The Editing of Space

By: David Ramírez

Spring of 1995

Cultural Olympics, Dekalb College [today, Perimeter College]

Octavio Paz


Preparing for the summer Olympics Games of 1996, the city of Atlanta held a series of cultural events. Among these events, the Carter Presidential Center, sponsored by the Georgia Review and the Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games, held a two-day conference where eight literature Noble Laureates were invited to participate, the largest gathering of laureates of its kind ever.[1] One of these invitees was Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz, who was awarded with the prize in 1990. Institutions of higher learning also organized their own activities as a result, which they called The Cultural Olympics.

In anticipation of Paz’ arrival, Vanya Nick, my former professor of English literature and now longtime friend, gave me the honor to give a lecture on this celebrated author for one of the many events of The Cultural Olympics, which I delivered at then Dekalb College.

Octavio Paz (1914-1998) has been one of the main thinkers that were influential during my formative years, someone I truly admire for his breath of knowledge and understanding, besides being an outstanding poet. As I point out in my Sin laberintos, Paz and his predecessors—Alfonso Reyes and José Vasconcelos—were decisive for the existential scaffolding of Mexican national life after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which is still very prevalent in every ambit of what it means to be Mexican. Now, I have distanced myself somewhat from the conceptual world he partly created and promoted for the nation, although I still consider his work one of the greatest feats of 20th c. imagination.

The Editing of Space attempts to describe one of Paz’ key intellectual devices, which served him to gain his reputation as a world-class intellectual, and made him unique in this regard. I hope you enjoy it, as much as I did writing it and delivering it.

–David Ramírez

In every culture the sense of space is present. Space as the way we walk, the way we see, even the way we think. In Mexican culture, space tends to be very deceiving. Since Mexico has been the playground of multiple cultures, all of them having a great and decisive impact on the collective thought of the people, the Mexican sense of space has turned out to be the interest of many intellectuals in my country. Through the use of writing and poetry, Octavio Paz has been able to start compounding all the spaces that make up the Mexican identity.

In space we can perceive a sense of direction, speed, dimension, sound and everything that comes in contact with our bodies and minds. Without space, the Universe as we know it could not have existed. From the pre-Hispanic tradition, Octavio has inherited the feeling of stillness, a very present feeling in the poetry made before the arrival of the Spanish. For example, the Aztec poet recounts with pauses the pain of missing the land of his origin, the land of the fir trees whose reminiscence fills his hand with thorns. In the native language it would sound like this:

Tonáca acxólmancentla teumílco

chícahuaztíca mótlaquechízca.


Huíztla huíztla nómac témi,

huíztla huíztla nómac témi.[2]

Where the fir trees extend themselvesin the land of our origin,

The Ear of Corn from divine soil

up a mast amid of jingles lies.

Thorns, thorns fill my hand

Thorns, thorns fill my hand.

In the next sample, the repetition of a current theme, like in Aztec poetry, is combined with the poetic forms of the Spanish Golden Age. Paz fuses hendecasyllabic verses with the signs of the Aztec calendar in his poem Sunstone. Its first verse, which is not only the beginning of the poem but also its ending, the Mexican signs corresponding to Day 4 Olin (Movement) and Day 4 Echécatl (Wind) appear:

a crystal willow, a poplar of water,

a tall fountain the wind arches over,

a tree deep-rooted yet dancing still,

a course of a river that turns, moves on,

doubles back, and comes full circle,

forever arriving:

the calm course[3]

Thus, Octavio successfully arrives to the spectrum of Mexican space. The sense of slow, tranquil movement, yet still active, covers us. And it is here, in the silence that is granted through these natural and peaceful scenarios, where Paz starts asking himself: Who am I? Who am I as a human being, who am I as a man, who am I as a Mexican? By doing this, he is not only asking these questions for himself and for the Mexican people, but for all of humanity. Therefore, Paz’ philosophical projection is Universalized. These questions takes place not only in Mexico, but everywhere else he has been around the world, every time focusing through the lenses that his culture has provided him.

He says that the Mexican cloistered attitude contrasts with the openness of his Spanish inheritance through the love Mexicans have to Form, form that takes place in our architecture. From the now silent pyramids that cover my land to the Baroque Art enclosed in our churches, Cathedrals, and the modernity of today’s Universities and government buildings, the Mexican has expressed himself for already over 3,000 years.

