The Incomplete End of Modernity of Octavio PazMaarten Van Delden
Salvo una sección dedicada a la idea de Paz sobre la modernidad en el arte, lo que sigue es un capítulo de Gunshots at the Fiesta. Literature and Politics in Latin America, libro que reúne ensayos de van Delden e Yvon Grenier publicado por Vanderbilt University Press, 2009, pp. 115-136.
The theme of the end of modernity had an extraordinarily tenacious hold on Octavio Paz’s imagination. From the 1940s to the 1990s, over a period of approximately half a century, Paz returned repeatedly to the topic of modernity’s demise. Again and again, he argued that the world was witnessing the end of the modern era and that something profoundly different would emerge from its breakup. Yet when confronted with the term “postmodernity,” he responded with impatience and even derision. While dwelling at great length on the crisis of modernity, Paz roundly rejected the idea that the world had moved beyond modernity and into postmodernity. Indeed, he often claimed that it was too early to tell what would come after modernity. In La otra voz (1990), for example, he argued that “la modernidad está herida de muerte”, but he also conceded that it was not yet possible to discern “la nueva estrella intelectual que ha de guiar a los hombres”. As a result, what held Paz’s attention was the ongoing crisis of modernity, not the consolidation of a supposed postmodern alternative to modernity. Paraphrasing Jürgen Habermas, who described modernity as an incomplete project, one might say that for Paz it was the end of modernity that was an incomplete project. In this chapter, I will trace the development of the theme of the end of modernity in Paz’s essays and try to offer an explanation for its somewhat disconcerting persistence in his thinking. What might account for the odd repetitiveness of Paz’s thought on this subject? Why does the end of modernity drag on for such a long time? The protracted nature of the end of modernity seemed to suggest that modernity had in fact survived its own collapse. Indeed, it was Paz’s ambiguous role as both a critic and advocate of modernity that accounted for the fact that in his work the end of modernity was an ever-imminent but constantly-postponed event.
Modernity and Its Discontents
In the concluding paragraph of El laberinto de la soledad, which first appeared in 1950, Paz claimed that Mexicans were now “contemporáneos de todos los hombres”, sharing with the rest of humanity the experience of a “derrumbe general de la Razón y la Fe, de Dios y la Utopía”. With this observation, Paz anticipated Lyotard’s influential claim that postmodernity began with the collapse of the grand narratives of modernity. In the decades that followed, Paz returned repeatedly to the idea that the world was witnessing the collapse of the modern era’s modes of organizing and giving meaning to human existence. In “Los signos en rotación” (1964), he described “la conciencia de la historia” as “la gran adquisición del hombre moderno”, but he went on to claim that such historical consciousness was now vanishing from the scene: “Nuestro tiempo es el del fin de la historia como futuro imaginable o previsible.” Modern historical consciousness had been closely tied to a utopian vision of the future. However, two factors led to what Paz described as the destruction of the future: the increased power of technology, which followed its own logic and ignored human needs, and the collapse in the wake of World War II of the hopes for a revolutionary transformation of the world. In Corriente alterna, in the course of a meditation on the worldwide decline in prestige of the idea of revolution, Paz asserted that “nunca hemos tenido menos confianza en los valores de la tradición y en los de la utopía, en la fe y en la razón”. A few years later, he referred in one of his essays to “la doble crisis del marxismo y de la ideología del capitalismo liberal y democrático”. In a 1977 interview, Paz claimed that “el almacén de proyectos históricos que fue Occidente se ha vaciado”. Fifteen years later, in another interview, he reiterated the idea that the world was experiencing “el ocaso del culto al futuro” and observed that the recent “derrumbe del marxismo” was part of a general fading of “todas esas ideas y doctrinas que atribuían un designio a la historia”. At times, Paz appeared to reverse course, presenting the collapse of the grand narratives as a feature of modernity itself. In El arco y la lira, for example, he argued that ever since the French Revolution, which Paz described as the moment in history in which the “triunfo de la modernidad” was consummated, the world had witnessed a recurring pattern involving the construction and subsequent destruction of grand narratives: “Se han erigido mitos y religiones seculares que se desmoronan apenas los toca el aire vivo de la historia.” Still, the dominant interpretation Paz presented throughout his career was that the collapse of the grand narratives was a feature not of modernity, but of the end of modernity.
For Paz, one of the key building blocks of modernity was the ideology of progress—a concept he began to question as early as the 1930s. Over time, he developed two main philosophical objections to the idea of progress. The first was that there was no way of telling what goal was being pursued by progress. Progress merely seemed to create the demand for more progress, in a process without end, and therefore, in a sense, without meaning. In “Vigilias: Diario de un soñador” (1939), Paz described progress as “una idea hueca”. Several decades later, in Posdata, Paz restated this idea of the emptiness of progress: “La filosofía del progreso,” he wrote, “nos muestra al fin su verdadero rostro: un rostro en blanco, sin facciones.” In Paz’s view, the fatal flaw of the philosophy of progress was that it gave no indication of the overall direction in which history was headed. In “El espejo indiscreto”, a 1976 essay on the differences between Mexico and the United States, Paz referred to a widespread skepticism regarding the “coherencia” and “valor” of the core ideas of modernity. One of these ideas was the idea of progress: for two centuries it had stood as a stirring ideal inspiring people all over the world to struggle for a better existence; now, however, many had begun to ask, “¿Progreso hacia dónde y para qué?” In Paz’s view, the course of modern history had demonstrated that progress was a philosophy without meaning, purpose, or content.
