Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Octavio Paz, Unedited

by Lottie Kent


In 1975, the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican writer, whose centenary is celebrated this week, gave six never-published lectures in which he analysed his idea of literature. This is an extract published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais in which he discusses the relationship between poetry and progress, and which I have translated here.
Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914 – April 19, 1998)
(image source: Wiki Commons)
"These retrospective lectures have provoked contradicting emotions and feelings within me: sympathy and revulsion, by which I went; approval and disgust, upon which I wrote. Assent and denial coexist and battle inside of me. I cannot even judge myself. I do not condemn myself nor do I absolve myself. I limit myself to seeing and, to tell the truth, supporting myself. Yet, as far as I can be objective, which isn’t that far, I realise that change and continuity are two constant notions within my poetic works, two poles, two contrary extremes that have attracted me since I began to write.  Experimentation with and exploration of new and little-known poetic forms and territories has always interested and impassioned me. From this point of view, my poetry is engraved within the tradition of modern literature, which is a literature of exploration and invention.

I have tried to define this tradition in various critical works, especially in Los hijos del limo, a book with the subtitle ‘From Romanticism to the avant-garde.’ That tradition can be characterised as a series of ruptures from the past and a series of attempts at creating a new art, distinct and unique. The ancient aesthetic was founded upon imitation of the models of classical antiquity; the modern, from the nineteenth century until the present, in the search of a new beauty. But perhaps we are at the end of this period, and we are living under the decline of the avant-garde. Whatever the case may be, for me, the exploration of poetic forms, of new forms, has always coincided with the love and cultivation of traditional forms, from the sonnet and the hendecasyllabic to the short poem in quick metre. However, change and continuity are not only intertwined in the poetic forms that I have often used, but also in the themes and the substance from which I have written.
My first book, Raiz del hombre, was, to a certain extent, a break with the poetry that was being written in those days in Mexico. Yet, in a peculiar sense, such a break released me from myself. On the other hand, it did not release Jorge Cuesta, to whom, in a small note, I dedicated the book. Raiz del hombre is a clumsy book, full of repetition, ingenuousness, and a lack of taste – a book that makes me ashamed to have written it. Yet it is also a book that feels mine - not because of what it says, but because of what it wants to say and falls short of saying. The movement that propels every line is not outwards but inwards. It is not a search for new forms, for novelty, but a failed attempt, it’s true, to return to life’s original primordial source. The word blood appears in every poem with an obsessive, monotonous insistence. It seemed to me, in those days of my adolescence, to be a sort of magical emblem. Its range of meanings was resolved in one: for me, blood designed the world in its origins, the world of the beginning, elemental life - real life, in short. It was a true constellation of meanings. It came on the one hand from the English novelist D.H. Lawrence, whose work I read much of in my early youth. It also came from the German poet Novalis, for whom blood has a value, a mystical significance, corporal and spiritual all at once. Brought together with those ideas were the visions of a pre-Columbian world, especially the Aztec vision, with its belief in blood as a magical substance that put the cosmos in motion and was the sacred food of the gods. Lastly, the word, and its dark associations, came from me, from the deepest part of my self. I soon abandoned that word as a hackneyed verbal talisman, but the psychological underground into which, like a true root – an origin of man - it sunk, remained intact. It was and is the base, the sustenance for my poetry – the substance that feeds it.

In one of my first critical works, Poesia de soledad y poesia de comuniĆ³n (1942) I return to this theme, although from a slightly different perspective. I compare love with poetry and say: “In love, the couple tries to participate again in that state wherein death and life, necessity and satisfaction, dreams and reality, the word and the image, time and space, the fruit and the lips, are confounded in a sole reality. Fearful, the lovers defend their love, but each time they do so they are older, more naked and exposed. They rescue the humiliated animal and the somnolent vegetable that lives in every one of us. And they have the presentiment of the pure energy that moves the universe, and of the inertia into which the vertigo of that energy is converted.” In that epoch I had not read Breton. Later, I found that he says something similar, and he said it before, but this coincidence was absolutely a coincidence."
In another passage from the same text in 1942: “love is nostalgia for our origin, is man’s dark movement toward his root, towards his beginning. In each man and each woman – it would be said today – are all worlds and all times. Love is the attempt to return to original unity or, at least, to envisage it. I could quote further, but I would be limiting myself to pointing out that this idea would reappear a few years later in El laberinto de soledad. Everything in the modern life is inclined to force us from ourselves, yet everything within us compels us to return, to descend to the world from whence we were uprooted. If we are lost to the love that, being desire, is a hunger for Communion, a hunger to fall and to die as much as it is to live and be born, we are lost to the love that gives us a piece of real life – a piece of real death.

And, later, in El arco y la lira, perhaps with greater clarity, I say: “the impulse to return is the gravitational force of love – we exalt the loved person, he or she makes us leave ourselves and, simultaneously, makes us return to ourselves – makes us return to being. The loved woman – says the Spanish poet Antonio Machado – is one with her lover, not in terms of the erotic process, but in her beginnings, and makes double the impact. The loved woman is one with the loved man, and is so in two simultaneous ways, as a premonition and as a memory: the premonition of the desired unity is at the same time a reminder of that lost original unity, a true subversion of linear time; that which we remember is that which we have presentiment of, in poetry and love, and also in other experiences like the experiences of a contemplative life, and in these, perhaps with greater force and clarity, man returns to himself, and that return is a recuperation of the original unity. We do not return to our base selves, but to another, or to say it better, to the Other.” In short, I have always believed – I confess that I am talking about my beliefs and not my ideas – that the poetic conscience is the revelation of our original condition, and that that condition is not only a different situation, as a modern philosopher would say, this state of being or that, but a state of being with another, being with someone or something. That something is what we call “the world” or “the cosmos” or “the universe”: not that which we are in, but that which we are with. Poetry, again, launches us outside of ourselves towards the unknown. It is an exploration and a search for the new. At the same time, it is a change, a reminder, a return to being, a return to the being."

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