How and Why I Wrote the Labyrinth of Solitude: An Elucidation

By: Octavio Paz

Translated by Jason Wilson


Many times have I been asked this question: Why, what for, and for whom did I write The Labyrinth of Solitude? There are many answers. The simplest and most direct lies in my infancy. Three moments in my childhood marked me forever, and everything that I have written about my country has been no more, perhaps, than an answer to those experiences of childhood vulnerability. A tirelessly repeated answer and, each time, different. The first experience is also my first memory. How old was I? I don’t know, maybe three or four years. I remember vividly the place: a small, square room in a grand old house in Mixcoac. My father “had gone to the revolution,” as was said then, and my mother and I took refuge with my grandfather, Ireneo Paz, family patriarch. The turmoil of those years had forced him to leave the city and move to his country house in Mixcoac. I lived and grew up in that village, but not always in the same house, apart from a short stay in Los Angeles. I left it just after reaching my twenty-third year. The house still stands and is today a convent. Not long ago I paid a visit and could hardly recognize it: the nuns had turned the bedrooms and garden into cells and the terrace into a chapel. It doesn’t matter: the image stays with me, as do the sensations of wonder and vulnerability.

I see myself–or, better still, I see a blurred figure, a childlike bulk lost in a huge round sofa of threadbare silk, placed right in the middle of the room. In a fixed way, light falls from a high window. It must be five in the afternoon, for the light is not intense. The walls are papered in a faded yellow, with drawings of garlands, stalks, flowers, fruits: emblems of boredom. All is vivid, too vivid; all alien, closed in on itself. A door gives on to the dining room, another on to a drawing room, and the third, at the side and with stained glass, on to the terrace. The three are open. The room was used for breakfast. Drone of voices, laughter, clatter of dishes. It is a holiday, celebrating a saint’s day or a birthday. My older cousins rush out to the terrace. There is a coming and going of people, who pass the bulk by without stopping. The bulk cries. For centuries he has been crying, and nobody hears.

He is the only one to hear his wail. He is lost in a world that is both familiar and remote, intimate and indifferent. It is not a hostile world: it is a strange world, although familiar and everyday, like the garlands on the impassive wallpaper, like the laughter from [End Page 60] [Begin Page 62] the dining room. Interminable moment: hearing myself cry amid universal deafness. . . . I do not remember more. Obviously, my mother calmed me down: woman is the door that reconciles us with the world. But the sensation has not been wiped out and never will be. It is not a wound but a hollow. When I think of myself, I touch it; when I feel myself, I feel it. Alien always and always present, it never leaves me, a dumb, invisible, bodiless presence, constant witness to my life. It does not talk to me, but I, at times, hear what its silence tells me: that afternoon you began to be yourself; when you discovered me, you discovered your absence, your hollow; you discovered yourself. You now know: you are lack and quest.

The ups and downs of the civil war led my father to the United States. He settled in Los Angeles, where there was a numerous colony of political exiles. A little later my mother and I followed him there. Soon after our arrival my parents decided that I should go to the neighborhood kindergarten. I was six years old and didn’t speak a word of English. I vaguely recall the first day of class: the school with its American flag, the empty room, the desks, the hard benches, and how embarrassed I was by my classmates’ noisy curiosity and by the affable smile of the young teacher, who struggled to placate them. It was an Anglo-American school, and only two of its pupils were Mexican, and even they had been born in Los Angeles. Terrified by my inability to understand what they said to me, I took refuge in silence. After an eternity there was a break and lunch. Sitting down at the table, I panicked when I realized that I did not have a spoon; I opted not to say anything and refused to eat.

One of the teachers, seeing my untouched plate, asked me why in sign language. I mumbled, “Spoon,” pointing to a classmate’s. Someone repeated aloud, “Spoon!” Guffaws and hubbub: “Spoon! Spoon!” Then they started imitating my poor pronunciation, giggling in chorus. The person in charge silenced them, but on the way out, on the sandy playground, I was hemmed in by their yells. Some came up close and shouted the dreaded word Spoon! into my face, as if spitting at me. One of them shoved me; I tried to hit back and suddenly found myself in the middle of a ring, facing my aggressor with fists raised like a boxer as he challenged me, shouting, “Spoon!” We laid into each other until pulled apart by a teacher. After school we were reprimanded. I did not understand an iota of the ticking off, but I returned home with my shirt ripped, with three scratches and a swollen eye. I did not go back to school for two weeks; then, little by little, things became normal: they forgot the word spoon, and I learned how to pronounce it properly.

