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In Light of Octavio Paz

Ashok Vajpeyi ( is a Hindi poet and critic, and is the Managing Trustee of the Raza Foundation, New Delhi.

Octavio Paz was a major poet and intellectual of the 20th century. He influenced a group of painters and poets in India, where he was the Mexican ambassador in the 1960s.

The Raza Foundation in collaboration with the Cervantes Institute and the Mexican embassy is organising a multi-arts event in November 2018, “India Remembers Octavio Paza,” marking 20 years since his death.

The world, a double blossom, opens:

Sadness of having come,

Joy of being here.

I walk lost in my own centre.

— “Concert in the Garden” (Paz 1997a)

We have become enormous

Just knowing each other

With eyes closed

— “With Eyes Closed” (Paz 1997b)

And I reach down and grasp the incandescent grain and plant it in my being: it must grow one day.

— “Mutra” (Paz 1997c)

Octavio Paz is widely recognised as a major poet of the world in the 20th century. In keeping with the general tenor of his times, he was also an intellectual, someone to whom ideas mattered as much as images, memory, and the details, sometimes captured surreally. Paz was indeed part of the creative–intellectual ethos of the Western world, and yet he evolved a different, an alternative vision. Not only in poetry, but in the realm of ideas, poetics, and aesthetics, too, he was “the other voice.”

This “other voice” emerged out of his deep contemplation of Mexican civilisation and history, “the labyrinth of solitude” as he called it. It also made him see and articulate the alternative ways of seeing reality and understanding the human condition as particularly embodied in Hindu and Buddhist art and thought. In his poetic and intellectual career he struggled against all forms of totalitarian ideologies, including the totalitarian notion of the primacy and the centrality of Western thought. He emphasised the presence and the simultaneity of alternating currents.

While in India, Paz in 1967 wrote an essay titled “Baudelaire as Art Critic: Presence and Present.” In it, Paz (1986a) said that

In constant battle with the past, modern art is in conflict with itself. The art of our time lives and dies of modernity.

He went on to assert that

Both from the perspective of language and from that of history, Baudelaire’s reflection opens out into an unsustainable paradox which is, nonetheless, the very reality of modern painting: the triumph of the pictorial is the equivalent of the disembodiment of presence, the victory of modernity is its ruin, the original moment does not dissolve but affirm history, the aesthetic of particularity refutes itself, and the creative accident turns into a mechanical repetition, torn between these antithetical contraries, Baudelaire seeks in analogy a system which, without suppressing tensions, resolves them into a harmony. Analogy is the highest function of the imagination, since it fuses analysis and synthesis, translation and creation. It is knowledge of and at the same time a transmutation of reality.

On the one hand, it is an arch that joins different historical periods and civilisations; on the other, it is a bridge between different languages; poetry, music, panting. In the first instance, if it is not “the eternal,” it is what articulates all times and all spaces in an image which, ceaselessly changing prolongs and perpetuates itself. In the second instance, it transforms communication into creation: what painting says without telling, turns into what music paints without painting, and what without ever expressly mentioning it the poetic word enunciates.

This complex analysis not only illuminates and extends the Baudelairian critical stance, but also offers a new way of understanding the essential tension which resides firmly at the centre of the modern. Paz was constantly laying ground for having poetry and other arts being brought and seen on a common site. In the same article, Paz has also quoted Baudelaire saying in relation to a Delacroix painting that “this colour thinks for itself, independently of the objects it clothes” and that “colours only exist relatively.”

In another article, this time on Luis Cernuda, written in Delhi in 1962, Paz (1986b) recalled the words of Cernuda, “What country suffers its poets with pleasure! Its living poets, I mean, since there is no country that doesn’t adore its dead poets.” When I first read this essay and came across these words, I could see how aptly they described the situation in India. In 1964, only two years after Paz wrote the essay, a major Hindi poet, Muktibodh, died at the age of 47, not having published a single collection of his poetry and became a celebrity posthumously.

Paz (1986b) later quotes Cernuda again saying that “I have only tried, like every man, to find my truth, my own, which will not be better or worse than that of others, only different.” He underlines the poet’s spiritual fecundity residing in the fact that he put to the test the systems of collective morality both established by tradition, such as religion, and those which social utopias, such as Marxism, propose to us. These words came to us at a time when tradition and Marxism in our own literary milieu were in an epic battle and we needed to get out of the either/or dilemma to some clarity that there are other alternatives. Paz finds in Cernuda the alternative of love, “a break with the social order and a joining with the natural world.” Paz’s observation that “history is not only time lived and died but time which is transmuted into work and deed.”

In 1965, Paz (1986c) wrote one of three pieces that he has written on Luis Buñuel in Delhi. He concluded the piece saying

After Sade, as far as I know, no one has dared to discover an atheist society. Something is lacking in the work of our contemporaries: not God, but man without God.

Paz has remained concerned about the implications of religion receding in our times. Today, if alive, he would be equally concerned about its revival in rather ugly forms and its dominance over politics.

Love and desire were one of the essential preoccupations of Paz, both in poetry and thought. He later wrote a whole book on eroticism called The Double Flame (Paz 1996). But, as early as 1965, in his analysis of Cernuda’s poetic world, Paz had already observed,

Imagination is desire in motion … Desire makes the imaginary real, it makes reality unreal. The whole being of man is the theatre of this continual metamorphosis; in his body and soul desire and reality inter penetrate and change, join and divide. Desire peoples the world with images and unpeoples reality at the same time.