Paz’s second philosophical objection to the ideology of progress was that it claimed universal validity for itself. In Claude Lévi-Strauss o el nuevo festín de Esopo (1967), Paz noted that the modern West’s commitment to progress was closely connected to its disdain for other civilizations. The philosophy of progress rejected cultural pluralism and presented itself as the only acceptable model for all human societies. Paz expressed similar ideas in Corriente alterna, which included a lengthy discussion of what he called the modern belief in “el tiempo rectilíneo”, at bottom, an alternative term for the ideology of progress. The concept of linear time rested on the assumption that there was only one path for history to follow and on the denial of otherness. According to Paz, “El tiempo rectilíneo intentó suprimir las diferencias, suprimir la alteridad”, efforts that were now beginning to falter. In the book on Lévi-Strauss, Paz suggested that there had been intellectual opposition to the ideology of progress from the moment that it was enshrined at the heart of modern societies. Reminding us that the discipline of ethnology emerged around the same time as the idea of history as uninterrupted progress, Paz suggested that the former acted as a check on the latter. Ethnology alerted us to the need to respect others and to view our own core assumptions with a critical eye. For Paz, the rise of ethnology in the West expressed the West’s unease with the idea of progress. And yet, Paz also argued that ethnology was a product of the philosophy of progress. Only a society that valued change, as Western society did, could criticize its own foundations. In the end, progress and the criticism of progress seemed to go hand in hand: “El progreso es nuestro destino histórico; nada más natural que nuestra crítica sea una crítica del progreso.” In reading Paz, one often has the impression that he believed the philosophy of progress needed to be rejected altogether; in this passage, however, he proposes no such simple solution. Instead, he speaks of the need to maintain a difficult balance between believing in progress and identifying its many limitations.
Paz made it clear that modernity rested on flawed conceptions of time, history, and culture. But it also produced some unappealing practical consequences. He devoted much of his work—from the 1930s to the 1990s—to describing and denouncing the pernicious effects of modernity on human life. In one of his earliest publications, he referred to “la miseria del hombre moderno”, and in the decades that followed he applied considerable energy and eloquence to describing and explaining this misery. For Paz, modernity was a consequence of the triumph of reason and the resulting displacement of religion, myth, and ritual, but the belief in reason was as irrational as any other belief; moreover, it failed to satisfy the human hunger for the sacred. According to Paz, the triumph of reason had transformed human beings into machines or instruments. He described work in modern, capitalist societies as having been drained of meaning or purpose. In a 1954 essay on surrealism, he explained how in the modern era the idea of utility “impregnó” our perception of the world: human beings had been turned into instruments and the world itself was a “gigantesca máquina que gira en el vacío”. The many defenses of poetry Paz penned over the course of his career invariably revolved around the idea that poetry offered humanity an escape from the dehumanizing effects of modern life, and a muchneeded connection with the realm of the sacred.
In the 1960s, with prosperity rising in the West, Paz’s critique of modernity shifted its focus. He spoke less of machines and technologies, and more of markets and consumers, but the core of his complaint remained the same: modern society seemed to produce the loss of some essential dimension of human life. In “El precio y la significación”, a 1963 essay on modern art, Paz stated that “el verdadero amo se llama mercado. No tiene rostro y su marca o tatuaje es el precio…El mercado suprime a la imaginación: es la muerte del espíritu.” In Corriente alterna, he zeroed in on the negative consequences of the increased affluence of Western societies: “En los países de Occidente la sociedad de la abundancia obliga a los hombres a consumir sin respiro nuevos objetos y productos. Al mismo tiempo, los consumidores deben renunciar a sus deseos más íntimos y a sus sueños más profundos.” In Posdata, he claimed that the available models of economic development —both capitalist and socialist— were producing disastrous results, and he provided a list of the problems of developed societies—from the abandonment of the elderly to the destruction of the environment—to prove his point. In El ogro filantrópico, he described the West as experiencing a period of great material abundance while being corroded by “el hedonismo, la duda, el egoísmo, la dimisión”. Whenever Paz contemplated the modern world, he saw a loss of freedom, a lack of purpose, and an absence of spirituality.
Much of what Paz regarded as being wrong with modernity can be grasped from his writings about the United States, a country he regarded as the archetypal modern nation. In El laberinto de la soledad, in what was the first of numerous meditations on the United States and its differences from Mexico, he described an arid society that repressed the instincts, banished the body, and dissolved the sense of community; in short, that stunted the full growth of its citizens’ human faculties. At the same time, this abstract, mechanical, and atomized world represented the natural outgrowth of the dominant historical trends of modernity, and to the extent that, as Paz frequently maintained, modernization would become the inevitable fate of Mexico, U.S. society was not only a profound menace but also an inescapable model. In his later writings, Paz described the United States as the land that had witnessed the most resounding triumph of “la técnica” —one of the key forces of modernity— but Paz saw “technical man” as a profoundly repugnant creature. In Corriente alterna, Paz described him as “el ‘americano’ típico: un titán que ama el orden y el progreso, un gigantón fanático que venera el hacer y nunca se pregunta qué es lo que hace y por qué lo hace”. Paz saw this absence of higher goals as one of the central features of U.S. society. In “La democracia imperial”, an essay from the early 1980s, Paz complained that the United States lacked a meta-history, by which he meant that it did not have a collectively-defined historical project. This lack resulted from the fact that in the United States —for first time in its history— the larger questions about the purpose and meaning of life were no longer being answered in a public, communal fashion. Instead, they had been relegated to the realm of the private individual. Paz wondered whether a nation could survive without a larger collective purpose to guide it through history. What he saw in the United States —“la más perfecta expresión de la modernidad”— was a society “encerrada en el círculo de la producción y el consumo, el trabajo y el placer”. It was a situation he regarded as ultimately unviable.
Although Paz’s criticisms of the United States were fierce, uncompromising, and constant throughout his career, it is not an aspect of his work that has received a great deal of attention. Paz has been far better known and much more controversial as a critic of the Left—that is, both of Marxist-Leninist theory and actually existing socialist regimes during the cold war. It is to this topic that I now turn. Given that Paz himself once described Marxism as “la expresión más coherente y convincente”, it seems justifiable to regard the story of his quarrel with the Left as part of the larger story of his quarrel with modernity.
