Mexican poet and essayist
One of the collections of Paz’s poetry in English is entitled Configurations. This word perhaps more than any other indicates the central unifying theme both of his life and of his work: configurations between places—between Mexico and India by way of Europe, in particular— and between people and ideas. And these configurations are founded in eroticism. Paz, perhaps in a more intense way than any poet or thinker since Novalis, experienced the universe as a whole held together and energized by sensual experience. We can see this most clearly in the poem that is probably his finest and indeed may be considered one of the greatest sustained pieces of lyrical writing of our time. This poem, “Piedra de sol” [Sun Stone], based on the Aztec calendar, has a cyclical structure with no beginning or end. Endless transformation through openness to the world of experience is its theme, in which love is the transformative force par excellence, transgressive of the restrictions of social life but in accord with universal flow:
… and the world is changed if two people shaken by dizziness and enlaced are fallen among the grass: the sky descending, the trees pointing and climbing upward, and space alone among all things is light and silence, and pure space opens to the eagle of the eye and it sees past the white tribe of the clouds, the body’s cables snap, the soul sails out, now is the moment we lose our names, and float along the border-line between blue and green, the integrated time when nothing happens but the event, belonging, communicating …
This theme of the tension between (1) the unbound quality inherent in eroticism and the loved relation and (2) the social need to control both is central to the whole of Paz’s work, explored in multifarious ways. Paz’s poetic journey took him a long way into the passional ties by which we are bound to other people and to the world; this was a journey of the senses, in which the erotic becomes a kind of moral touchstone for the relation between the person, as a limited entity, and the vastness of the universe. Paz was a poet who took seriously Rimbaud’s demand for a poet to “possess truth in one body and soul.”
But if Paz is a poet of erotic transformation, he is equally an essayist, the vitality of whose writings is maintained by configurations of place and time. As a Mexican who has lived in Europe and India, he had a cosmopolitan spirit that nevertheless remains rooted in a Mexican sensibility, which he extensively explored in two books, The Labyrinth of Solitude (first published in 1950) and The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid (1969). The first of these books has been highly influential, and in its final chapter, “The Dialectic of Solitude,” Paz first explored the theme of love in relation to identity, something that runs through all of his work.
Paz visited India in 1951; he returned in 1962 as Mexican ambassador, a post he retained until 1968, when he resigned in protest over the massacre of students by Mexican government troops. Meditations of aspects of Indian culture as Paz experienced it provide a central thread in his work, explored in The Monkey Grammarian (1974), an account of a journey to the ruined city of Galta, and the more recent Vislumbres de la India [In the Light of India].
In The Monkey Grammarian (in some ways a companion volume to The Labyrinth of Solitude), Paz uses the image of the journey to anchor an exploration of perennial themes of solitude and loss and of movement and fixity through India as experienced by a Mexican imbued also with European ideas. It may be said that the sensual image Paz gives us of India is overly exoticized, but it is an India as imagined by a Mexican in a way that may be said to constitute an erotic relation. And this is an important aspect of understanding Paz’s work: eroticism is threaded through it as much in the relation between phenomena and ideas as it is through the relation between people.
His most extended meditation on the erotic relation is a late collection of essays, The Double Flame (1993, translated in 1996). Eroticism and love are forces of energy uniting body and soul, heaven and earth, life and death; they are the double flames the title refers to, interrelated through sexuality. In distinguishing among these three elements, Paz emphasizes their indissolubility: “Love and eroticism always return to the primordial source, to Pan and his cry that makes the forest tremble,” writes Paz. From out of the primordial fire of sexuality rises the red flame of eroticism, which in turn feeds the blue flame of love.
In The Double Flame, Paz quotes Hegel: “Love excludes all oppositions and hence it escapes the realm of reason… . It makes objectivity null and void and hence goes beyond reflection… . In love, life discovers itself in life, devoid now of any incompleteness.” This is a key element to Paz’s conception, in which necessity and freedom are held in tension, “love is the involuntary attraction toward a person and the voluntary acceptance of that attraction.”
If sexuality is attraction necessary to the life force and differentiation, simultaneously seeking unity and the reproduction of the species, eroticism is specifically human longing that emerges from our awareness of mortality, while love is a passion, born from life itself but transcending it. It is in the tension between these different motivations that, for Paz, our relation to the world is founded.
Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City. He spent several years living in France and India and also lived in England and the United States. As a young man, he witnessed the Spanish Civil War firsthand; he was a member of the Surrealist group in Paris; he was a poet, diplomat, writer on a vast range of themes, and founder of one of the most important literary journals in Mexico, Vuelta, which he edited between 1977 and 1997. Paz was awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature.
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