“DESERVE WHAT YOU DREAM”: REMEMBERING OCTAVIO PAZ
Updated: Apr 16
April 19 is an important date in the annals of literature, particularly for Mexicans. On that day in 1998 died one the great poets, essayists, and political activists of Latin America. A Nobel prize winner born in Mexico.
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.
These beautiful words from a poem titled “Brotherhood,” were written by one of the best poets of the 20th century,a quintessentially Mexican writer. Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City on March 311, 1914, during another civil war in his country—this one pitting the wealthy landowners against the poor, working the fields. It was the time of rebel leader Emiliano Zapata, whom his father—a lawyer and political journalist—followed to fight for agrarian reforms.
The family was left to live with Octavio’s paternal grandfather, a prominent liberal intellectual and writer, with an extensive library. This book-filled room became Octavio’s refuge, and introduced him early to great literature, a love for language and words, and the discovery of his own poetic self. The political activism of his father and grandfather led to his support of liberal ideas, and his own political involvement.
Paz began writing poetry as a teenager, and by the age of 19 had already published a collection of poems—Luna silvestre (Wild Moon). He studied law and literature at the National University of Mexico, and met Pablo Neruda while there. Neruda inspired him, and they developed a close but antagonistic relationship. Years later, the two clashed harshly over politics—almost coming to physical blows.
But in 1937, when Paz was 23, he abandoned his studies. Invited by Neruda, he participated in the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Valencia, Spain. Back in Mexico in 1938, he founded the literary magazine, Taller, and worked as a journalist and translator.
In 1943 in the US on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he became immersed in Modernist poetry. Two years later, he traveled to France through the Mexican diplomatic service and became involved with surrealists Andre Breton, and Benjamin Peret. During this time he wrote “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” considered a fundamental essay on Mexican identity. He claims that since Mexicans have inherited two distinct cultures, the Spanish and the Indigenous, when they deny either part, they become stuck in a world of solitude. However, this book-length essay goes far beyond “Mexicanism,” it is a universal discourse about humanity: “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone, and the only one who seeks out another. His nature—if that word can be used in reference to man, who has ‘invented’ himself by saying ‘no’ to nature—consists in his longing to realize himself in another. Man is nostalgia and a search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.”
Solitude is one of the major themes of Paz’s body of work, reflected in his poetry and essays. But it is not the only theme. But Paz was also obsessed with the concept of time. His poetical labor is defined by experimentation and nonconformity, but it’s difficult to label due to his constant mutation. Starting with social concerns, he later moved to existential topics. His early style was Neo-modernist, but eventually became a surrealist, although he always maintained the lyrical qualities that defined his work. Here is an excerpt from his poem “To End Everything.”
Give me, invisible flame, cold sword,
your persistent anger,
to end it all,
oh dry world,
oh bled world,
to end it all.
It burns, dark, it burns without flames,
dull and fiery,
ash and living stone,
desert without shores.
Paz initially studied law in university but was obsessed by poetry and was especially influenced by the symbolists and romantics of the time, and fascinated by reading The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. Through these readings he became interested in the relation between modern poetry and modern society and history, and got caught up in the revolutionary spirit, first going to Yucatan, where he helped to create socialist communes and started writing Between the Stone and the Flower (Entre la Piedra y la Flor) and then going to Spain during the Civil War in 1937, where he assisted the republican cause.
Both Paz and Neruda clamored against the wave of Fascism that was sweeping through Europe. But they disagreed radically about Stalin—the leader of the Soviet Union. Paz was horrified at Stalin’s genocide through his purges, and could not stomach Neruda’s continued support for the man and his ideology. In 1942, at a literary gathering the two poets had a heated discussion and Paz directed a punch at Neruda, which the latter just missed. They were held back by those present and separated. Their antagonism lasted for the next 25 years.
In 1962, Paz was appointed Mexican ambassador to India and stayed there for six years. He continued writing, and planted the seeds of his last poems. But in 1968 he returned to Mexico to be confronted with one of the ugliest events in Mexico’s history.
On October 2, 1968, the Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on a group of unarmed students who were protesting the upcoming Olympics. Devastated by the mass assassination, Paz resigned from the diplomatic service in protest against the government. In his poem Limpidez (Cleanliness), he spoke out against the government transgression: “Guilt is anger turned against itself: if an entire nation is ashamed it is a lion poised to leap.”
Paz continued writing and was invited as a visiting lecturer at several universities, including Cambridge and Harvard. In 1990 Octavio Paz was awarded with The Nobel Prize in Literature “for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity.” He died in Mexico on April 19, 1998. Let us remember this great writer and celebrate his life on that date!