The Trouble with Marxism
The long story of Paz’s contentious relationship with the Left starts in the 1930s, at the very beginning of his career as a writer. During these turbulent years, Paz was affiliated with leftist circles and linked to leftist causes. His commitment to social change was clear from the fact that in early 1937 he moved to Yucatán to help set up a school for rural children. Later that same year, he traveled to wartorn Spain to participate in various activities in support of the Spanish Republic. Some of his poems from these years expressed outspoken leftist political viewpoints, and many of his essays are filled with a Marxist-flavored rhetoric. Upon his return from Spain, he became a frequent contributor to the leftist Mexico City newspaper El Popular.
At the same time, it is clear that from the very start, Paz entertained doubts about some aspects of leftist politics and that he maintained a certain distance from the overriding passions of these years. From early on, Paz had developed a strong sense of the autonomy of poetry, and he resisted the idea that literature should be placed in the service of a political cause. As discussed in Chapter 6, Paz attended the 1937 Congreso Internacional de Escritores e Intelectuales Antifascistas para la Defensa de la Cultura. He was not one of the representatives of the Mexican Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR); instead, he was there at the personal invitation of Pablo Neruda and Rafael Alberti. During the Congress, he was disappointed at the rough treatment meted out to André Gide, and it was also at this time that Paz became aware of the sinister political tactics used by Stalin and his followers. The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 and the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico City in the following year deepened his disillusionment, as did a personal break with Neruda. Yet the anti-Stalinist position Paz began to stake out at this point in his career did not lead to an outright rejection of the socialist ideal.
Paz’s continued allegiance to certain aspects of Marxist thought is clear from his response to the David Rousset affair. In November 1949, Rousset had published a call in the Paris weekly Le Figaro littéraire for an investigation into the Soviet system of labor camps. Prominent French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty chose to attack Rousset not because they doubted his claims about the existence of such camps, but because they thought that by publicizing the existence of the camps he was giving aid to the enemies of socialism. Paz, who was living in Paris at the time as a member of the Mexican diplomatic service, did not follow their lead; instead, he assembled a number of documents that supported Rousset’s position and published them along with an explanatory note in the March 1951 issue of the Argentine literary journal Sur. Many years later, in Itinerario, Paz stated that the Rousset affair allowed him to resolve “de una manera terminante y definitiva” his doubts about the true nature of the Soviet system. He indicated that his contribution to Sur led to “la ruptura abierta” with the Left. It is worth noting, however, that although Paz may indeed have been ostracized by his leftist colleagues in the Mexican intellectual world for his anti-Soviet position, he did not at the time see himself as having abandoned his Marxist ideals. After all, he had concluded his analysis of the Rousset affair with the assertion that “los crímenes del régimen burocrático son suyos y bien suyos, no del socialismo”.
In the decades that followed, Paz would ponder over and over again the connection between Marxist theory and the historical events it had helped to shape but had, at the same time, so conspicuously failed to anticipate. Over time, he developed an increasingly sharp view of the inherent flaws of Marxist thought. Eventually, he came to believe that the authoritarian and repressive nature of Communist societies was a direct outcome of certain elements of Marxist theory. But this was not yet his view at the time of the Rousset affair.
In Corriente alterna, Paz sketched out an explanation for the degeneration of Communist revolutions all over the world. Why, he wondered, had so many of the revolutions of his era ended in regimes of terror? In essence, Paz suggested that a crucial difficulty emerged in the transition from the pre-revolutionary to the post-revolutionary phase. Whereas in the former, the use of violence could be justified in light of the utopian end to be achieved, in the latter this was no longer the case, since “al asumir la autoridad, el revolucionario asume la injusticia del poder, no la violencia del esclavo”. Twentieth-century Communist revolutionaries had failed to make this distinction. For them, the end continued to justify the means, whether they were out of power or in power. Since the utopian goal would in practice never be reached, the justification for violence was never-ending. The flaw, according to Paz, rested with utopianism itself; given that “la nueva realidad no coincide nunca con las ideas y programas revolucionarias” and that the essence of human societies is their “indeterminación”, the attempt to impose an ideal blueprint on a society in ignorance of these facts grants revolutionaries carte blanche to practice terror and repression at will, all in the name of the magnificent goal to be attained in the future. And yet, in the same book, Paz insisted that it was impossible to bury Marxism. He still regarded it as a grand and inspiring philosophy: “Renegar de su herencia moral,” he claimed, “sería renegar al mismo tiempo de la porción más lúcida y generosa del pensamiento moderno.” It was not until the 1970s that we begin to see Paz’s transition to a more uniformly negative evaluation of Marxist thought.
Various historical circumstances pushed Paz toward his increasingly hostile view of Marxism. The decline in prestige of the Cuban Revolution was clearly a factor. In 1969, Paz described the Cuban Revolution as the best and most generous example of a project—socialism—that had otherwise failed to live up to its promises. In April 1968, at the height of the Prague Spring, Paz wrote a letter to Arnaldo Orfila Reynal in which he argued that it was a mistake to demand the same kind of democratization from Cuba, “un país… cercado y subdesarrollado” as was then taking place in Czechoslovakia. Only a few years later, however, the arrest and imprisonment of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla elicited an angry denunciation from Paz: “En Cuba ya está en marcha el fatal proceso que convierte al partido revolucionario en casta burocrática y al dirigente en césar.” Still, the most important development was almost certainly the rise of the dissidents in the Soviet Union. Paz was later to describe the 1970s as the decade of “la aparición y el reconocimiento, en Occidente, de los disidentes rusos y de los otros países ‘socialistas’ ”. It was the light the dissidents cast on the nature of actually existing socialism that pushed Paz to sharpen his critique of Marxism.
