Octavio Paz - Mexico's Nobel Laureate
Octavio Paz 1914 - 1998
Mexico' greatest poet and essayist is Octavio Paz who defined the Mexican personality and Mexican cultural philosophy through his poems and essays. His contribution to modern poetry is enormous and helped to define modern poetry as we know it today.
He is defined today as a Mexican writer, poet and diplomat.
Paz's contribution to the literary world is forever stamped with his large imprint and the fact that he is Mexican and from Mexico has also raised his voice in helping the world and the Mexican's themselves to understand who they are.
He won many awards and honors during this lifetime, but none more important than the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. He is Mexico's only Nobel Laureate. He is important because his writings appeal to readers of diverse backgrounds.
Paz considered himself first and foremost a poet. He lived during an era where his early poetry was influenced by Marxism, surrealism, existentialism, Buddhism and HInduism. His later poetry dealt with love, eroticism, the nature of time and Buddhism.
As a poet, Paz was of the belief that poetry constituted "the secret religion of the modern age" and for Paz it was "the revolution of the word is the revolution of the world and that both cannot exist without the revolution of the body . . . "
His poetry has been collected in two great collections: Poemas 1935-1975 (1980) and Collected Poems 1957-1987 (1987).
Along with poetry, he is best known for his philosophical essays in which he explains to Mexican's and the world their complex personalities and identities. He ultimately defines who Mexicans are through these essays and the world is transfixed by them. As an essayist, Paz wrote on topics of Mexican politics, economics, Aztec art, anthropology and sexuality.
Paz has written quite a prolific body of essays. He has several book length essay studies in poetics, literary and art criticism, as well as Mexican history, politics and culture.
He is considered Mexico's greatest literary treasure.
- Carlos Fuentes - Mexican Man of Letters
Carlos Fuentes - the Spanish - speaking worlds's greatest writer.
Paz was born Octavio Paz Lozano in Mixcoac, Mexico, then a small town, but today part of Mexico City. His parents were Octavio Paz Solorzano and Josefina Lozano. His maternal grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Spain.
The Paz family was a prominent family and part of the Mexican elite. His father and grandfather were active supporters of the Emilio Zapata revolution against President Porfirio Diaz's regime. His father was instrumental in the agrarian uprisings against the Mexican government and so was not around much during Paz's youth.
Paz was raised by his mother, aunt and paternal grandfather, Ireneo Paz, a liberal, intellectual novelist and publisher.
His grandfather was noted for having written the first Mexican novel with an indigenous Indian theme. Both his father and grandfather were part of the progressive / leftist intelligensia of Mexico at the time.
When Zapata was assassinated, the family fled to Los Angeles, California for about a year until the situation cooled off when Paz was five years old.
Growing up, Paz was introduced to literature early in life through his grandfathers immense library filled with classic Mexican and European literature. He read from a young age and these books influenced his later poems and essays. His formal education was at Colegio Williams that he attended until graduation.
During the 1920s, Paz was mostly influenced by Spanish poets, Gerardo Diego, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Antonio Machado in his readings and writings of poetry.
He first published poems as a teenager in 1931 and was greatly influenced by D. H. Lawrence. Two years later, at nineteen years of age, he published Luna Silvestre (Wild Moon) a collection of his poetry.
In 1932, he founded his first literary review magazine, Barandal, and by 1939, he considered himself first to be a poet.
After graduating from the Colegio Williams went on to study law, but abandoned his law studies in 1937 because he preferred to teach the sons of peasants and workers in the city of Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. He was following in the progressive and leftist influences of his father and grandfather.
It was here in Merida that he began working on the first of his long, ambitious poems, Entre la piedra y la flor (Between the Stone and the Flower) which was published in 1941. These poems described the situation of the Mexican peasant under the thumb of the greedy landlords of the day. These poems were greatly influenced by poet, T.S. Eliot.
