With Octavio Paz's Death, the World Loses A Literary Giant and Grand Moral Voice

LOS ANGELES—One can easily imagine foreign bankers who regularly calculate the profitability of yet another new high—tech venture in Mexico City scratching their heads over all the fuss Mexico recently made about the death of an elderly poet.

Octavio Paz, not only Mexico's leading writer, but one of the century's last literary giants, died April 19 in Mexico City after a long struggle with cancer, at age 84.

One can equally imagine investors in the new “American—style” Mexico greeting with a shrug the news that Pope John Paul II plans to visit the country next January to canonize Blessed Juan Diego, the Indian convert to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared at the dawn of Mexico's modern history, and to rededicate the Americas to her.

No, a vision of the transcendent potentialities in human culture— Paz's legacy, and the vision of a hemisphere drawn together under the mantle of Guadalupe, where the continent's historic ethnic struggles meet a mother's call for justice and reconciliation—hardly figure on the balance sheets of the global traders.

But they should. Spirituality, culture, a unique historical vision born of a unique historical experience: Far more than oil, timber, or manpower, they are Mexico's most profound assets.

Those sentiments were echoed in the Pope's April 24 press release on the death of Paz aired over Vatican Radio. A papal spokesman lauded the Mexican literary figure as “the poet of freedom,” praising Paz's espousal of literature's “moral dimension,” and the witness of a life dedicated to the freedom of the human person, rejecting as he did the political enticements of both fascism and communism.

The Vatican statement also praised the poet for his universality, his openness to other cultures—particularly those of the indigenous peoples of Latin America— and to the cultures of India, where he served as Mexican ambassador for six years in the 1960s.

While the universality of Paz's poetic range is beyond dispute—he won the 1990 Nobel Prize for literature—Mexico mourned him not only as a great writer, but as part of its soul.

The Mexico City daily Reforma called Paz's state funeral April 23 in the capital's Art Deco Bellas Artes building “an eclectic affair,” drawing leaders from across the country's political spectrum, its cultural elite, military leaders, and throngs of simple people, especially the young. (Paz's funeral was the largest national funeral since popular Mexican actor Cantinflas died five years ago.)

There in the gleaming black and white marble palace of culture, with its famous murals by Mexican painters Siqueiros and Tamayo upstairs, Paz's body lay in a simple wooden coffin for three hours under the tri—color Mexican flag to receive what Reforma called “a quiet good—bye,” with both people and leaders “submerged in silence.”

According to reports, there were many displays of emotion as the crowds, lined up outside, filed past the coffin and paid their respects to Paz's widow (his second wife, Marie—Jose Tramini, whom he married in 1964) and his daughter Helena by his first marriage.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, after consoling the family, lamented in his tribute to the poet that the country and the world “had sustained an irreparable loss by his death,” but that the poet's “critique [of the country], most fully articulated in his famous 1950 essay on Mexico, The Labyrinth of Solitude, remained,” and that the poet's “presence” would always be felt.

During the afternoon, a young poet in blue jeans approached Paz's widow and expressed his sorrow for not having known “the maestro” personally. Paz is widely credited with having a major influence on young people—especially young poets.

“The poet has not died,” she responded. “In his books and his words, his life today begins to transcend itself.”

Firebrand Family

Born in 1914 into an anticlerical family living in genteel poverty—"the grandson of a rebel, the son of a revolutionary,” as one biography put it—Paz had all the right credentials to be a 20th—century Latin American intellectual.

His paternal grandfather was a journalist and novelist who fought with Benito Juarez against the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s. His father was a veteran of the Mexican revolution of 1910 who went into exile to represent the peasant guerrilla leader Emiliano Zapata in the United States.

As Paz described it later, “our tablecloth smelled of gunpowder.”

The hours the poet spent in his grand—father's ample library—he called it “an enchanted cave"—bore fruit when, at age 19, he published his first book of poetry, Sylvan Moon.

Like many Mexican intellectuals of the left, Paz went to Spain in the late 1930s to fight for the Republicans against Gen. Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Everywhere he went, the poet absorbed literature with a passion. During a late—30s exile in Paris, Paz found himself drawn to the French surrealists with their sense of “imagination, liberty, spiritual adventure, vision.” In America, he devoured Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.

Early in his literary career, Paz's restless intelligence also earned him an honored place as one of the century's great essayists. His clarity of thought, balance, and wide—ranging interests produced literary essays on archaeology, music, art, philosophy, religion, and politics.

In the mid—40s, however, Paz had staked out what would prove a 20—year stint in the diplomatic service—a career that allowed him to “explore new poetic worlds.” As Mexican consul and ambassador, he lived in San Francisco, New York, Paris, Tokyo, and New Delhi.