In the mid-1970s, in the wake of the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973), Paz wrote two articles that marked an important stage in his thinking about Marxism and totalitarianism: “Polvos de aquellos lodos” (1974) and “Gulag: Entre Isaías y Job” (1975), both of which were subsequently included in El ogro filantrópico. In the first article, Paz argued that it was in fact Lenin who was responsible for “la perversión stalinista” of the Soviet system. The key moment in the narrative that led from bolshevism to totalitarianism occurred when Lenin substituted the Party for the working class. Paz observed that the logic of what was to follow had been predicted by Trotsky as early as 1904: “Se pasa de la fase en que el Partido sustituye al Proletariado a la fase en que el Comité Central sustituye al Partido y después a la fase en que el Politburó sustituye al Comité Central hasta llegar a la fase en que un dictador sustituye al Politburó.” In sum, Leninism led inevitably to dictatorship. However, in this same article, Paz took great care to safeguard Marx from any responsibility for the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although he acknowledged that in Marx there were “tendencias autoritarias que venían de Hegel”, he insisted at the same time that “los gérmenes de libertad que se hallan en los escritos de Marx y Engels no son menos fecundos y poderosos que la dogmática herencia hegeliana”, and he offered a stirring affirmation of Marxist utopianism: “El proyecto socialista es esencialmente un proyecto prometeico de liberación de los hombres y los pueblos.” It was not until his second essay on Solzhenitsyn, written approximately a year and a half later, that Paz began to focus on the Russian author’s criticism of utopian thinking itself. It is understandable, Paz suggested, that Solzhenitsyn’s work had aroused so much resistance, given that it amounted to “la descripción de una realidad cuya sola existencia es la refutación más completa, desoladora y convincente de varios siglos de pensamiento utópico, de Campanella a Fourier y de Moro a Marx”. For Paz merely to record such a view without undertaking a dissent was a profoundly significant gesture given the persistent utopian strain in his own writings.
By the time of Tiempo nublado (1983), it was clear that Paz’s rupture with Marxism was complete. He now took the position that the introjection of a utopian spirit into the realm of politics was, at bottom, responsible for the descent of all twentieth-century Communist revolutions into totalitarianism. Utopianism had religious origins; therefore, it did not belong in the world of politics. It was a fundamental error to ask “a la revolución lo que los antiguos pedían a las religiones: salvación, paraíso”. The problem was aggravated by the harnessing of politics to science. Both religion and science—at least the kind of science referred to here—dealt with the absolute and with objective truths. The confusion of the distinction between politics (which for Paz belonged to the sphere of “la realidad inmediata y contingente”) and these two other domains set the stage for the absolutization of politics. This in turn led to the horrors of political persecution, for in the name of absolute truth, it was evident that everything was permitted. In this way, Paz linked twentieth-century totalitarianism to Marxism, for it was Marx who had so conspicuously melded his scientific claims with a utopian vision of the future. Paz’s analysis of Marxism offered a striking amalgam of perspectives. On the one hand, he regarded Marxism, in its orientation toward the future and its faith in progress, as a quintessentially modern philosophy, which was one reason why he condemned it. On the other hand, he also saw Marxism as a kind of religion. The analogy Paz drew between Catholic and Communist orthodoxies in the final pages of his book on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz seemed to suggest that the problem with Marxism was that it was simply not modern enough: it remained rooted in what could only be described as a medieval outlook. As I will discuss in the following section, Paz’s complaint about the other central tradition in modern political thought—liberalism—was precisely that it failed to address the larger questions of the meaning and purpose of human life typically dealt with by religion.
The Liberal Solution
By the 1980s, Paz had come to occupy an eminent and influential position as Mexico’s leading liberal thinker. He strongly supported the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994) and heartily celebrated the collapse of Communism in Europe. In Pequeña crónica de grandes días, he argued that “si México quiere ser, tendrá que ser moderno”, and a few years later, in Itinerario, he described modernity as a “tabla de salvación” for his country. In essence, what he meant by this was that Mexico needed to transform itself into a liberal democracy with a free-market economy. And yet in these same years, he continued to offer blistering assessments of the limitations of liberalism. In La otra voz, he deplored the abstract quality of liberal ideology, complaining that it failed to provide answers to “la mitad de las preguntas que los hombres nos hacemos: la fraternidad, la cuestión del origen y la del fin, la del sentido y del valor de la existencia”. In a 1989 interview, Paz refused to identify himself as a liberal “porque el liberalismo deja sin respuesta a más de la mitad de las grandes interrogaciones humanas”. So how did Paz end up as a liberal who rejected the label “liberal”?
In El laberinto de la soledad, Paz presented himself as a skeptic about modernity: “Mentiría,” he wrote at one point, “si dijera que creo en la fertilidad de una sociedad fundada en la imposición de ciertos principios modernos.” The key modern principle to which Paz refused to grant his assent was the idea that human beings could be shaped or transformed by “estos o aquellos instrumentos pedagógicos o sociales” (p. 28). For Paz, history and society were not products of the human will alone —an assumption upon which the North American way of life was based. His analysis of the modern society par excellence —the United States— revealed how such assumptions were not just philosophically untenable; they also produced, from the perspective of the full unfolding of human capabilities, plainly disastrous results. As we saw earlier, in El laberinto de la soledad, Paz presented the United States in a profoundly dystopian light: industrial capitalism transformed human beings into objects or instruments; U.S. society seemed to march along efficiently, but had no sense of where it was going; Americans were friendly but slightly scary creatures, always optimistic, always denying reality. Yet Paz’s objections to the principles underlying the modern world became even sharper when he turned to analyzing their effects on Mexican history.