* * *

The political outlook changed in Mexico, and we went back to Mixcoac. In keeping with family tradition, my parents sent me to a French school of the Salesian order. Although I spoke English, I had not forgotten my Spanish. However, my classmates quickly decided that I was a foreigner: a gringo, a Frenchy, a dago, it was all the same to them. Aware that I had just arrived back from the United States, and given my complexion—brown skin and hair, blue eyes—their attitude was easily explained, but not completely: my family was known in Mixcoac from the beginning of the century, and my father had served as a deputy in the town hall. Once again I suffered laughter and giggles, nicknames and fights, sometimes on the school soccer field, sometimes in an alley near the church. I often came home with a black eye, bruised lips, and a scratched face. At home they were worried, but wisely they did not interfere: things calmed down bit by bit, on their own. That’s how it was, although the grudge persisted: on the slightest pretext the insults burst out again. [End Page 62]

My experiences in Los Angeles and in Mexico weighed down on me for many years. Sometimes I felt guilty—we are often accomplices of our persecutors—and would say to myself: Yes, I am neither from here nor from there. Then, where am I from? I felt Mexican—my surname, Paz, first appeared in Mexico in the sixteenth century, just after the conquest—but they did not let me be Mexican. I once accompanied my father to a friend he rightly admired: Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, the old, quixotic, Zapatista revolutionary. He was in his office with several friends, and, when he saw me, he bellowed to my father: “Goodness, you never told me you had a Visigothic son!” Everybody laughed at his joke, but I took it as a condemnation.

Although the background to the three types of experience I’ve described was similar—a feeling of separation—each one was different. The first is universal and common to all men and women. Theologians, philosophers, and psychologists have written many pages on this matter; it has been a favorite subject for great poets, and novelists have ceaselessly explored its byways. We are children of Adam, the first exile. This type of experience faces us with universal indifference, that of the cosmos and of our fellows; at the same time, it is the source of our thirst for a totality and participation that we all yearn for from birth. The second and third experiences are historical, consequences of that reality that is basic to political organization: the human group, the community. There is nothing more natural than that a Mexican child should feel strange in a North American school, but it is awful that the other children should insult him and harm him merely because he is a foreigner—awful, natural, and as old as human societies. It was not by chance that the wary Athenians invented the punishment of ostracism for those under suspicion. And the foreigner is always under suspicion. The third experience can be assigned to this last category: I was not a foreigner, clearly, but thanks to my looks and other moral and physical circumstances, I was suspicious. Thus my classmates condemned me to exile, not abroad but at home.

I am not the first, of course, to have suffered this sentence. Nor will I be the last. But although it is a fact that belongs to all times and all places, some people are more prone than others to find suspicious people everywhere—and to condemn them to ostracism within or outside the city. I have already mentioned the Athenians. Another people eaten up by suspicion are the Mexicans. The psychological roots of this propensity are suspicion itself.

Whether it is in a Greek from the fifth century before Christ or a Mexican from the twentieth century, suspicion is the expression of a feeling of insecurity. During crises and social upheavals, mistrust flourishes; Robespierre, called incorruptible by some and tyrant by others, embodied suspicion dressed up as revolutionary vigilance. In the twentieth century Bolsheviks repeated and exaggerated this model; contrariwise, one of Julius Caesar’s traits that most surprised the ancients was his confidence. Some admired him for it, others rebuked him for it: a confident dictator is a political scandal and a moral contradiction. Suspicion is related to malice, and both serve envy. If the public circumstances are right, all these evil passions become accomplices to inquisitions and repression. Betrayal and calumny are procurers of tyrants.

* * *

In Mexico suspicion and mistrust are collective diseases. In my youth I witnessed the harassment suffered by the writers named the Contemporáneos, after the magazine they published. They were accused of being foreign-lovers, cosmopolitans, Francophiles—in fact, of not being Mexicans. They were a sickly, foreign body embedded in our literature; they had to be ejected from the republic of letters. (At the time that I was editing Plural with a group of friends, a young Marxist philosopher also demanded that we be expelled from “political discourse.”) Ideological and sexual orthodoxy are always linked to xenophobia: the [End Page 63] Contemporáneos were accused of being aesthetic reactionaries and were branded as queers. Today young writers revere their memory and write ardent essays on them. Few remember that while they were alive they were seen as suspicious and sentenced to exile in their own land. Years later I ceased to be a witness to the malignancies of suspicion and was made the object of similar campaigns, although they were somewhat more fierce: political passions had been added to the malice of old.