In all his travels though, he never forgot Mexico. In fact, his most famous works, The Labyrinth of Solitude, still an essential, if unflattering analysis of Mexico, and, as critic Irving Howe writes, “a central text of our time,” and his epic poem Sunstone on the enduring spirit of pre—Columbian civilization, are centered on the Mexican historical experience.

Moral Champion

But what makes Paz “the poet of freedom,” as the Vatican statement calls him, a witness to the “moral dimension in literature”?

First, Paz was always, and remained to the end, a political gadfly, an independent voice in a region where 20th—century intellectuals, especially in Latin America, have routinely associated themselves with socialism and communism.

In a 1983 interview the poet told The New York Times that “intellectuals have a semi—religious attitude [toward socialism], so it's difficult for them to criticize their own religion.”

An early and prescient critic of fascism and communism as inimical to human freedom and integrity, Paz went on to wage a highly criticized campaign against Soviet and Cuban intervention in Latin America in the 1970s. He also opposed the Cuban—supported Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

In one of his finest poems, the Nocturne of San Ildefonso, Paz wrote succinctly: “The good, we sought the good: to straighten out the world. We did not lack integrity: We lacked humility. What we wanted we wanted without innocence.”

Nearly alone among Latin American intellectuals, Paz expressed sympathy for Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

In the midst of an appreciation of the Russian writer's account of the Soviet gulag, the labor camps, for example, Paz noted that “Solzhenitsyn's Russian Christianity … is [one] which has passed through the central experience of our century—the dehumanization of the totalitarian concentration camps—and has emerged strengthened…. [He is a] witness: In a century of false testimonies, a writer becomes the witness to man.”

But the poet was nothing if not consistent.

In the most dramatic political act of his career, Paz resigned from his post as Mexican ambassador to India in 1968 after government troops massacred student protesters in Mexico City's Plaza del Tlatelolco, unmasking, as Paz saw it, the authoritarian face of Mexico's one—party political system. This act not only put Paz on the side of genuine democratic reform in Mexico, but made public his long—simmering critique of the “revolutionary” Mexico of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) his own family had done so much to create.

Even so, despite his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 and economic reform in Mexico generally, Paz had as few illusions about capitalism as he had about socialism.

“The market, blind and deaf, is not fond of literature or risk,” he told The New York Times four years ago, “and it does not know how to choose. Its censorship is not ideological: It has no ideas. It knows all about prices, but nothing about values.”


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.

—Octavio Paz (1987)

But it wasn't merely the poet's political stances that made him a moral force in Latin America; it was also the symbolic opening to cultural reconciliation his work represents. Paz, for example, helped to rediscover key Mexican colonial figures, such as the 17th—century Catholic poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz—this in a time when few Latin American writers credited the Colonial Age (and the Christianity that shaped it)—with anything but oppression and intolerance.

Paz, however, was criticized at the time, with good reason, by some Catholic academics who pointed out that the poet, in denouncing the Mexican nun's 17th—century religious superiors, had misread the religious motives behind her decision to destroy some of her poetry late in life.

Perhaps Paz's colleague, frequent critic, and sometime rival, novelist Carlos Fuentes said it best when he wrote in a 1976 homage to Paz that, apart from being “the greatest living poet of the Spanish language…. I know of no other contemporary writer who has given so much individual expression to a poetical form that transcends him in order to establish the common voice of the hidden fraternity of civilizations.”

An American poet echoed that sentiment when Paz visited Georgetown University in 1988: “Paz's poetry breaks down all cultural barriers,” he said. “More than a poet,” he went on to say, “Paz is a sage.”

In this, Paz's career echoes that of Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel, a signal representative, like Paz, of the great European liberal humanist tradition, who also broke with communism and the left, made human freedom and dignity the central pivot of his thought, and, however tentatively, gave voice to a vision of the transcendent meaning of human experience and the essentially spiritual character of art.

“Faced with the Escorial palace,” Paz wrote in a 1964 essay, “or a Titian canvas or Mozart's music, man perceives a truth vaster than his own…. In works of art, time makes use of men to fulfill itself.”

It's perhaps not surprising, then, to find that Paz appreciated the religious humanism of Pope John Paul II, his concern for the dignity of man in the face of both utopian and neo—capitalist threats, and was among the first Mexican intellectuals to meet with the Pope when he stopped there in 1979.

Pope John Paul plans to visit Mexico next January to urge a deeper union of the Americas. When he does so, he will greet a country that the work of Octavio Paz, “the poet of freedom,” has helped to prepare for that call.

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.