Whenever I need to have a truly intellectual experience I never need go further than to pick up my copy of ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, Octavio Paz’s ‘poetic masterpiece’.
Reading from this collection of essays is like sitting down with the smartest man in the room. Probably – with possible exception of a select few other giant geniuses like Winston Churchill or Albert Camus – he was the smartest man to have sat in any room for the last 100 years.
Yeah, yeah. I know a little bit about Albert Einstein and a few other great scientists like him but their knowledge and contributions to humanity – while highly significant – didn’t match the breadth and depth of brilliance of say Winston Churchill or an Octavio Paz.
If I could have dinner with three famous men I would have to choose Churchill, Paz, and Camus. Churchill because he was the one of the ultimate modern polymaths. He was a soldier, statesman, painter, scholar and a writer. And just like the other three men I mentioned, he too won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Churchill in 1953, Camus in 1958 and Octavio Paz in 1990.
So why did I include Camus in this triumvirate? Simply because he was the first of these three great men to change my world view. I should be ashamed to say that at the age of 15 I checked out a copy of his ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ which I’ve subsequently to this day failed to return. Do you think the library would appreciate me returning it some 46 years on? Personally? Probably not.
Camus – for me – was the first truly original thinker that gave me pause. His brilliant, The Myth of Sisyphus was the literary engine that finally gave ammunition to my nascent self-awareness. I began to question everything according to my mother at the age of six. That was the age I smoked my first cigarette, trashed Becky Swinky’s house; you get the idea. However it all seemed so reasonable at the time. But I can obviously see now that I was an impossible little bastard that should have been strangled at birth. And sorry to say my youthful mischief only became more complicated over time. But Camus, bless his heart, gave reason as well as legitimate argument to my often punished, suffering young self.
Today Octavio Paz is my go to genius. I’ve owned at least three copies of The Labyrinth of Solitude over the years. I think it was originally published in 1950 but he had added to it and updated it over the years. I probably acquired my first copy in the early ‘70s.
Somewhere in the jacket or on the backcover it quoted him saying, “Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two.” From there on I was hooked. I was delighted I had gained yet another intellectual argument to question everything.
It is without a doubt the greatest book on the Mexican psyche ever written. And the Mexican people – take my word for it – are a crazy complex people. I say that in a respectful tone that borders on awe. Every morning I wake up here in Mexico I am thankful to be living in a land that contains so much mystery. The Labyrinth of Solitude can be most simplistically thought of as a very well written owner’s manual to something as complicated as a space shuttle or Lunar lander.
Octavio Paz takes on a subject so complicated that it should be inexplicable yet he not just manages but does so adroitly that I am forever spellbound while reading his brilliantly unfolding logic. And through those essays he sheds light on the history and meaning of Mexico in a highly original and fascinating way. To him, Mexico and its people are not necessarily just products of mere historical circumstances but instead he explores the people and their multi-interleaved cultures through the richness of their myths, loves, and prejudices.
In his essay entitled, ‘Mexico and the United States’ he says, Civilization is a society’s style, its way of living and dying. It embraces the erotic and culinary arts; dancing and burial, courtesies and curses; work and leisure; rituals and festivals; punishments and rewards” and then goes on to further explain the meaning of civilization for another paragraph before concluding “but it is especially its submerged, invisible side: beliefs, desires, fears, repressions and dreams.”
I don’t know if the essay, Mexico and the United States, was part of the original book as it was published in 1950 or if it was added later. And he might or might not have revised it. I say that because the essay is as freshly relevant today as it ever was. And I honestly just don’t remember this one particular essay.
Let me explain. I have been living under the incorrect assumption that the primary differences between our two nation’s cultures have primary been one of conquest versus that of colonialism. The Spanish came to Mexico to rape it of its wealth and the French and British came to the new world to colonize it.
But as Octavio Paz patiently and objectively explains, the truth is far more complicated. And the differences between our two cultures today aren’t merely socio-economic: a rich industrial nation versus a poor underdeveloped one. There is much more to the story than that.
Let’s start there. In the present. He states that we are “two distinct versions of Western civilization.” He develops an argument that the Mexican view of its northern neighbor is as incorrect as the view of Americans looking southward. He says, “The perceptions of the American novelists and poets (my note: the most perceptive of Americans) who have written on Mexican themes have often been brilliant, but often been fragmentary” in that “they reveal less of the Mexican reality than they do of the authors’ personality.”
He goes on to contrast that to the east-west duality and how it’s not just the vast geographical distance that separates, but that the “east-west relationship symbolizes two directions, two attitudes, two civilizations.” Whereas the opposition between “north and south can be oppositions within the same civilization.”
Here is where his argument gets interesting is when he says that our differences “antedates the very existence of the United States and Mexico. The northern part of the continent was settled by nomadic , warrior nations (my note: Apaches, Comanches, etc.); Mesoamerica, on the other hand, was the home of an agricultural civilization, with complex social and political institutions, dominated by warlike theocracies that invented refined cruel rituals , great art, and vast cosmogonies inspired by a very original vision of time.”
So with that argument my true education of the domination of this continent begins. In all honesty I’ve never thought much on the subject of the North American natives vs. those in the South. Yes, I knew that the southern cultures were superior (but never really examined why). And yes, I knew, as reminded by O. Paz, that everyone living in this hemisphere are/were all immigrants having crossed the Bering Straits some twenty or thirty millennia ago. I must say I find that observation highly ironic given the present social and political problems posed by this very subject.
And for the record, I am opposed to open borders and unlimited migration. Twenty thousand years ago when there were a mere couple of million people on the planet, a few thousand people over a long period of time crossing from Asia to the Americas didn’t pose any significant problems. If anything the landmass benefited through plant domestication, animal husbandry and whatnot.
Today, the subject of immigration is an entirely different discussion and one that I am not interested in pursuing any further in this particular post.
Octavio Paz goes on to further his argument in just how different were these immigrants/natives – the nomadic and warlike vs. a much more civilized agricultural group of civilizations and how the admixture of their respective conquests were instrumental in just where Mexico and the US are today.
For instance he speculates that the differences between the Iroquois and the Olmecs was as vast as the differences between the protestant English and the Catholic Spanish. And those differences were ‘grafted onto the nomadic northern people and settled southern peoples.’
That’s an eye opener.