So it is not strange that I have been intrigued by Mexican suspicion since my adolescence. It seemed to me to be the consequence of an inner conflict. After meditating on its nature, I found that it was the result of a historical wound buried in the depths of the past, rather than a psychological enigma. Suspicion, always awake, ensures that nobody discovers the corpse and digs it up. That is its psychological and political function. Now, if the root of the conflict is historical, only history can clear up the enigma. The word history suggests, first of all, a process, and when you say “process,” you mean “quest,” usually an unconscious one. Process is quest because it is movement, and all movement is a “going toward.” But toward what? It is not easy to answer this question: the supposed ends of history have been vanishing one after the other. Perhaps history has no finalities, no end. The sense of history is ourselves, we who make it and by making it unmake ourselves. History and its meanings will end when humans die out. But although it is impossible to detect ends in history, it is not hard to affirm the reality of the historical process and its effects. Suspicion is one of them. What I have called the “quest” is the attempt to resolve the conflict that suspicion perpetuates.

Without clearly understanding what I was doing, moved by an intuition and stung by the memory of my three experiences, I wanted to rip the veil apart and see. My act was an interrogation that linked me to history’s unconscious process, that is, to the quest that forms the basis of historical movement. My interrogation inserted me into the quest, made me part of it: thus what had begun as a private meditation turned into a thinking about Mexican history. This thinking took the shape of a question not only about its origins—where and when did the conflict start?—but also about the meaning of the quest that is Mexican history (and every- body else’s history). Obviously, nobody knows with any certainty what we are seeking, but we all know we are seekers. Is there anything else we should know? While I was thinking, my three childhood experiences revealed their dual nature to me: they were private and collective, mine and everybody’s.

* * *

For millennia the American continents lived a life apart, ignored by and ignorant of other people and other civilizations. European expansion in the sixteenth century broke this isolation. Real universal history does not start with the great European and Asiatic empires, with Rome and China, but with the explorations of the Spanish and Portuguese. Since then we Mexicans have been a fragment of world history. Better said: we are children of that moment in which the different histories of peoples and civilizations flow into universal history. The Discovery of America initiated the planet’s unification. The act that founded us has two faces, the conquest and the evangelization; our relationship with it is ambiguous and contradictory, the sword and the cross. No less ambiguous is our relationship [End Page 64] with Mesoamerican civilization; its specter inhabits our dreams, but it rests forever in the great cemetery of vanished civilizations. Our birthplace was a battle. The meeting between the Spaniards and the Indians was simultaneously, to use the poet Jáuregui’s lively, picturesque image, burial mound and marriage bed.

Perhaps through family influence, the history of Mexico has been my passion since childhood. My grandfather, author of historical novels conforming to nineteenth-century tastes, had collected a goodly number of books on our past. One topic fascinated me above all others: the clash between people and civilizations. The nations of ancient Mexico had lived in constant warfare one against the other, but it was only with the arrival of the Spaniards that they really faced the other, that is, a civilization different from their own. Later, already in the modern period, we had violent encounters with the United States and with the France of the Second Empire.

Although French culture’s influence was very strong in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the war with France did not have any political consequences, or psychological ones. The opposite happened with Spain and the United States: our relationship with these nations has been polemical and obsessive. Every country has its phantoms: France for the Spaniards, Germany for the French, Spain and the United States for us. The phantom of Spain is losing its significance, and its political and economic influence has dried up. Its presence is psychological: in that respect a genuine phantom, it haunts our memory and kindles our imagination. The United States is a reality, but one so vast and powerful that it borders on myth and, for many, on obsession.

The quarrel between Hispanists and anti-Hispanists is a chapter of Mexico’s intellectual history, and of its political and sentimental history. The faction of anti-Hispanists is not homogeneous. Some adore Mesoamerican culture and condemn the conquest as genocide; others, less numerous, descendants of the nineteenth- century liberals, scorn both traditions alike: the Indian and the Spanish, both obstacles on the path to modernization. I have been familiar with this dispute from my childhood. My paternal family was liberal and also in favor of the Indians: anti-Spanish on two counts.

Although my mother was Spanish, she loathed arguments and answered diatribes with a smile. I found her silence sublime, more crushing than a tedious speech. Besides, in my grandfather’s library there were countless books that contradicted his moderate and my father’s keener anti-Hispanism. Both identified the Spanish past with the ideology of their traditional enemies, the conservatives. Galdós opened my eyes: that tussle was also Spanish.

