Meditating on “Blanco”Bridget Franco
Diseño de Vicente Rojo
Callan, Richard J. The Philosophy of Yoga in Octavio Paz’s Poem “Blanco”. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 2005, 151 p.
De Confluencia: Revista hispánica de cultura y literatura, no. 22:1 (Fall 2006), pp. 197-199.
In a 1973 article sketching some of the parallels between Blanco and the Hevajra Tantra, Ruth Needleman notes that without some basic knowledge of the Tantric tradition “as readers we would remain very much on the periphery of the poem’s significance”. Thirty two years later, The Philosophy of Yoga in Octavio Paz’s Poem “Blanco” responds with a meticulous verse by verse exploration of Hindu philosophical and mythological influences in Paz’s 1967 avant-garde poem. While much of Professor Callan’s previous research has focused on Jungian psychology and mythological archetypes in 20th century Latin American literature, the author has also had a long-standing interest in Indian mythology as evidenced by a reference to the Hindu deity Shiva in a 1977 article on Octavio Paz. The Philosophy of Yoga in Octavio Paz’s Poem “Blanco” is part of a rich critical tradition that examines the traces of Eastern philosophy and religion in Paz’s poetry. In his introduction Callan acknowledges the work of those critics who have previously analyzed the yogic tradition in relation to Blanco (Jason Wilson, José Quiroga and Ruth Needleman, among others). However, he points out that we are still missing a detailed line by line interpretation revealing the yogic philosophy intrinsic, in Callan’s opinion, to Blanco’s poetic structure and thematic content. The claim that Paz’s poetry was deeply influenced by Buddhist and Hindu traditions is neither new nor surprising (Paz himself wrote about Tantrism in Conjunciones y disyunciones); nonetheless Callan’s thorough explanation of yogic principles and mythology, together with his ability to connect the meditative practice at many different levels to Blanco, provide new insight into the importance of the “East” in Paz’s work.
This is the third and most recent book that the now retired Professor Callan has written for Mellen Press’ Hispanic Literature series. The book is divided into five sections (an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion) and contains a laudatory foreword by Monique J. Lemaitre Leon. The first chapter describes the original 1967 edition of Blanco, maintaining the importance of the physical layout of the work in relation to the mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning circle and often used in yoga as a meditative tool. The remainder of the first chapter is dedicated largely to explanations of the yogic principles that Callan sustains are vital to the design and language of Blanco. As the chapter progresses through a laundry list of concepts such as void, nirvana, gross and subtle body, cakras, and mantras, the reader may find herself asking: Where is Blanco in all of this? To this question, Callan responds early on that given the complexity of both yoga and Blanco he sees no other way to convincingly demonstrate his thesis than to first present (and at times repeat) the relevant paradigms underlying yogic practice that he believes are manifest in the poem. For readers already familiar with yoga, Callan suggests skipping the first two chapters altogether and moving directly to the analysis of Blanco in Chapter 3. However, as a yoga practitioner myself, I found the first two chapters useful and recommend reading the entire book to fully appreciate Callan’s proposed thesis.
Chapter 2 discusses the breathing techniques used in yoga, the importance of sound and silence, and the concept of enlightenment. Throughout this chapter Callan sprinkles examples that relate yogic practices to Paz essays such as El arco y la lira, Libertad bajo palabra, and Los signos en rotación. Given the scarcity of references to Blanco in this chapter, Callan once again underscores the importance of first having a basic understanding of Indian philosophy in order to fully appreciate the resonance of yoga in the poem.
The final chapter is the most extensive, and perhaps relevant, for those interested in Paz’s poetry. Taking up more than half of Callan’s study, Chapter 3 explores in detail the reflection of yogic principles and practices in the structural, linguistic and symbolic dimensions of Blanco. Callan proceeds section by section (translating the original Spanish into English), largely following the divisions made by Paz himself in the notes of the 1967 edition and corroborated by most critics. While Callan acknowledges that the different sections can be read separately, his analysis takes the poem as a unified piece, each subsection related back to the other sections to emphasize the overall yogic principles. Some of the more convincing parallels between yoga and Blanco described in Chapter 3 are the image of the sunflower as a golden lotus, the personification of the word as a sleeping female, the reconciliation of opposites that represent a union of totality, and the mind as our connection, and ultimately our shackle, to the externa! world. The Hindu deities Sakti (life energy, mother earth) and Shiva (masculine, fertilizing phallus) are key figures in Callan’s analysis, mirroring the feminine/masculine elements in Blanco. Beyond the thematic parallels to Hindu mythology in the poem, Callan suggests that the very structure of Blanco reflects a yogic design. The poem’s central column is understood to be the lotus while the side poems are cakras, psychic energy centers located within the spine or stern of the lotus. The poetic voice that appears in the sections comprising the poem’s central column is compared to a yogin practicing pratyahara, the process of “controlling consciousness by diverting attention away from attachment of the senses to externa! objects and redirecting the senses and mind back into the Subde Body” (97).
The book offers not only an innovative reading of Paz’s complex poem but also a crash course on some of the fundamentals of yoga and Hindu mythology. While Callan’s extensive knowledge of yoga presents a new perspective on Blanco, at times his study seems to force the issue to the point of unconvincingly likening even those elements well outside the scope of Indian philosophy to yogic practices. For example, Livingstone’s quote “River rising a little” is linked to prana, the breath moving through the chakras (57), while Quetzalcóatl is described as “a compassionate buddha” (64). Despite these imaginative associations, Callan’s book leaves little doubt that the figurative language and poetic structure of Blanco resonate strongly with the Hindu practice and philosophy of yoga.
Callan, Richard J. “Babylonian Mythology in ‘El Senor Presidente.'” Hispania: A Journal Devoted to the Teaching of Spanish and Portuguese 50.3 (1967): 417-24.
_______. The Philosophy o/Yoga in Octavio Paz’s Poem “Blanco”. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 2005.
_______. “Some Parallels between Octavio Paz and Car! Jung.” Hispania: A journal Devoted to the Teaching of Spanish and Portuguese 60.4 (1977): 916-26.
Needleman, Ruth. “Poetry and the Reader.” Books Abroad 46 (1972): 550-9.
Paz, Octavio. Blanco. 1967. Madrid: Ediciones del Equilibrista/El Colegio Nacional, 1995.
_______. Conjunciones y disyunciones. Mexico: Joaquín Mortiz, 1969.
- Franco, Bridget