“What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are?” – Octavio Paz asks, in “The Labyrinth of Solitude.“
This important question becomes the premise of Octavio Paz’s explorations into the patriarchal nature of Mexican culture, and Paz uses his readings of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche to explore the Mexican phenomenon of the macho, and the cult of death.
The book, published during Paz’s years in Paris, was derived from a time when the writer was at the peak of his creative period of self discovery, as noted in his essays and memoir, “In Light of India.” Young Paz was discovering and writing the essays and poetry which would earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.
With the new nation of India forming as a result of independence from the British, the Mexican government was keen to begin diplomatic relations with Delhi, and Paz was to become one of the founding diplomats posted there, but when given the news, the writer is displeased, and observes:
“The news was bewildering and painful. It was normal I should be sent elsewhere, but I was devastated to leave Paris.“
“In Light of India,” (published posthumously in 1997), presents us with the notion that the city was crucial to Paz’s personal growth as a creative personality. Paz observes:
“My secret obsession was poetry: to write it, think it, live it. Excited by so many contradictory thoughts, feelings and emotions, I was living each moment so intensely that it never occurred to me that this way of life would ever change. The future- that is, the unexpected- had almost evaporated.”
In 1951, Octavio Paz was working for the Mexican Embassy in Paris. It is clear from this quote that he had come to like the routine he had created for himself in Paris, but as he made preparations to leave, he took a tremendous deal of important lessons and influences (such as surrealism) with him.
It was 17 more years before he was to quit the diplomatic services of his country in protest of the massacre of Mexican protesters in lieu of the Olympic games of 1968.
Paz’s Paris draws on observations of the importance of space, politics, history, and moderation.
Here are three reasons to love Paris, from Octavio Paz’s introductory chapter of “In Light of India.”
1. Paris is a hub for those who feel “artistic and intellectual affinities.”
Paz becomes fully immersed in the Parisian literary life, and finds the city lends itself to his mental state at the time:
2. Paris is a city that is grounded and poised, sure of itself, chic and grand without being overbearing.
Paz makes a series of wonderful observations about Paris which suggests that the joy of the city can be found precisely in the balancing act and facade of gentility that Paris presents:
A city where moderation rules the excesses of both the body and the head with the same gentle and unyielding authority. In its most auspicious moments- a square an avenue, a group of buildings- tension turns to harmony, a pleasure for the eyes and for the mind.
3. In Paris, we sketch paths which have oft been referenced before us.
It is precisely living through the juxtaposition of knowledge and discovery, that allows us to personalize Paris in a way that so many others have done before us before us:
Exploration and recognition. In my walks and rambles I discovered new places and neighborhoods, but there were others that I recognized, not by sight but from novels and poems. Paris for me is a city that, more than invented, is reconstructed by memory and imagination.
The short end of it is that if we humans are passionate creatures, then Paris allows to fulfill our obligation to ourselves.
Known for his erudite and intensely political examinations of human loneliness through erotic love, Paz’s ventures into the world of diplomatic angst and staunch advocacy of socialism may appear as a shock to those who have committed the travesty of not indulging in this fantastic poet.