Paz continued:

There is a point of intersection between desire and reality: love. Desire is vaster than love, but love-desire is the most powerful of desires. Only in that desiring of one being among all others does desire expand to its fullest extent. Who knows love wants nothing else. Love reveals reality to desire: that desired image is something more than a body which vanishes: it is a soul, a conscience. The erotic object turns into the beloved person. By means of love, desire at last touches reality: the other exists.

Paz’s remarks brought a new and complex, human and philosophical glow to our own groping for love in darkness when the social was being allowed such an exclusive presence that the
personal was pushed to the margins. For us some poets still struck with love in our poetic efforts, Paz became an inspiring presence.

In 1994, Paz came out with a new book entitled Itinerary: An Intellectual Journey. In it, while pointing out the “discord between customs and ideas,” Paz underlines the fact that “our time is one of the split consciousness, and of being conscious of the split.” He traces the origin of revolution and feels “the revolutions of the Modern Age have claimed to substitute religions in their dual function: change people and give a meaning to their presence on earth,” and adds that “now we can see that they were false religions.” Paz acknowledges his being complicit in the revolutionary frenzy and a witness to the disappointment. Moving from what Paz called “erudite darkness” to a solitary path for himself, he found in George Orwell “moral audacity and intellectual sobriety” (qualities that Paz himself has in his prose in ample measure), he struggled to find an answer to the riddle of human evil and came to the sad conclusion that “Revolution is a god indifferent to our passions and who rewards or punishes with … unpredictable infallibility.” At the same time Paz saw “the spurious relationship between the religious and pseudo-religious politics appears today in all its clarity” which today is more relevant than ever before.

About India, Paz (1994) wrote:

India is not really a nation but a conglomeration of peoples, languages, cultures, and religions, all combined in a democratic system of government inherited from the British administration. India is one of the few countries that managed to attain independence without falling into a dictatorship. Nationalism is an idea like democracy that does not appear in India’s history or in its cultural traditions: it is a concept adopted by the elite from the English culture. It is not exactly a doctrine but a body of vague principles and sensibilities destined to unite, from top to bottom the different people who make up the republic. What spontaneously unites the diverse communities, from bottom to top, is religious sensibility, including in this term the castes which are primordially religious categories. Indian nationalism is best viewed as a secular sensibility (its positive aspect) born of the struggle against British domination and adopted by a minority educated by the British. However, successive governments in India since independence and without excepting the talented and civilized Nehru, have not hesitated to resort to force to repress the different nationalistic movements in the interior of the republic. Once independence was attained, Indian nationalism changed direction; it did not defend the people from foreign domination but imposed its authority upon them.

I wonder whether in the political climate today in India, with its widespread aggressive and masculine version of nationalism, an increasing number of atrocities on the basis of caste, and a ferocious religiosity gaining political sanction and support, would Paz still view nationalism as a secular sensibility? It is sadly fragmenting in India, creating “others” and denying freedom and equality to the vast masses.

Paz concludes his intellectual journey with remarks which are both sad and wise:

neither stars nor atoms, nor plants nor animals know evil. The universe is innocent, even when it sinks a continent or explodes a galaxy. Evil is human, exclusively human. But not all is evil in humans. Evil nests in their awareness, in their freedom. In there also lies the remedy, the answer to evil. This is the sole lesson I can deduce from this long, sinuous itinerary: to fight evil is to fight ourselves. And that is the meaning of history.

Silent Gratitude

Many of us in India may wonder how evil, like the mythological character Raktabeej, keeps on being born again and again: it never dies, nor the need to destroy it ever abates. In the last phase of his life, Paz concluded, in a poem entitled “Response and Reconciliation” (1996), with these lines:

And while I say what I say

time and space fall dizzyingly

restlessly. They fall in themselves.

Man and the galaxy return to silence.

Does it matter? Yes-but it doesn’t matter

We know that silence is music and that

We are a chord in this concert.

Paz mattered, his poetry and ideas mattered. Many of us in India in silent gratitude realise that he was for us a sforzando in the concert of the 20th century.


Paz, Octavio (1986a): “Baudelaire as Art Critic: Presence and Absence,” On Poets and Others, New York: Seaver Books.

— (1986b): “Luis Cernuda: The Edifying Word,” On Poets and Others, New York: Seaver Books.

— (1986c): “Luis Buñuel: Three Perspectives,” On
Poets and Others
, Trans Michael Schmidt, New York: Seaver Books.

— (1994):Itinerary, Trans Jason Wilson, Harcourt, Inc, US.

— (1996):The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, Trans Helen Lane, Mariner Book.

— (1997a): “Concert in the Garden,” A Tale of Two Gardens, Trans Eliot Weinberger, New Directions Publications Corp.

(1997b): “With Eyes Closed,” A Tale of Two Gardens, Trans Eliot Weinberger, New Directions Publications Corp.

— (1997c): “Mutra,” A Tale of Two Gardens, Trans Eliot Weinberger, New Directions Publications Corp.

— (2012): “Response and Reconciliation,” The Poems of Octavio Paz, Ed and Trans Eliot Weinberger, New Directions.

Updated On : 2nd Nov, 2018


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