- Eternally Present:Octavio Paz at One Hundred
Two decades after Octavio Paz's death, scholars across the humanities and social sciences continue to wrangle over how to define his legacy. At the heart of this lively debate lay questions about whether Paz's political evolution was a matter of principled integrity or outright opportunism and whether his celebrated poetry has had any significant impact on contemporary Mexican literature. Though opinions may be divided, the very existence of these disputes reflect what the cultural commentator Jesús Silva Herzog Márquez has noted: "[Paz] no desparecerá del horizonte cultural de México, nunca nos será indiferente" (225). Evidence confirming this lapidary assertion can be found in the numerous biographies, scholarly monographs, and edited volumes that came to light in Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere during Paz's centennial commemorations (2014–15). An exhaustive review of these [End Page 677] publications is impossible. However, what follows is a brief discussion of five books that reassess the life and work of Mexico's Nobel Laureate.
Christopher Dominguez Michael's recent Octavio Paz en su siglo (Aguilar, 2014), is a full-throated "apologia" of what he calls Paz's "jefatura espiritual." Once admired for having resigned as ambassador in protest over the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, in his latter years Paz's reputation faced serious criticism from all sides of the ideological spectrum. His complex relationship to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's administration (1988–94), his ties to the mediaconglomerate Televisa, and his relentless critique of the Mexican left was harshly scrutinized in the press. However, according to Dominguez, this criticism unfairly misrepresented Paz's overall commitment to Mexican democracy. In the hopes of properly situating and reassessing the poet's perplexing ties and political positions, Octavio Paz en su siglo provides the first comprehensive chronicle to date of Paz's life. Across twelve chapters readers march through significant events in his long career, including episodes from his childhood (chapter one); his trip to Yucatán as a rural teacher in the 1930s (chapter three); his marriage to Elena Garro and their life-altering journey to Civil-War Spain where Paz meets Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, André Malraux, Antonio Machado, Vicente Huidobro, and Rafael Alberti (chapter four); scenes from his career as a young diplomat traveling throughout Mexico, San Francisco, New York, and Paris—where he connects with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Benjamin Péret, André Breton, and other Surrealists (chapters five and six); and his first trip to India, Tokyo, and subsequent return to Mexico—as the acclaimed author of El labertinto de la soldedad (1950)—after a nine-year absence (chapters seven and eight).
While Dominguez's tome offers few revelations regarding the poet's early itinerate life and rise to literary fame, his aim in revisiting these episodes is to retrace Paz's political evolution from leftist sympathizer to liberal stalwart. Thus along the way we are introduced to a cast of disenchanted leftists whose unorthodox thinking alerted Paz to the dangers of unexamined ideology. For example, in Spain Paz read André Gide's much criticized Retour de l'U. R. S. S. (1936) (chapter four). While many leftists disregarded the book as imperialist propaganda, Paz silently took note of Gide's criticism and began to cultivate a skepticism towards Soviet communism. Later, the poet's reservations would be reinforced by a coterie of leftist "anti-totalitarian teachers" [End Page 678] whose intellectual independence, according to Dominguez, became the backbone of Paz's own political thought (104). These included the Russian revolutionary writer Victor Serge, the French novelist Jean Malaquais, the mysterious Catalan...