The account that Paz offered of Mexican history in the second half of El laberinto de la soledad centered on the tension between Mexican national culture, on the one hand, and the imported political projects that Mexico’s elites had tried to impose on that culture since Independence, on the other. Paz read nineteenth-century Mexican history in terms of a repeated failure on the part of Mexico’s leaders to match ideas with reality. The men who had fought for the independence not only of Mexico but of all of Spanish America had been inspired by the ideals of the European Enlightenment. Paz pointed out that once independence from Spain had been obtained, every single Spanish American nation boasted “una constitución . . . liberal y democrática” (p.133). Yet in reality there was a striking lack of fit between the liberal and democratic ideologies espoused by the nation’s new rulers and the actual socioeconomic arrangements that characterized the societies they had liberated and now governed. The programs and rhetoric of the “caudillos de la Independencia” were similar to those of the French and American revolutionaries, but the Latin American revolutionaries did not represent new social forces; instead they merely enabled “la prolongación del sistema feudal” (p. 132). In Mexico and elsewhere in Spanish America, ideology masked reality instead of expressing it. Two subsequent episodes in nineteenth-century Mexican history —the Reforma and the Porfiriato— merely repeated this pattern. The Reforma tried to institute a clean break with Mexico’s Catholic and colonial past, but Paz claimed that in doing so it negated the country’s own past without offering anything in return. The problem with the liberal ideology that inspired the leaders of the Reforma was, according to Paz, that it attempted to “fundar a México sobre una noción general del Hombre y no sobre la situación real de los habitantes de nuestro territorio” (p. 140). The practical result was that in spite of the liberals’ belief in freedom and equality, the imposition of the liberal program resulted in Mexicans being less free and less equal than before. In the Porfiriato, Paz saw a similar disjunction between ideology and reality. He pointed out that in this period, positivism became the official philosophy of the state. Whereas in Europe positivism was an organic and authentic expression of the interests of an ascendant bourgeoisie, in Mexico it served to justify the prolongation of “un feudalismo anacrónico” (p. 141). Once again, Mexican political life was marked by simulation and inauthenticity, and once again it was a liberal ideology that was mismatched with Mexican reality.
If liberalism was not the answer, then what was Mexico to do? In El laberinto de la soledad it appeared that the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had offered the nation a way out. In the third chapter of El laberinto, Paz had described the Mexican tradition of the fiesta as a kind of explosion that allowed the Mexican to tear off the mask he wore the rest of the year. In Paz’s view, the Mexican Revolution amounted to a sociopolitical fiesta. He described it as a rediscovery of the nation’s identity, an immersion in its past, and a break with the falsehood and inauthenticity that had characterized all of Mexico’s political endeavors since Independence. Yet in spite of his profoundly Romantic celebration of the Revolution, Paz ended up concluding that on some level it had been a failure. After all, no viable plan or project for building the nation had emerged from the Revolution, and when all was said and done, the post-Revolutionary regimes had fallen back on many of the old liberal formulas. The reflections on how to develop and modernize the Mexican economy that Paz added to the second edition of El laberinto de la soledad (published in 1959) seemed to suggest that he did not really see any other options available to his country.
Paz often described Mexican history as a process in which the nation had lost its bearings. In “El espejo indiscreto,” he explained that the key element in Mexico’s trajectory since Independence had been the pursuit of modernity. Given the enduring power of the nation’s premodern psychocultural roots, Mexico had had to sacrifice its own identity in order to enter into modernity. The tension between the agendas of modernity and the demands of identity had resulted in a profound sense of loss and disorientation: Mexico had given up its identity, but had failed to become modern. In searching for a solution to this dilemma, Paz began to focus more and more on what he regarded as the positive elements in the liberal tradition. Even as he continued to discuss the futility and inhumanity of large portions of the project of modernity, Paz developed into an increasingly vigorous defender and proponent of the interconnected concepts of freedom, criticism, and democracy.
The Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City in 1968 seems to have played a crucial role in shaping Paz’s thinking about the value of criticism. Both his immediate reaction to the event —his resignation as Mexico’s ambassador to India— and the lengthy meditation he subsequently published on the massacre and its historical background contributed to Paz’s consecration in Mexico and abroad as a political and intellectual critic of the PRI government. In Posdata, Paz offered both a diagnosis of Mexico’s ills and a prescription for their cure. In investigating the causes of the Tlatelolco massacre, he resorted to a Freudian approach, positing the existence of an invisible or subterranean dimension in the nation’s history —specifically, its pre-Columbian past— that occupied a place in the collective psyche that was parallel to the place of the unconscious in the individual psyche. Paz argued that it was precisely this invisible history that had exploded into view on 2 October 1968. In the Tlatelolco massacre, Paz saw the resurgence of the ancient Aztec practice of ritual sacrifice as well as a manifestation of the oppressive and hierarchical nature of Mexican society. It was as if the latent contents of the collective unconscious had suddenly and violently risen to the surface. In essence, Paz was claiming that the ghost of the past still inhabited present-day Mexico: “Su fantasma nos habita”, he wrote. Yet in dredging up these hidden materials, Paz’s purpose was a therapeutic one: “Creo que la crítica de México y de su historia—una crítica que se asemeja a la terapéutica de los psicoanalistas—debe iniciarse por un examen de lo que significó y significa todavía la visión azteca del mundo” (p. 134-135). The ambivalent relationship to modernity that Paz’s critique of Mexico seemed to express was ultimately that of psychoanalysis itself. On the one hand, Freud’s emphasis on the primitive, instinctual, and archaic drives that shape human behavior can be seen as a profound rebuke to the modern Enlightenment ideal of the transparent, self-knowing, and rational self. On the other hand, as a therapeutic practice that was designed to increase self-knowledge and to cure individuals of their neuroses, psychoanalysis was clearly part of modern Enlightenment culture. Paz’s Posdata seemed to oscillate between a deterministic view of Mexican national culture as a profoundly regressive force and a more optimistic conception of the curative powers of intellectual analysis and debate. Criticism was not only a method in Posdata; it was also a prominent theme. Paz’s analysis of both the problems peculiar to Mexico and the challenges of modernity in general concluded with a fervent affirmation of the vital importance of one particular strand within the philosophical discourse of modernity: “La doble y complementaria tradición de la democracia política y el pensamiento crítico, los dos elementos centrales que conforman lo que llamamos modernidad” (p. 96). Paz argued that the most urgent task for Mexico, if it wished to solve the numerous socioeconomic problems that it faced, was not to create a blueprint for the future, but rather to establish a framework within which different political options could be freely discussed. In essence, Paz was calling for the creation of a public sphere in Mexico: “Cualquier enmienda o transformación que se intente exige, ante todo y como condición previa, la reforma democrática del régimen. Sólo en una atmósfera realmente libre y abierta a la crítica podrán plantearse y discutirse los verdaderos problemas de México” (p.74). Paz’s recommendations in Posdata were typically liberal in their emphasis on creating the procedures through which a society could reach its decisions, rather than on formulating overarching social, economic, or political goals.
