up a legitimate government). In his life Paz made himself invulnerable, but in his writing he kept his eyes, ears, and heart open. “A writer should be a guerrilla fighter, should bear solitude and know that he is a marginal being,” he once told an interviewer. He never gave up this ideal of marginality, even as he climbed to the top of the pyramid. He was a singular case, both admirable and disturbing: the perennial guerrilla fighter who also became king.