A labyrinth is, by definition, a place in which one becomes lost; and in his book-length essay The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz explores his interest in the ways in which both human beings generally, and the people of Mexico specifically, become lost in solitude and try to find their way out of it. And in the process of that exploration, Paz sets down one of the most profound and perceptive considerations ever set down regarding the life, history, and culture of Mexico. That essay is combined with four others in this singular 1985 collection titled The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings.
Over the course of his career, Paz studied law, wrote long poems with a modernist bent, served his country as Mexico’s Ambassador to India, and taught at Cambridge and Cornell universities. Yet such a bare description of Paz’s work does not do justice to the grace of his writing, whether in poetic or prose form – or to the breadth and catholicity of his interests. Reading El laberinto de la soledad, like reading any of Paz’s poetry, provides the pleasure of spending time in the company of a truly great mind.
The Labyrinth of Solitude – all nine chapters of it – takes up 212 pages of this 398-page book. Paz emphasizes that “Solitude – the feeling and knowledge that one is alone, alienated from the world and oneself – is not an exclusively Mexican characteristic” (p. 195). Yet by evoking a number of archetypes of Mexican culture – from the image of the pachuco (a flamboyantly dressed young man who affiliates with a Mexican counterculture) to the celebration of the Day of the Dead – Paz suggests that Mexicans tend to mask themselves as a means of self-protection:
The Mexican…seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation….He builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people – and also from himself. (p. 29)
The various and overlapping facets of Mexico’s history – the legacy of the great Indigenous nations of pre-Columbian times; the history of the conquest by the Spaniards and the imposition of the Roman Catholic faith; the achievement of independence from Spain in 1821; the Revolution of 1910 – have all, in Paz’s view, contributed to, and even exacerbated, that Mexican tendency to “mask up” as a response to the harshness and dangers of life. Those many levels of masking create the “labyrinth of solitude” from which it is so difficult to escape.
With regard to religion in Mexico, for instance, Paz discusses how the Spanish conquest represented, for Indigenous Mexicans, a failure of their old gods to protect them from invasion and subjugation. The advent of Catholicism in Mexico, for all the trauma of its introduction into the country, provided people with a new religion that resembled the old religions in placing the believer in a child-to-parent relationship with divinity:
Nothing has been able to destroy the filial relationship of our people with the divine. It is a constant force that gives permanence to our nation and depth to the affective life of the dispossessed. But at the same time, nothing has succeeded in making this relationship more active and fecund – not even the Mexicanization of Catholicism, not even the Virgin of Guadalupe herself. (p. 108)
As it is in Mexico with religion, so it is with politics, festivals, gender relations – historically imposed layers weigh upon each other, forcing the individual Mexican to ”mask up” once again in order to resolve the contradictions. And the more one puts on masks, and the longer one keeps them on, the deeper and more intense the solitude one experiences.
The labyrinthine aspects of The Labyrinth of Solitude are made clear by Paz late in the essay:
Several related ideas make the labyrinth one of the most fertile and meaningful mythical symbols: the talisman or other object, capable of restoring health or freedom to the people, at the center of a sacred area; the hero or saint who, after doing penance and performing the rites of expiation, enters the labyrinth; and the hero’s return – either to save or redeem his city, or to found a new one. (p. 208)
Focusing on the labyrinth archetype as it appears in the myths of Perseus and the Fisher King, Paz suggests that “We have been expelled from the center of the world and are condemned to search for it through jungles and deserts, or in the underground mazes of the labyrinth” (p. 209). Yet the essay ends on a relatively hopeful note, as Paz returns to his focus on Mexico’s fiestas from early in the essay, and states that “Myths and fiestas, whether secular or religious, permit man to emerge from his solitude and become one with creation” (p. 211).
The other essays published in The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings include four other comparably important examples of Paz's thoughts about his country. “The Other Mexico,” an essay that developed from a lecture that Paz delivered at the University of Texas in 1969, is characterized by Paz as “a continuation” (p. 215) of the ideas he set forth two decades earlier in The Labyrinth of Solitude.