It was this liberalism that was to become a more and more distinctive component of Paz’s thought in the years that followed. The increasingly liberal orientation of his ideas was reflected in the meditations on freedom and the critiques of statism in El ogro filantrópico, in his defense of democracy in Tiempo nublado, and in the support he expressed for both economic and political liberalization in Pequeña crónica de grandes días. In “La tradición liberal,” Paz stated outright that “la unión de libertad y democracia ha sido el gran logro de las sociedades modernas.” Yet, alongside his pleas for liberal democracy and free-market economics, Paz continued to denounce the failings of capitalism, of Western-style democracy, and of consumer society in terms that were reminiscent of a much earlier stage in his career, when he still believed in the promise of revolutionary change. It was as if he had maintained a residual attachment to the fervently anti-bourgeois rhetoric of his younger days even after he had made his peace with the limitations of bourgeois society. […]
The Sense of an Ending
For Paz, to talk about the end of modernity was often a way of diagnosing the bankruptcy of modernity. In many cases, when Paz discussed the theme of the end of modernity, he wasn’t simply observing a fact about the course of contemporary history; rather, he was expressing his hope that the world was about to be changed for the better. As we have seen, Paz was a persistent critic of modernity—of its philosophical foundations and its social, political, and cultural consequences. In this light, one can see that the end of modernity might have been a welcome event. Yet, Paz was in actual fact deeply tied to the discourse of modernity. This is clear both from the structure of many of his historical narratives, and—more obviously—from his explicit political statements, some of which I have already recounted above.
Paz related the end of modernity to the collapse of certain overarching narratives about progress, utopia, reason, and emancipation that had dominated political and philosophical thinking since the late eighteenth century. Yet his constant emphasis on the idea of a grand and definitive ending to the modern era could itself be seen as a paradoxical sign of Paz’s involvement in the discourse of modernity. After all, Paz himself had defined the experience of the break or rupture as the key element in the modern conception of time and history—what more definitive form of rupture is there than the actual end of the story? Any grand narrative needs an ending, even if it is the end of the grand narrative itself. In sum, Paz’s repeated meditations on the end of modernity revealed a predilection for sweeping narratives that was itself a feature of the modern era. True, Paz was announcing the collapse of such sweeping narratives; nevertheless, the form in which he did so tended to contradict the content of the message. Moreover, the structure of Paz’s narratives remained the same, with an unvarying emphasis on the end of a particular historical trajectory, while the content changed— hence the varying definitions of modernity. This suggests that Paz was attached to the structure of his vision of history more than the content of that structure, and that the structure relied heavily on the impact of the story’s clear, sharp conclusion.
There was another structural feature of Paz’s narrative about modernity that revealed the extent of his commitment to certain underlying assumptions that, on a different level, he appeared to be criticizing. Take his narrative about the development of modern art: the very organization of this narrative, with its focus on breaks, ruptures, and revolts, projected a profoundly modern vision of its subject. In a sense, the content of the narrative—the story of modern art—had contaminated the form in which Paz presented the story. The important point to keep in mind is that the artistic production of the past is a vast and complicated world, with a multitude of works and movements competing for attention. Any account of this past must necessarily be selective. In choosing to tell a story centered on the ideas of rupture, revolution, and innovation, Paz chose to tell the story of modernity from the perspective of modernity—or, to be more precise, of a certain interpretation of modernity. Consider the implications of a claim Paz made in “Poesía, mito, revolución”, a speech he gave upon receiving the Alexis de Tocqueville Award in 1989. In speaking of the importance of the myth of revolution during the modern era, he stated that “la historia de la poesía moderna, desde el romanticismo hasta nuestros días, no ha sido sino la historia de sus relaciones con ese mito, claro y coherente como una demostración de geometría, turbulento como las revelaciones del antiguo caos”. In turning the myth of revolution into the central myth of modernity, Paz revealed the extent to which he himself remained committed to that myth, not as an ideal he believed in, but as the key to his reading of the modern era. A more drastic break with the myth of revolution than the one undertaken by Paz would involve giving up the idea that the entire history of modern poetry is the history of poetry’s relations with this myth. Not so difficult a task, incidentally. It would be easy enough to provide a list of names of major post-Romantic poets whose work had nothing to do with the modern myth of revolution, and even in the case of poets who did confront this myth in their work, it would not be too difficult to prove that in many cases the idea of revolution was far from being the central focus of their work.
Paz was an extraordinarily controversial writer whose career was characterized by constant polemics. The critical response to his work has been similarly marked by conflicting readings. I want to consider now what light the powerful yet ambiguous sense of an ending that infuses so much of Paz’s thinking casts on some of the key debates surrounding his work, beginning with the question of the periodization of his career. There have been many attempts to divide Paz’s career into a series of distinct phases: Dante Salgado speaks of a Marxist phase; a phase that mixes existentialism, surrealism. and Buddhism; and a liberal phase. Yet, he also points out that Paz never completely discarded his previous interests and convictions. Furthermore, Salgado sees in Paz a consistent adherence to “la idea fija de libertad”. Xavier Rodríguez Ledesma focuses on Paz’s engagement with Marxism and socialism, and he too sees three phases in Paz’s career: an early phase during which Paz was close to Marxist thought; a second phase (starting in the late 1930s) characterized by a critical stance with regard to actually-existing socialist regimes combined with a continued faith in the socialist ideal; and a third phase (beginning in the 1970s) in which he jettisoned all ties to the Marxist tradition. José Agustín Pastén B. focuses on the changes in Paz’s poetics: he distinguishes between an early belief in the capacity of poetry “de liberar al hombre de la historia” and a later, more self-reflexive view (starting in the 1960s) in which Paz regarded “el poema como un mundo sui generis en el cual las palabras que lo forman pasan a convertirse en dispersos signos en rotación cuyo referente no se encuentra fuera sino dentro del poema”. Fernando Vizcaíno also identifies three periods in Paz’s career: a youthful phase during which he believed in socialist revolution, a mature phase (beginning in the 1940s and continuing until the late 1980s) in which his allegiance was to the pursuit of socialism by democratic means, and a final phase (fin-de-siècle, in Vizcaíno’s terminology) during which Paz began a new dialogue with history. In discussions of Paz’s career, the key issue is often the question of when he broke with the Left. Raymond Leslie Williams argues that Paz supported the Left through the 1960s, beginning his shift toward a position that Williams describes as “fundamentally reactionary in the 1970s.” Many critics, including Claire Brewster and Enrique González Rojo, focus on the shift from Paz’s dissident position in 1968, when he resigned as ambassador to India, to his support for the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One critic who spurns the tendency to divide Paz’s career into distinct periods is Yvon Grenier, who argues for a fundamental continuity in Paz’s thinking, which Grenier views as essentially a complex and provocative mixture of liberalism and Romanticism. My own discussion of the theme of the end of modernity in Paz confirms this sense of continuity, even if what is consistent in Paz’s work is the presence of tension and ambivalence (as Grenier’s model also suggests). His prolonged and protracted meditations on the end of modernity reveal Paz as both a critic and an advocate of modernity.