It would be convenient to mention that the entire City of Mexico was directly constructed on top of the once great city of Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec Empire. This does not mean and symbolizes the destruction of an entire culture, but its continuation, for the ancient Mexicans believed that Death is actually the beginning of Life. The cultures preceding the Aztec culture had the custom of building on top of old buildings, and the Spaniards added to this tradition. What you see as the pyramid before you was not meant to be the final sketch of the building, but a continuing step for the next one. In the same manner, Octavio began to intellectually recover the space once forgotten in his culture by counting all the steps and adding new ones.

Octavio’s expression is not only exuberant, but also tragic: Tragic as the human sacrifices once performed in Aztec temples; tragic as the unending foreign and domestic invasions through our history, before the Spaniards, during the Spanish empire, and after the Spanish empire. Paz reminds us that the Mexican, like every other human group, not only creates himself but also destroys himself. Through a philosophical and historical journey taken in the El laberinto de la soledad (Labyrinth of Solitude),[4] Paz tries to explain this attitude by viewing a poem written in Mexico during the colonial years, Grandeza mejicana, Mexican Greatness:

“The “Mexican Greatness” is that of an immobile sun, premature afternoon that does not have anything else to conquest, except its own decomposition.”

Hence, our Greatness has become our demise. Yet this demise, and the solitude withdrawn from it, is broken every time the Mexican has a fiesta. Octavio tells us that there is no day in the year in any part in Mexico a fiesta does not take place. Our silence becomes interrupted by the colors and sounds that pervade everywhere. After the fiesta everything resumes to its original state: Solitude.

The problem of the Mexican and his solitude resides in a constant fight to define himself against the world, especially the “modern” world. He does not only have the problem to define his Indian roots, but also its African, and European [and through Europe, its Arab-Jewish Semitic roots]. Therefore, in Mexico we find a Mexican Indian, mestizo, mulatto, Black and criollo, where in the presence of space provided by our skin we tend to drill beyond its surface. Octavio Paz has not fooled himself on this matter. He has drilled deeply into the collective thought of every culture that has become his own, consequently opening new spaces where before there were none. This exercise, which is now common in my country, has helped the Mexican to make him become an expert in opening spaces. What is he pretending to do with so much drilling? You might ask. I would answer: To find himself. Paz as a Historian is more practical to explain his attitude. In his work Tiempo nublado (trans., Cloudy Time), we find Paz in the presence of history. Here he presents us with one his latest views of the contemporary world, especially on the Balkan and Middle-Eastern countries and their fight for self-identity and self-rule without foreign intervention:

“If one word can define this age, that word is not Revolution but Revolt. But this Revolt is not only through the sense of disturbance or the violent move from one state to the other, but also is that of change, a return to the origin. This is a Revolt as a Resurrection. Almost every social commotion during the last years have been resurrections. Among them, the most notable one has been the religious sentiment, generally associated with nationalist movements: the awakening of Islam; the religious fervor in Russia after nearly half of century full of anti-religious propaganda, and the return of the country’s intellectual elite to ways of thinking and philosophy once thought extinct during Czarist rule. The revival of traditional Catholicism in the presence of and against to a secular Messianic revolutionaries (e.g.. Mexico, Poland, Ireland); the tide among the North American youth to return to Christianity; the vogue of Oriental cults; etc. Oh such ambiguous portent, for religions are what languages were for Aesop: the best and the worse mankind has ever invented. It has given us Buddha and St. Francis of Asisi; also it has given us Torquemada and the priests of Huitzilopochtli.”[5]

After this, he faces another great space: the United States of North America. In a bibliography written by Emir Rodriguez we find:

“In 1943 (Octavio Paz) came to the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He remained here (living in the West and later in New York City) for two years — an experience that proved in many ways profound, even shattering. For his discovery of the United States became indirectly a means to the realization of his own national identity.”