Also, in 1937, he was invited by Spain to the Second International Writers' Congress in Defense of Culture in Spain during that country's brutal civil war. Here Paz' s writings and sympathies were with the Republican side of the war and against Franco and fascism.
When he returned to Mexico in 1938, Paz co-founded another literary journal, Taller (Workshop) and wrote for this journal until 1941. This journal highlighted the emergence of a new generation of writers in Mexico along with a new literary sensibility.
Then, Paz received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in the U.S. at the University of California at Berkley. Here he became immersed in Anglo-American modernist poetry.
When he returned to Mexico two years later, he joined the Mexican diplomatic service, working in New York City for a while. He remained in diplomatic service for Mexico for the next twenty years as he wrote his poetry and essays.
In 1945 he was sent to Paris to work as a diplomat and here wrote his definitive and great book length essay, El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) (1950) This book was an intense look and analysis of modern Mexico and the Mexican personality.
In this essay, Paz argues that Mexicans see themselves as children of a conquering Spanish father who abandoned them and of the treacherous Indian mother who turned against her own people. As a result, Mexicans have suffered these wounds because of a dual cultural heritage, Spanish and Indian, and now they hide behind masks and take refuge in a "labyrinth of solitude." The Mexican is both alone and lonely.
This essay delves into the minds of his countrymen and because of their history, their identity is lost between a pre-Columbian and a Spanish culture. It was a key work in understanding the Mexican culture and greatly influenced other Mexican writers, especially Carlos Fuentes.
This was such an important Mexican literary work that it became standard reading for students of Latin American history and literature because it explained the Mexican personality.
"There can be no society without poetry but society can never
be realized as poetry, it is never poetic. Sometimes the two
terms seek to break apart. They cannot."
Nobel Prize in Literature 1990
American Neustadt International Prize 1982
Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
Miguel de Cervantes Prize 1981
Jerusalem Prize 1977
Alfonso Reyes International Prize
Menendez Pelayo International Prize
Alexis de Tocqueville Prize
Xavier Villaurrutia Award
Later life and writings
In 1952, Paz left Paris and traveled to India, Tokyo, Japan, and Geneva, Switzerland all working in the Mexican diplomatic service. He returned to Mexico City later in that year and wrote his great poem, Piedra de sol (Sunstone). It was praised by critics as a 'magnificent' example of surrealist poetry.
During this time in Mexico, he also wrote a play, La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini's Daughter) and adapted the play from Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story of the same name. It is the sad and surreal story of a young Italian student who wanders about in Professor Rappaccini's beautiful garden. One day he spies the professor's beautiful daughter, Beatrice. He is horrified to discover the poisonous nature of the garden's beauty.
In adapting the play he creatively drew from the Japanese Noh theater, Indian poetry and the works of William Butler Yeats in writing his play. Obviously, his recent travels to Japan and India influenced his work on this play.
In 1959, Paz was again sent to Paris my the diplomatic service and he was there until 1962. During his time in Paris during the 1950s, he was greatly influenced by David Rousset, Andre Breton, and Albert Camus, all important French literary writers. Here he continued with his leftist views and theirs and wrote and spoke of his critical views of totalitarianism in general and specifically against Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian regime.
Regardless, Paz always considered himself a man of the left but the democratic liberal left not the dogmatic illiberal one.
After his time in Paris, he was sent to India in 1962 as Mexico's ambassador there for the next six years. Here he completed two great essay works, El mono gramatica (The Monkey Grammarian) and Ladera este (Eastern Slope).
In The Monkey Grammarian, Paz says this written work is not poetry or prose but something in between. He felt it was difficult to assign this book to a specific writing genre. It was influenced by the eastern thought of 'ying and yang.' There is a "fusion of opposites" found in his book and its works are structured and the content represents a blending of contradictory forces.
He tried to create in his writing a sense of community or communion that he felt was lacking in society. He believed he was creating a more harmonious world through his writings. Duality is a definite part of Eastern thought and life and opposites can co-exist. Not so in Western life and philosophy. In our lives, this duality disappears and cancels each other out.
