Octavio Paz, who died m April, was one of the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century. On the left for most of his life, Paz held convictions that were often more compatible with conservative thought. Paz was not a “progressive.” In fact, he complained that the ethos of progress had no appreciation of irony, melancholy, despair, nostalgia, pleasure, and doubt. “Progress,” he wrote in One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History (1985), “is brutal and insensitive.” He regarded the Soviet leviathan and its satellites as the main contemporary enemies of human freedom, and he relentlessly criticized the fellow travelers and deluded pacifists of the Western intelligentsia who impeded the necessary struggle against the Evil Empire. He had the courage to condemn Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for their shameless complicity with the bloodiest system of thought in the modern world.
Among the Latin American intelligentsia, the price for adopting such views is high. I remember a Latin American professor advising me never to suggest Paz’s name as a possible recipient of an honorary doctorate. Fortunately, by that time Paz was above such yappings and such honors. His reputation was already immense, in spite of the opposition of the same sectors of the professoriate who had stopped Jorge Luis Borges from getting the Nobel Prize. Of course, as a confirmation of his standing as a writer, Paz needed a prize from the Swedish Academy no more than Borges did. Like Borges before him, he had already received a far more meaningful prize: the T.S. Eliot Award bestowed by The Ingersoll Foundation.
But unlike Borges, Paz did get the Nobel. One reason is that he was never an enfant terrible like Borges. Another may have been that Paz enjoyed the governmental backing and connections that Borges lacked. Unlike Juan Peron and his delightful wife Evita, Mexican rulers never thought of humiliating a superior writer by naming him a poultry inspector. On the contrary, Paz was consistently honored and promoted. Nonetheless, he never allowed government favor to affect his convictions. When the Mexican police shot a number of students demonstrators at the Tlatelolco Plaza in 1968, Paz resigned his ambassadorship in protest. After that, his writing of poetry and essays on literature, art, and anthropology alternated with works of moral, political, and social criticism. Like Eliot, Paz became one of the great cultural essayists of his time.
Paz started as a leftist, but eventually came to see Marxism as a movement created and controlled by the same intellectuals who hated Western democracy while co-opting its name. He explicitly attacked the refusal of such intellectuals to allow for the peaceful change of governments and policies through clean elections. Paz’s political conversion may also have had something to do with the artistic dryness and banality of Marxism.
Though far from his best set of essays, the early Labyrinth of Solitude established his reputation as a cultural critic. But as critical of the Mexican psyche as this book had been, Paz’s love of his country never wavered. This love of Mexico, and of Latin America, made him prefer their imperfect democracies to the alternatives found in Cuba or Nicaragua. But Paz did not want Mexico and Latin America to follow Washington’s example, either. Paz was not just a universal writer but a universal Mexican one. Because of his respect for the local and the particular and his refusal to accept the transferability in toto of American political and cultural ways, he had more in common with paleoconservatives than with neoconservatives.
On the other hand, unlike most American conservatives, Paz was not a religious Christian. His spirituality, like that of the surrealists, found outlets that one might characterize as neopagan and that, if anything, placed him closer to the views of contemporary European conservatives like Alain de Benoist. Nor did Paz ever completely overcome his leftist economic prejudices. Unlike Mario Vargas Llosa, Paz never embraced the free market and never quite grasped the fundamentally unethical basis of socialism.
Paz’s best poems, like the monumental “Piedra de Sol” (1957) and the difficult and immensely learned “Blanco” (1967), will likely remain among the enduring monuments of 20th-century literature. At a deep level, Paz’s poetry is as much a reflection of his love of liberty as it is a reflection of his aesthetics, anthropology, and sexuality. As was the case with the French surrealist Andre Breton, to whom he owed the most as a thinker, Paz’s rejection of socialist totalitarianism was ultimately prompted by his realization that creative freedom could not stand apart from political freedom, and that neither was possible within the framework of Marxism.
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