I draw these letters
As the day draws its images
and blows over them
And does not return
--Octavio Paz, “A Draft of Shadows”
Throughout a long, prodigious and brilliant literary career, words have been the weapon that Octavio Paz has raised against the onslaught of time and its limitations to human existence. This dichotomy of timelessness and temporality is mirrored through his own cultural references as a contemporary writer, as a diplomat, as a Mexican and as a product of a conflictive and, therefore, dynamic culture.
Emerging against the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Paz’s poetry was an initial response to two realities: the historical and political circumstances of the moment and the larger questions of human existence and being.
If his early poetry came about as a result of his witnessing the Spanish tragedy, it also reflected other conflicts. Paz’s grandfather had been a major newspaper publisher in pre-revolutionary Mexico; his father, a lawyer and follower of Emiliano Zapata, was assassinated as a result of his political activities. Octavio Paz spent a year of his childhood in Los Angeles, struggling to make himself understood in an English-speaking school. Experiences common to generations of Mexicans in this country, they initiated Paz’s search for an understanding of a national identity through personal self-discovery.
In the spirit and tradition of the Latin American intellectual, Paz has sought to interpret and decipher the historical meanings of contemporary society and culture. Among his numerous essays and works in prose, he has probed into cultural identity (“The Labyrinth of Solitude”); aesthetics (“Marcel Duchamp: or the Castle of Purity”); contemporary history (“One Earth, Four or Five Worlds”); poetics (“Children of the Mire: Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde”), and history and biography (“Sor Juana, or The Traps of Faith”).
An eclectic thinker and reader, his years spent in diplomatic service in India and Japan led to studies of Tantric Buddhism, as well as translations of the classical Japanese poet, Basho. Unlike Western intellectuals, this experience for Paz was far from being an eccentricity. His Eastern studies represented his attempt to reclaim Mexico as a bridge between Asia and Europe, evoking the time when the Acapulco-Veracruz land route connected America, Asia and Europe.
Yet, if his essays are about events, circumstances and human experience, his poetry goes in search of “lo otro” (“the Other”). Fraught with the imagery and substance of pre-Columbian mythology and philosophy, his poetry reflects the continuity of a world view based on a dialogue between life and death, solitude and communion, and silence and sound. It is, “not the voice or history or anti-history, but the voice which, in history, is always saying something different.”
A master of stylistic clarity that has deeply influenced contemporary writing in the Spanish language, he has often taken a principled and lonely position against the fashionable dogma of the day.
In 1968, while serving as the Mexican ambassador to India, he resigned his post and went into self-imposed exile to protest the Mexican government’s military actions against the coalition of students and workers in the horrifying massacre in the Square of the Three Cultures.
In the 1980s, his staunch opposition against all dictatorships, be they leftist or on the right, brought the wrath of the Latin American Left down upon him. Idolized and vilified by both the Left and the Right throughout a literary career that spans a half century, his critics have never silenced him; on the contrary, he has only become more outspoken, more fearless.
Time is for him, both enemy and benefactor. He struggles against it through his enormous literary production and constant activity, while using it effectively every moment. On Oct. 1, he inaugurated the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of Mexican art, “Thirty Centuries of Splendor” for which he wrote the catalogue essay.
Yet, he has never played the inaccessible intellectual. His Mexican television series on art and literature has made him somewhat of a media star. Walking through downtown Mexico City, he is frequently greeted by admirers from all walks of life just as he is recognized by drivers passing him on the freeways of Los Angeles. In awarding him the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy of Letters has brought due recognition to his independent spirit, his unfailing principles and his lifelong commitment to creativity and intellectual discourse.