The anti-Spanishness in those close to me was of a historical and political cast, not literary. Among my grandfather’s books were our classics. Moreover, he admired the Spanish liberals of the last century. My adolescence and youth coincided with the end of the monarchy and the first years of the republic, a period of true splendor in Spanish letters. Reading the great writers and poets of those years reconciled me, ultimately, with Spain. I felt part of the tradition—not in a passive way but actively, at times even polemically. I discovered that the literature written by us Hispano-Americans is the other face of the Hispanic tradition. Our literature began as a tributary of Spanish letters, but it is now a powerful river. Cervantes, Quevedo, and Lope would recognize themselves in our authors. The dispute between Hispanists and anti-Hispanists seemed to me anachronistic and sterile. War in Spain soon silenced this debate for good, at least for me and many like me. I was a passionate partisan of the Republican cause and went to Spain in 1937 for the first time. In several essays and in some poems I have spoken of my encounter with its people, its landscapes, its stones. I did [End Page 65] not discover Spain; I recognized it, and I recognized myself.

* * *

My experience of North American reality was also, in its own way, a confirmation. In my childhood I had lived in California, but the true confrontation began in 1943 and lasted until December 1945. I lived in San Francisco and in New York, I spent a summer in Vermont and two weeks in Washington, I took several jobs, I dealt with all kinds of people, I had financial difficulties, I lived through highs and lows, I voraciously read English and North American poets and, at last, started to write poems free of the rhetoric that stifled the poetry written by young poets of that time in Spain and Latin America. In a word, I was born again. I had never felt so alive. These were the war years, and North Americans were living one of the great moments of their history. In Spain I had known fraternity in the face of death; in the United States, friendliness in the face of life. It was a universal sympathy with roots not in the puritanism that, shackled to purity, is an ethics of separation, but in the romantic pantheism of Emerson and the cosmic effusion of Whitman. In Spain some Spaniards recognized me as one of them; in the United States some North Americans welcomed me like a long lost brother who spoke their language with a strange accent and terrible syntax.

My admiration and sympathy for North Americans had a dark side: it was impossible to close my eyes to the fate of the Mexicans, those born over there and the newly arrived. I thought about the years spent in Los Angeles, about my father’s struggle to make a living in exile, about my mother working as hard as an ant, but an ant that sang like a cicada. Although we did not suffer the hardships of most Mexican immigrants, not much imagination was needed to understand them and feel deeply for their plight. I recognized myself in the pachucos and in their mad rebellion against their present and their past, a rebellion that ended not as an idea but as a gesture. The underdog’s option: the aesthetic application of defeat, the revenge of imagination. I came back to the question about myself and my destiny as a Mexican. It was the same one I had put to myself in Mexico, reading Ortega y Gasset or talking with Jorge Cuesta on a patio in San Ildefonso. How to answer it? Before abandoning Mexico, a year before, I had written a series of articles for a newspaper in which I had dealt with topics more or less connected with the question that tormented me. They no longer satisfied me. I had no idea then that these articles and my discoveries in Spain and the United States were preparations for the writing of The Labyrinth of Solitude.

I reached Paris in December 1945. In France the years in the wake of the Second World War were of dearth but great intellectual liveliness. It was a period of great riches, not so much in the domain of literature itself, of poetry and novels, as in ideas and essays. I zealously followed the philosophical and political debates. A burning atmosphere: passion for ideas, intellectual rigor, and, at the same time, a marvelous sense of freedom. I soon found friends who shared my intellectual and aesthetic anxieties. In those cosmopolitan circles—made up of Frenchmen, Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Argentineans, North Americans—I could breathe freely: I did not belong there, and yet I felt that I had found an intellectual homeland, a homeland that did not ask for identity papers. But the question about Mexico did not abandon me. Having made a decision to face up to it, I drew up a plan—I never managed to follow it completely—and started to write. It was the summer of 1949, the city was deserted, and my work in the Mexican embassy, where I held a modest post, had slackened off. Distance helped me: I lived in a world far removed from Mexico and was immune to its phantoms. I had Friday afternoons and Saturdays and Sundays to myself. And the nights. I wrote quickly and fluently, keen to finish as soon as possible, as if a revelation awaited me on the last page. I was racing against myself.