His thoughts and analyzing are continued In his poem, Aguila o sol (Eagle or Sun) in which he gives an example of the difference between Mexican culture and thinking and ours, When we in the U.S. toss a coin we see the toss as heads OR tails. It is one or the other, but can never be both. In Paz's writing, he cites a Mexican coin which has an eagle on one side and the sun on the other side. When a Mexican tosses a coin he sees an eagle AND a sun. A Mexican sees both sides of the coin.
In his poem, La llama doble: Amor y erotisma (The Double Flame) he writes that our society is plagued by erotic permissiveness and this is placing the stability of love in jeopardy. The difficult encounter between two humans attracted to each other has lost importance and threatens our psychological and cultural foundations. Both love and eroticism - the double flame - are fed by the original fire, sexuality.
Also while in India he came in contact with a group of writers called the Hungry Generation and Paz and his writings had a profound influence on them.
In October 1968, Paz resigned in protest from the Mexican diplomatic service because of the Mexican government's massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City during the summer Olympics going on in Mexico.
He sought refuge in Paris from the above and did not return to Mexico until 1969. Once in Mexico, he founded his magazine, Plural (1970-76) with a group of liberal Mexican and Latin American writers. It was later closed down by the Mexican government.
From 1970-74, he lectured at Harvard University in the U.S. where he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship. His book, Los hijos del limo (Children of the MIre) was the result of those lectures.
Upon return to Mexico and upon the Mexican government closing down his magazine, Plural, he immediately founded Vuelta and continued to write and edit Vuelta until his death.
Besides his poetry and essays, Paz also was a translator of written works from English to Spanish.
In 1997, Paz had a poetry collection published, A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems from India, 1952-1995. Paz had studied India's culture with intensity and thoroughness and even wrote some poems in short Sanskrit form called 'kayva.'
Sadly, Paz died of cancer of the spine in 1998 and his passing was mourned as the end of an era in Mexico. His obituary said of him, "Paz's literary career helped to define modern poetry and the Mexican personality."
"No More Cliches" by Octavio Paz
Here is a poem by Paz that is refreshing because he looks pass the outer beauty of a woman and is willing to take the time to search for her inner beauty. He is no longer relying on the ordinary cliches that define a woman. He writes this poem in tribute to a woman's strength, fortitude and pain she has experienced in life that have helped to shape and define her. He admires the battles she engages in for equality and change. He is more interested in the character of a woman than in her outer beauty. I love this poem because of all this.
That like a daisy opens its petals to the sun
So do you
Open your face to me as I turn the page.
Any man would be under your spell,
Oh, beauty of a magazine.
How many poems have been written to you?
How many Dantes have written to you, Beatrice?
To your obsessive illusion
To you manufacture fantasy.
But today I won't make one more Cliché
And write this poem to you.
No, no more clichés.
This poem is dedicated to those women
Whose beauty is in their charm,
In their intelligence,
In their character,
Not on their fabricated looks.
This poem is to you women,
That like a Shahrazade wake up
Everyday with a new story to tell,
A story that sings for change
That hopes for battles:
Battles for the love of the united flesh
Battles for passions aroused by a new day
Battle for the neglected rights
Or just battles to survive one more night.
Yes, to you women in a world of pain
To you, bright star in this ever-spending universe
To you, fighter of a thousand-and-one fights
To you, friend of my heart.
From now on, my head won't look down to a magazine
Rather, it will contemplate the night
And its bright stars,
And so, no more clichés.
"Brotherhood" by Octavio Pax
I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.
I also like this poem because it does speak of Brotherhood. Paz looks to the sky and stars and knows he is not alone. His fellow man is here to understand him and all he does. There is also greatness in numbers.
Interview about Octavio Paz and his Nobel Prize with Paz speaking some brief words
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