I just spent a wonderful time reading Ilan Stavans’s lovely little book on Octavio Paz, Mexican essayist and poet who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Stavans aptly titled his book Octavio Paz. A Meditation, for it is not a biography nor a scholarly study; it’s a very personal and selective overview of Paz’s life, his work, and his role in the Mexican and international intellectual spheres.
Probably today, less than 15 years after he died, many in Mexico and other countries would agree with Stavans’s opinion that what remains relevant in Paz’s voluminous work is not his poetry—but his essays.
Stavans published his book in 2001—three years after Paz’s death. However, already then he could see clearly what was alive and what was dead in Paz’s oeuvre. “His poetry is too loose, too mystical for my taste”, he says. And immediately adds: “His nonfiction, on the other hand, is sublime.”
Paz obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1943, parlaying the money into time for reading and writing in New York and California. This resulted in a series of interrelated essays on a question explored at the time in Mexico by all sorts of intellectuals, among them those philosophers influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre, to wit: What defines this portion of humanity we call the Mexican, and what is the Mexican’s station from an international perspective.
The essays, published in book form in 1950, turned Paz into a celebrity. Stavans considers this book, entitled The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz’s “most outstanding accomplishment.”
Time has probably settled the question of Paz as a poet: he is not first rate, his images and his ideas are not compelling, and in many cases they are clearly derivative.
As to his prose, the thousands and thousands of pages he wrote are entombed and sealed in the thick and unbearably heavy volumes of his Obras Completas. They go mostly unread.
Paz was an accomplished rhetor—not an original thinker. He wrote sometimes beautiful prose, but never came up with a new idea. He read widely and had a prodigious memory. Perhaps it was this pachyderm memory that was also his biggest obstacle.
Juan Ramón Jiménez, also a Nobel Prize laureate and one of the greatest Spanish poets of the twentieth century, insisted that forgetting was essential for the creative mind: “Forgetting is a virtue; memory, a vice.”
I end then this small piece on Stavans’s meditation on Paz with Ramón Jiménez’s reminder for us to “respect forgetting, the marvels of forgetting, which allow us to contemplate, isolated from all else, the uniqueness of the present.”