The most controversial topic in Paz criticism has been, without a doubt, the question of his politics. Throughout his career, the attacks on Paz were exceptionally vehement. Most of the polemics have come from leftist critics, who have hammered away at the idea that Paz “betrayed” the Left. Even critics who focus their attacks on different aspects of Paz’s work—its antihistorical nature in the case of Carlos Blanco Aguinaga and Jorge Aguilar Mora, the authoritarian nature of his writings and his actions in the public realm in the case of Rubén Medina, or his misunderstanding of the concept of “ideology” in the case of Rodríguez Ledesma—are clearly bothered most of all by Paz’s lack of commitment to leftist political goals. The ideological animus against Paz has resulted in numerous distorted readings of his career. A case in point is a recent book by Claire Brewster on the political writings of Fuentes, Monsiváis, Poniatowska, and Paz. The author, who swoons over el Subcomandante Marcos and adores Monsiváis and Poniatowska, uses Paz throughout the book as a kind of whipping-boy, accusing him of being out of touch with public opinion (she gives no indication of how she measured it), of leaving Mexico in the 1940s and again in the 1950s in a huff because he could not get his peers to share his opinions (she neglects to mention that Paz’s sojourns abroad were part of a long-standing Latin American tradition of cosmopolitanism), and of wanting to work only with likeminded people (she overlooks the fact that the pages of Plural—the magazine she herself mentions as an example of Paz’s authoritarian and closed intellectual style—were filled with vigorous critical debate, beginning with the polemic between Gabriel Zaid and Carlos Fuentes on the latter’s support for President Luis Echeverría). Underlying the barbed comments and ad hominem attacks is a sharp distaste for someone who did not stick to the canon of leftist ideas.
My review of the theme of the end of modernity has revealed first that Paz had much more in common with leftist thinkers —not just in the early years of his career, but up to the very end— than they are willing to acknowledge. As I have shown, the idea of the end of modernity merged with the view that modernity was fundamentally bankrupt; what Paz identified as the problems of modern societies were often the same as those criticized by thinkers on the Left. At the same time, Paz went a step further: his suspicion of some of the key explanatory schemas of modernity, and of certain aspects of political utopian thinking, combined with his Romantic adherence to the idea and practice of individual freedom, led him to be alert to the repressive nature of existing socialist regimes in a way that bothered more idealistic —or perhaps simply naive— critics. One of Paz’s great contributions to the intellectual debates of his time was his criticism of the Soviet and other Communist regimes; discussing Paz’s career as an intellectual without taking this aspect of his work into account, as Brewster does (she limits her discussion to his response to events in Mexico) produces a profoundly distorted view of his work.
Finally, there is the question of Paz’s relationship to longstanding debates in Latin America on the topic of national identity. Some commentators see Paz primarily as a critic of nationalism. This is a reading Paz himself put forward in a 1949 letter to Alfonso Reyes, in which he described his recently completed book El laberinto de la soledad as an attempt to free himself of what he called the “enfermedad” of nationalism. He went on to mock those individuals for whom “ser mexicano consiste en algo tan exclusivo que nos niega la posibilidad de ser hombres, a secas”. Other critics, however, have remarked on the extent to which a work such as El laberinto de la soledad, while perhaps not exactly a “nationalist” text, nevertheless remains within the framework of traditional debates on national identity. David Brading, for example, draws attention to the underlying opposition between modernity and identity in El laberinto; he goes on to observe that the passages devoted to identity are imbued with much more poetry and fervor than the sections of the book that argue for the dissolution of Mexico’s distinctiveness into the general flow of universal history: “Todo el color y la emoción de su gran obra radica precisamente en su descripción de la fiesta, de la violencia y de la revolución, junto a la cual sus argumentos sobre la soledad universal parecen pálidos y abstractos.” Brading suggests that there is in Paz a Romantic allegiance to a notion of Mexican national identity that is at odds with his commitment to the modernization of Mexico. Annick Lempérière also draws attention to the semantic richness and density attached to the figure of the Mexican in El laberinto; yet she shows that much of Paz’s career in the years that followed the publication of his best-known work was devoted to attacking narrowly nationalistic readings of Mexican literature and culture. His aim was to reduce the influence of cultural nationalism in the Mexican literary world and to put forward a view of Mexican and Spanish American poetry —and other forms of cultural expression— as integral parts of the Western tradition. My reading of the theme of the end of modernity in Paz casts further light on the tensions identified by Brading and Lempérière. At the end of El laberinto de la soledad, Paz had announced the demise of the grand narratives of modernity. Did this include the narrative of the nation? Although he did not say so explicitly, the shape of his argument, with the historical solitude of the Mexican merging with the universal solitude of contemporary man, seemed to suggest that this was indeed the case. Yet El laberinto also proposed that in the particular case of Mexico, the shipwreck of modernity was in large part attributable to its lack of fit with Mexican historical and cultural traditions. In Posdata, on the other hand, it was not modernity that was blamed for the disaster that had recently befallen Mexico; rather, it was the nation’s continued immersion in the past. Yet at the same time, Paz warned the country against simply importing foreign models of modernization; Mexico had to resort to its own traditions to guide it in its quest for modernity. Throughout Paz’s career, the critique of modernity was complemented by the critique of identity; yet, however much he questioned them, these two concepts consistently provided Paz with the basic building blocks of his thought.
