Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth Of Solitude

We live in very strange times. Leaders across the developed world can be heard denying that their countries have a unique cultural identity, and the concept of the nation state as a bastion for a specific people to pursue their specific ends has not so much been called into question but erased from the public consciousness. And yet so much of literature has been an exploration of national and cultural identity, and a repudiation of the idea that groups are infinitely interchangeable or assimilable. Despite their shared language, the characters created by James Joyce and William Faulkner exist in distinct worlds, and we can no more imagine the Compson family in Ireland than we can imagine Stephen Dedalus in Mississippi. In The Labyrinth Of Solitude, first published in 1950, long before national identities went out of fashion, Mexican poet Octavio Paz sought to chart “Life and Thought in Mexico” in such a way that the Mexican identity, in all its peculiarity and contradiction, would be made knowable.

This is no small project, for even in 1950 there were some 30 million people living in Mexico, of diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. To the extent that they share a common history, it is a wide-ranging one:

The history of Mexico is the history of a man seeking his parentage, his origins. He has been influenced at one time or another by France, Spain, the United States, and the militant indigenists of his own country, and he crosses history like a jade comet, now and then giving off flashes of lightning. What is he pursuing in his eccentric course? He wants to go back beyond the catastrophe he suffered: he wants to be a sun again, to return to the center of that life from which he was separated one day. (Was that day the Conquest? Independence?) Our solitude has the same roots as religious feelings. It is a form of orphanhood, an obscure awareness that we have been torn from the All, and an ardent search: a flight and a return, an effort to re-establish the bonds that unite us with the universe.

But the fact that the Mexican history is complicated or multiform does not render it any less important to establishing a sense of identity; on the contrary, Paz argues, “to become aware of our history is to become aware of our singularity.” What follows, then, are a series of essays exploring how history has shaped the Mexican identity, and given it its unique contours – particularly in comparison to the nations and cultures that have influenced or clashed with Mexico. In “The Pachucos and Other Extremes,” Paz uses the example of the young men born in Mexico but living in the southern United States (the “pachucos”) to explore the similarities and dissimilarities between the Mexican and American cultures. Americans, Paz argues, are optimistic, and their optimism is a source of much strength, from their industriousness to their self-confidence. And yet he accuses them of preferring “to use reality rather than to know it,” and this unwillingness to confront reality directly finds its most obvious expression in their differing attitudes towards death – that most unpleasant of realities.

In contrast, one of the most notable traits of the Mexican’s character is his willingness to contemplate horror: he is even familiar and complacent in his dealings with it. The bloody Christs in our village churches, the macabre humor in some of our newspaper headlines, our wakes, the custom of eating skull-shaped cakes and candies on the Day of the Dead, are habits inherited from the Indians and the Spaniards and are now an inseparable part of our being. Our cult of death is also a cult of life, in the same way that love is a hunger for life and a longing for death. Our fondness for self-destruction derives not only from our masochistic tendencies but also from a certain variety of religious emotion.

He concludes in terms that seem an echo of Max Weber: “It seems to me that North Americans consider the world to be something that can be perfected, and that we consider it to be something that can be redeemed.” In “The Day of the Dead,” he extends this meditation into a discussion of the importance of fiestas and festivals to the Mexican identity (“We are a ritual people”). The celebration of a festival brings time “to a full stop, and instead of pushing us toward a deceptive tomorrow that is always beyond our reach, offers us a complete and perfect today of dancing and revelry, of communion with the most ancient and secret Mexico. Time is no longer succession, and becomes what it originally was and is: the present, in which past and future are reconciled.” Thus is the world redeemed, if only for the duration of a fiesta. The festivals, according to Paz, also reveal the extent to which the Mexican identity is one of loneliness and solitude, of repressed emotion unleashed only on the chosen festival days. “If we hide within ourselves in our daily lives, we discharge ourselves in the whirlwind of the fiesta. It is more than an opening out: we rend ourselves open. Everything – music, love, friendship – ends in tumult and violence. The frenzy of our festivals shows the extent to which our solitude closes us off from communication with the world.”

In later essays, he will seek both to locate the origins of this identity in Mexico’s history and to chart its influence on the fate of the country in the 20th century, and it is here that we catch a glimpse of Paz’s purpose. “Everything that makes up the present-day Mexican, as we have seen, can be reduced to this: the Mexican does not want or does not dare to be himself.” What he wishes to do is provoke his countrymen to confront this conundrum head on: “We are the only ones who can answer the questions asked of us by reality and our own being.” What are the consequences of a failure of reckoning? One, according to Paz, is a continued “devotion to personalities rather than to principles,” and an inevitable infatuation with strong, authoritarian leaders.

To the Mexican there are only two possibilities in life: either he inflicts the actions implied by chingar on others, or else he suffers them himself at the hands of others. This conception of social life as combat fatally divides society into the strong and the weak. The strong – the hard, unscrupulous chingones – surround themselves with eager followers. This servility towards the strong, especially among the políticos (that is, the professionals of public business), is one of the most deplorable consequences of the situation.

What direction will Mexico take in the 20th century and beyond, particularly in the wake of Europe’s destructive implosion?

After the general collapse of Faith and Reason, of God and Utopia, none of the intellectual systems – new or old – is capable of alleviating our anguish or calming our fears. We are alone at last, like all men, and like them we live in a world of violence and deception, a world dominated by Don No One. It protects us but also oppresses us, hides us but also disfigures us. If we tear off these masks, if we open ourselves up, if – in brief – we face our own selves, then we can truly begin to live and to think. Nakedness and defenselessness are awaiting us. But there, in that “open” solitude, transcendence is also waiting: the outstretched hands of other solitary beings. For the first time in our history, we are contemporaries of all mankind.

If this is nationalism, it is a poet’s nationalism, the fond hope that, in knowing himself, the Mexican would find a shared solitude with “all mankind.” A consummation devoutly to be wished.