Paz starts “The Other Mexico” by looking at the year 1968 – a pivotal year in recent Mexican history. On the one hand, 1968 was the year of the Mexico City Olympics, the first Olympic tournament ever held in Latin America. On the other hand, the staging of the Olympics in Mexico City was protested by college and university students who felt that the millions of pesos being spent on the Olympic Games could have been better spent working to alleviate Mexico’s still-considerable poverty. Mexican security forces used violence to quash the protests in the Plaza de Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City, and as many as 400 protesters were killed. The event is known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, and is still a trauma in Mexico’s collective memory. Paz resigned his post as Mexico’s Ambassador to India in protest.
Against the backdrop of the then-virtually absolute power of Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI), Paz posits that, while there is indeed a Mexico of people who are increasingly prosperous, with a growing middle class – exactly the Mexico that the government of the time wished to display to the world through the Olympic Games – there is an “other Mexico” that does not participate in any of that prosperity: “For years now, half of Mexico – poorly clothed, illiterate, and underfed – has watched the progress of the other half” (p. 271).
Invoking the archetype of the pyramid on which victims were sacrificed to the Aztec gods in pre-contact times, Paz suggests that Mexican society remains pyramidal in its structure, with a small elite enjoying power and luxury at the top while vast numbers of those at the bottom live in poverty and misery. The only difference, from Paz’s point of view, is that a president and the PRI have taken the place of a god-king and his hierarchy of high priests:
The image of Mexico as a pyramid is…the viewpoint of what is on the platform at its top. It is the viewpoint of the ancient gods and of those who served them, the Aztec lords and priests. It is also that of their heirs and successors: the viceroys, the generals, the presidents. And, furthermore, it is the viewpoint of the vast majority, of the victims crushed by the pyramid or sacrificed on its platform-sanctuary. The critique of Mexico begins with the critique of the pyramid. (p. 308)
The other inclusions in the book are not as extensive as The Labyrinth of Solitude or “The Other Mexico,” but are interesting in their own way. “Return to The Labyrinth of Solitude” (1975), an interview between Paz and a professor at a French university, sets forth Paz’s sense of change and continuity in Mexico over the 25 years since The Labyrinth of Solitude was written, provides Paz’s sense of the writers who influenced his composition of the essay, and is amusing for Paz’s description of how his book was initially received in Mexico “Rather negatively. Many people were indignant: some thought it was a book against Mexico. A poet told me…that I had written an elegant insult against Mexican mothers” (p. 330).
“Mexico and the United States,” originally published in The New Yorker in September of 1979, makes valid points regarding Spanish Catholicism and English Protestantism as the different religious and cultural antecedents of these two republics of the North American mainland. But what really struck me about this thoughtful and perceptive essay is a warning that Paz offers to Americans near its conclusion:
Today, the United States faces very powerful enemies, but the mortal danger comes from within: not from Moscow, but from that mixture of arrogance and opportunism, blindness and short-term Machiavellianism, volubility and stubbornness which has characterized its foreign policies during recent years, and which reminds us in an odd way of the Athenian state in its quarrel with Sparta. (p. 376)
Paz was writing in 1979, at a time of heightened Cold War tension; within three months after the publication of the essay, the Soviet Union would be invading Afghanistan. But it seemed to me that his words would have been just as applicable on any given day of the Trump administration.
And “The Philanthropic Ogre,” published in Dissent magazine in late 1979, is most noteworthy for Paz’s gloomy reflections on the state of the Mexican government. He writes that “The modern state is a machine – a continually self-producing machine” (p. 379), and expresses his concern regarding the bureaucratic power of the PRI – an understandable concern, as the PRI, at the time of this essay, had held power continuously since 1929, and would not fall from power until the year 2000.
I was profoundly impressed by The Labyrinth of Solitude. It may be the most important book ever written by a Mexican author, or about Mexico. I do not offer this assessment casually or lightly.