Blanco Aguinaga, Carlos. “El laberinto fabricado por Octavio Paz.” In De mitólogos y novelistas, 5–25. Madrid: Turner, 1975.
Brading, David. Octavio Paz y la poética de la historia mexicana. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002.
Brewster, Claire. Responding to Crisis in Contemporary Mexico: The Political Writings of Paz, Fuentes, Monsiváis, and Poniatowska. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005.
González Torres, Armando. Las guerras culturales de Octavio Paz. Mexico City: Ediciones Colibrí, 2002.
Grenier, Yvon. From Art to Politics: Octavio Paz and the Pursuit of Freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity–An Incomplete Project.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 3–15. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983.
King, John. The Role of Mexico’s “Plural” in Latin American Literary and Political Culture: From Tlatelolco to the “Philanthropic Ogre.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Lempérière, Annick. Intellectuels, état et societé au Mexique: Les clercs de la nation, 1910–1968. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1992
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Pastén B., J. Agustín. Octavio Paz: crítico practicante en busca de una poética. Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1999.
Paz, Octavio and Arnaldo Orfila Reynal. Cartas cruzadas. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2005.
Paz, Octavio. Claude Lévi-Strauss o el nuevo festín de Esopo. Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1967. Translated by J. S. Bernstein and Maxine Bernstein as Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970).
_____ . Conjunciones y disyunciones. Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1969.
_____ . “Considering Solzhenitsyn: Dust After Mud”. A translation by Michael Schmidt of “Polvos de aquellos lodos.” in On Poets and Others, 103–27. In El ogro filantrópico, 241–61.
_____ . Corriente alterna. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1967. Translated by Helen R. Lane as Alternating Current (New York: Viking, 1973).
_____ . El arco y la lira. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1956. Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms as The Bow and the Lyre (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973).
_____ . “El espejo indiscreto.” In El ogro filantrópico, 53–69.
_____ . El laberinto de la soledad. In El laberinto de la soledad/Postdata/Vuelta a El laberinto de la soledad, 7–231. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, Coleccón Popular, 1993. Translated by Lysander Kemp as The Labyrinth of Solitude (New York: Grove Press, 1985).
_____ . El ogro filantrópico: Historia y política, 1971–1978. Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1979.
_____ . “El surrealismo.” In Las peras del olmo, 136–51.
_____ . “Gulag: Entre Isaías y Job.” In El ogro filantrópico, 262–70. Translated by Michael Schmidt as “Gulag: Between Isaiah and Job,” in On Poets and Others, 128–38.
_____ . Itinerario. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993. Translated by Jason Wilson as Itinerary (New York: Harcourt, 1999).
_____ . “La democracia imperial.” In Tiempo nublado, 29–58. Translated by Helen R. Lane as “Imperial Democracy,” in One Earth, Four or Five Worlds, 21–52.
_____ . La otra voz: Poesía y fin de siglo. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990. Translated by Helen Lane as The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991).
_____ “La tradición liberal.” In Hombres en su siglo, 9–16. Translated by Lowell Dunham as “The Liberal Tradition” (World Literature Today 49, no. 1: 600–601).
_____ . Las peras del olmo. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1971.
_____ . “Los campos de concentración soviéticos.” In El ogro filantrópico, 235–38.
_____ . “Los signos en rotación.” In El arco y la lira, 253–84. Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms as “Signs in Rotation,” in The Bow and the Lyre, 233–62.
_____ . Pequeña crónica de grandes días. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990.
_____ . “Poesía, mito, revolución.” In La otra voz, 55–68. Translated by Helen Lane as “Poetry, Myth, Revolution,” in The Other Voice, 59–74.
_____ . Posdata. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1970. Translated by Lysander Kemp as “The Other Mexico” in The Labyrinth of Solitude, 213–325.
_____ . Primeras letras (1931–1944). Edited by Enrico Mario Santí. Mexico City: Editorial Vuelta, 1988.
_____ . Puertas al campo. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México, 1966.
_____ . Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o las trampas de la fe. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1982.
_____ . Tiempo nublado. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983. Translated by Helen R. Lane as One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985).
_____ . “Vigilias: Diario de un soñador.” In Primeras letras (1931–1944), 61–109.
Rodríguez Ledesma, Xavier. Escritores y poder: La dualidad republicana en México. Mexico City: Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, 2001.
Salgado, Dante. Camino de ecos: Introducción a las ideas políticas de Octavio Paz. Mexico City: Editorial Praxis, 2002.
Santí, Enrico Mario. El acto de las palabras: Estudios y diálogos con Octavio Paz. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.
Sheridan, Guillermo. Poeta con paisaje: Ensayos sobre la vida de Octavio Paz. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2004.
Vizcaíno, Fernando. Biografía política de Octavio Paz, o, La razón ardiente. Málaga, Spain: Algazara, 1993.
Williams, Raymond Leslie. “The Octavio Paz Industry.” American Book Review 14, no.3 (August–September 1992): 3, 10.
 “Las ‘confesiones’ de Heberto Padilla”, 239. Padilla was a Cuban poet who was arrested and imprisoned by the Castro regime in 1971 for allegedly engaging in counterrevolutionary activities. The Padilla affair caused a split among Latin American intellectuals, somoe of whom turned their backs on the Cuban regime, while other continued to support the Revolution.
 For an excellent account of the history of Octavio Paz’s Plural see King, Role of Mexico’s “Plural”. King provides ample evidence to back up the view that Paz’s journal followed an open and pluralistic editorial policy.
- Van Delden, Maarten
- 1968 Año axial: Olimpiada y Tlatelolco