OCTAVIO PAZ Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature
Although I occasionally found this book annoying with its bold and sweeping pronouncements on aesthetics (Our painting seeks to be a language without ceasing to be a presence; the oscillation between these two incompatible requirements constitutes the entire history of modern art . . .), mostly I was incredibly impressed with Paz's vast but lightly-worn erudition and his practice of making stimulating connections and correspondences.
As in his poetry, he sees history, society, humanity and art as ever-changing processes, a perpetual dance of complementary contradictions: tradition and modernity, conformity and revolution, stillness and motion, being and nothingness. He likes to compare and contrast, to discover similarities and differences — and, again as in his poetry, explores these polarities by the use of paradox and, sometimes, a very dry wit.
These essays do show their age in some respects (most were written in the 1970s) — particularly when dealing with politics and technology; but their general pervading spirit and philosophy I found eminently sympathetic. Paz does perhaps rely rather too much on the 'logic' of structuralism and semiotics, but he more than compensates for this with his faultless (in my view) opinions on the equivocal merits of our machine and communications age, the dubious 'progress' of science and history, and the subjectivity, relativity and plurality needed for a vital art and culture.
How better to give a flavour of Paz, both man and writer, than by quoting some passages which leaped out at me while reading the essays.
First an example of his dry humour:
It is more difficult to maintain a tradition of good cuisine than a tradition of good literature, as England teaches us. At Table and in Bed 1971
Here he defends the individual against the collective, the lone voice against the system:
We must cultivate and defend particularity, individuality, and irregularity — life. Human beings do not have a future in the collectivism of bureaucratic states or the mass society created by capitalism. Every system, by virtue as much of its abstract nature as its pretension to totality, is the enemy of life. Iniquitous Symmetries 1979
And here he connects erotic desire with intimations of mortality:
The desired body and the desiring body know each other to be mortal bodies; in the now of love, because of its very intensity, the knowledge of death is present. The New Analogy: Poetry and Technology 1967
He is open to popular as well as high culture, and is aware that both constantly feed into each other:
The relation between the two [high culture and popular culture], like all relations, is one of opposition and attraction. At times there is a contradiction between the two extremes, and at times there is fusion. This is what makes a society creative: complementary contradiction. The Verbal Contract 1980
Plurality, particularity, the local and the regional are desirable, as opposed to uniformity and mass production. He would have railed against our current and increasing globalisation, though he was always wary of a too-narrow nationalism:
The nineteenth century inherited from the Encyclopedia the idea of universal man, the same in all latitudes; we in the twentieth century have discovered the plural human, everywhere different. Universality for us is not the monologue of reason but the dialogue between human beings and culture. Universality means plurality. The Verbal Contract 1980
Uniformity is death, and the most perfect form of uniformity is universal death; hence the collective extermination practiced in the twentieth century. Life is always particular and local; it is my life, this life of mine here and now. The resurrection of national and regional cultures is a sign of life. Ibid
This is a perceptive comment on travel:
The French poem is wrong: to travel is not 'to die a little'*, but to practice the art of saying goodbye so that, our burden that much lighter, we may learn to receive. The Tradition of the Haiku 1970)
Among a huge variety of other subjects, Paz was very interested in Eastern thought and Buddhism:
. . . that feeling of universal sympathy with everything that exists, that fraternity in impermanence with human beings, animals, and plants, which is the most precious gift that Buddhism has given us. Ibid
Fraternity in impermanence — I like that.
Finally, he believed passionately in the importance of the personal and the particular in art . . .
To suppress subjectivity is to cut the heart out of art.
. . . and how the history of art can never be measured according to the 'norms' of scientific advance or rectilinear time:
It is difficult — or even absurd — to believe that such a thing as progress exists in the realm of art. From the book Alternating Current 1967
Though it perpetually changes, poetry does not advance. Ibid
All translations from the Spanish by HELEN LANE
*I have traced this quote ('Partir, c'est mourir un peu') to the poem Rondel de l'Adieu by the obscure French poet and playwright Edmond Haraucourt (1856-1941).