Once, I remember reading an ironic description of the U.S. written by another Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes. He tells us that the Mexican migratory worker, resting on top of the fence line that divides the U.S. and Mexico, may fall into the black abyss of U.S. anonymity. This is the space where Paz makes his most poignant contrasts. Diverse titles abound: Mexico and The United States, Positions and Contra Positions, Poverty and Civilization, North and South, Inside and Outside, Past and Future, Modernity and Anti-Modernity, etc. He searches for Mexico and its desire to become a first ranking nation, at the same time without forgetting what Mexico has been in the past. He not only tries to affirm a step into the future, but without missing any from the past. He reveres and disdains the U.S., Mexico and the world. With such method, Octavio Paz presents us with the beauty and ugly of our humanity, always putting forward a message and a question, but not always an answer. He presents us with a mirror, whether is with poetry, essays, art criticisms, studies on anthropology or political views. He utilizes every medium and space to put forward the problem. He wears the masks of our humanity with the relentless pursue of finding something else. But is it worth it? In Labyrinth of Solitude he tells us:

“It would be a mistake to think that everyone else impedes him (i.e. the human who thinks) to exist. They (the World) are only dissimulating his existence; they act as if he did not exist. They nullify him, they nobody-him. It is useless if Mr. Nobody (the thinker) speaks out, publishes books, paints and puts himself upside down. Mr. Nobody is the absence in our sight, the pause of our conversation, and the retention of our silence. He is the name that we always forget thanks to a strange fatality, the eternal absentee, the guest that we never invite; the void that we never fill. He is an omission. However, Mr. Nobody is always present. He is our secret our crime and our remorse. That is why the Nobody nobodies himself; he is the omission of Someone. And if every one of us is Mr. Nobody, nobody of us exists. The circle closes itself and the shadow of Nobody extends all over Mexico, it chokes our ever changing masks and it pervades everything. In our land (i.e. Mexico)—far stronger than the pyramids and sacrifices, than the churches, street assaults and popular songs—, silence rules once again: The silence existent prior to History.”

The human being, like the Mexican, tries to reach high. In a piece of 17th century Mexican literature, a lonesome nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, writes us from her cloistered room at the convent:

Pyramidal, ill-fated, of nascent

earth’s shadow to the heavens directed

from vain obelisks of haughty apex,

escalating pretending to the stars…[6]

Octavio Paz refers to the same spirit in yet another poem. This time, he resumes to his inability to reach by means of writing. Yet, he remembers how yesterday he could use every bit of space at his reach to compound his ideas. Today, he is trapped between himself and the world. He flips a coin, which cuts through the heavy air of his desires and reflects back to us our fears and wants, happiness and sadness, holiness and perversity. In other words, it strips us naked. Octavio Paz creates an inviting space where we can inquire and look at ourselves with new and old perspectives. The coin will inevitably fall… what will be our fate?

I begin and begin again. And do not move forward. When I reach the fatal letters, my pen falls back: an implacable prohibition blocks the way. Yesterday, in full possession of my powers, I wrote fluently on some loose page: a bit of sky, a wall (undaunted before the sun and my eyes), a meadow, another body. I could use anything: the writing of the wind, of the birds, water, stone. Adolescence, earth ploughed by a fixed idea, body tattooed with images, gleaming scars! Autumn led great rivers to pasture, hoarded splendors on the peaks, sculpted riches in the Valley of Mexico, immortal phrases engraved by the light on pure blocks of wonder.

Today I fight alone with a word. The word which belongs to me, and to which I belong: heads or tails? eagle or sun?[7]

In Memoriam of Octavio Paz

[1] Ronald Smothers. “8 NOBELISTS MUSE ON VIRTUES OF UNPREDICTABLE.” Desert News. April 30 1995. Web. April 26 2014.

[2] Lehman, Walter. “Tomoanchan und andere Bezeichungen des Westens zur Erde in der mexikanische tymologic.” International Congress of Americanists (1902). Nendeln: Kraus Reprint. P. 254

[3] Paz, Octavio. Sunstone = Piedra del sol, trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1991. P. 53, 54.

[4] Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad. New York: Penguin books, 1997. All quotes from this book are my translations.

[5] Paz, Octavio. Tiempo nublado. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986.

[6] De la Cruz, Juana Inés. Poems, protest, and a dream: selected writings, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

[7] Paz, Octavio. Eagle or Sun, trans. Elliot Weinberger. New York : A New Directions Book, 1976. P. 2.

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