Last reviewed: June 2017
Mexican poet and diplomat
March 31, 1914
Mexico City, Mexico
April 19, 1998
Mexico City, Mexico
No Mexican writer did more to explore and celebrate the mysteries of Mexican life than poet and essayist Octavio Paz (pahz), considered to be the leading twentieth-century interpreter of his country’s complex culture. Paz’s poems explore life’s illusions and fragmented realities, the problem of language, the innocent individual, humankind’s loss of connection with nature and its rhythms, and the disordered, dislocated modern world. Known primarily as a poet, Paz also distinguished himself as a diplomat and essayist, delving into such areas as religion, philosophy, and politics in the course of his work.
Born into a family of intellectuals in Mexico City, Paz inherited a literary tradition through his grandfather, Irineo Paz, a newspaper publisher and novelist. His father practiced law and briefly published one of the first Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles, California, where the family lived for a year in the early 1920s as political exiles. Upon returning to Mexico, his father fell victim to a political assassination and Paz, an only child, was left alone with his widowed mother. Octavio Paz.
By the 1930s Paz had become a leading voice of a new generation of Mexican intellectuals. After completing the course of study in law at the National University, he abruptly abandoned law and Mexico, failing to turn in his final thesis and traveling to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. There, he became part of the tragic intellectual venture that culminated in the fall of the Spanish Republic. As a witness to the deaths of fellow writers, exponents of the noblest expressions of language and culture, and the destruction of human values and ideals, Paz found his poetic voice and published his first two books. They received immediate recognition. Upon his return to Mexico, he collaborated in founding two important literary journals, Taller and El hijo pródigo.
During the 1940s Paz traveled to the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship and studied at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1944 to 1945, then lived briefly in New York. The distance created by the English language and Anglo-American culture sowed the seeds for the introspective interpretation that marked the essays published in The Labyrinth of Solitude, in which Paz contrasts Mexico’s long history to that of the United States, affording a hermeneutic view of the differences between these two neighboring countries.
It was in France, however, that Paz’s love for his native land, combined with his fascination for Surrealist poetry’s notions of spontaneity, movement, dislocation, and freedom, enabled him to develop his art to a new degree of strength. The culmination of his 1946 to 1951 stay in France with the Mexican diplomatic service was the much-praised poetry collection Sun Stone, which he wrote in a Surrealist vein after leaving France and published in 1957. Lessons learned from French colleagues stayed with Paz for the remainder of his life.
His diplomatic career from the 1940s to the 1960s serving at the Mexican embassies in France, Japan, and India afforded him the opportunity to expand his views—to look at the problems of existence and the capacity for creativity in worlds still connected to the sacred and the mythic while coming to terms with progress in an increasingly dehumanized world. In Japan, he adapted some of the formalized techniques of Japanese poets to his own writing. A new concern with structure, along with his Surrealist impulses, enriched Paz’s poems.
Paz was Mexico’s ambassador to India during the 1960s, a decade that left an indelible mark on the man and his work. In literary terms, these changes are evident in Ladera este and Blanco, works that explore the language and space of literature. Here the work is symbol and sign; the text is an aesthetic (concrete) manifestation which simultaneously confers verbal meaning. In these works, Paz fully explored the “other,” not only as a manifestation of the self but also as an integral voice within his poetic construct. The “other” is what lies beyond the parameters of the ordinary; it is myth and dream, love and eroticism. During his sojourn in India Paz married Marie-José Tramini, who became his lifelong soul mate and companion. Near the end of the decade, Paz was faced with choosing between conformity and principles. In October, 1968, the Mexican government ordered troops against the student demonstrations taking place during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The result was a massacre, and Octavio Paz resigned as ambassador to New Delhi in protest.
Paz spent much of the 1970s and 1980s as a visiting professor at various academic institutions, including Cambridge University, where he was appointed to the Simón Bolívar Chair, and later at Harvard University as Samuel Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. In Mexico he founded and directed the literary magazine Plural (later Vuelta). This was also a period of intense and prolific writing and of international recognition. By the 1990s, Paz had been honored with several major prizes, including the 1981 Miguel de Cervantes Prize and the 1982 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and culminating with the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1990. Paz died in Mexico City on April 19, 1998, at the age of eighty-four.
All these experiences, combined with a continued and acute awareness of the meaning of the Mexican historical and cultural legacy, informed Paz’s writing. Juxtaposing dualities—such as the mythic timelessness of ancient Mexico and modern questions of temporality and human existence—and examining the larger questions that define human existence, his is a voice that constantly challenges the reader to probe and examine the tenets of the human condition.