Who or what was I going to meet at the end? I knew the question, not the answer. [End Page 66] Writing became a contradictory ceremony, made up of enthusiasm and rage, sympathy and anxiety. As I wrote, I settled a score with Mexico; a moment later, my writing turned against me, and Mexico took its revenge. Passion and lucidity were inextricably knotted together: I hate and I love.

I have elsewhere alluded to the defects and gaps in The Labyrinth of Solitude. The first are congenital, the natural consequence of my limitations. As for the latter, I tried to remedy them in diverse texts, as the present reader will note. The greatest omission was that of New Spain: the pages I dedicated to it are insufficient; I have expanded them in several essays, especially in the first part of my study of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And the pre-Hispanic world? I think that my essays on the ancient art of Mexico are somewhat more than mere aesthetic exercises: they are a vision of Mesoamerican civilization. Having said this, I confess that the central idea of The Labyrinth of Solitude still seems valid to me. The book is not an essay on an illusory “philosophy of Mexican man,” nor is it a psychological description, nor a portrait. The analysis starts with some characteristic traits but quickly turns into an interpretation of Mexican history and our situation in the modern world. The interpretation seems valid to me, not exclusive, not total. There are other interpretations, and some of them are (or could be) equally valid. They do not exclude mine, because none are global or final. Historical understanding is, by its nature, partial, whether it is by Thucydides or by Vico, by Marx or by Toynbee.

* * *

All visions of history are a point of view. Naturally, not all points of view are valid. So why does mine seem valid? Well, because the idea that inspired it—the dual rhythm of solitude and communion, the feeling alone, divided, and the desire to be reunited with others and with ourselves—can be applied to all people and all societies. Although every individual is unique and every people is different, we all go through the same experiences. Thus it is permissible to present Mexican history as a flow of ruptures and unions. The first—and most decisive—was the conquest: it was a collision of two civilizations and not, as would happen later, within the same civilization. At the same time, the first reunion or reconciliation—the answer to the violent rupture of the conquest—consisted of the conversion of the vanquished to a universal faith, Christianity. Since then ruptures and reunions have followed each other; it would be pointless to enumerate them. No, it is not arbitrary to envision our history as a process ruled by the rhythm—or dialectic—of what is closed and what is open, solitude and communion. Furthermore, it is not hard to accept that this same rhythm rules the histories of other people. I think I am dealing with a universal phenomenon. Our history is but one version of this perpetual separation and union with oneself that has been, and is, life for everybody in all societies.

The process of successive ruptures and reunions can also be seen, to employ an analogy from physics, as a series of explosions. Modern cosmology has familiarized us with the idea of an infinitely concentrated matter that, when it reaches a certain density, explodes and scatters. Historical explosions are similar to a big bang: a society locked up in itself is doomed to explode when its elements collide.

Contrary to what happens in the cosmos, subject apparently to an endless expansion, the elements scattered in history tend to regroup. These new combinations can be translated, once more, into new historical forms. If the rupture is not resolved as reunion, the system dies out, usually absorbed into a greater system. The history of Mexico fits the first model and can be seen as a succession of explosions followed by dispersions and reunions. The last explosion, the most powerful, was the Mexican Revolution. It shook the whole social fabric and managed, after scattering them, to regroup all Mexicans into a new society.

The revolution rescued many groups and minorities that had been excluded as much from the society of New Spain as from the republic. I am referring to the peasant communities and, [End Page 67] to a lesser extent, to indigenous minorities. Moreover, it managed to create an awareness of national identity that had hardly existed before. In the sphere of ideas and beliefs, it succeeded in reconciling modern with ancient Mexico. I emphasize that it was a reconciliation at the emotional and spiritual levels, not at the intellectual. The revolution was, above all else, a political and social triumph, but it was more, far more: a radical change in our history. As the word change turns out to be ambiguous, let me add that this change was a return. I mean that it was a genuine revolt, a return to the origins. In that sense, the revolutionary movement prolonged, at a psychic level different from religion’s, the syncretism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It prolonged it without anybody’s having decided it, not the leaders or the people; however, everybody was moved by the same dark impulse. The logic of history, or popular instinct? It is not easy to know. What is clear is that Mexico hurled itself onto the path of self-knowledge. In an act of necessary rupture, liberalism negated the new Hispanic and indigenous traditions. The revolution initiated the reconciliation with our past, something that seems to me not less but more imperative than all the projects of modernization. In this can be found both the revolution’s originality and its fertility at the level of feelings, beliefs, letters, and arts.

* * *

To understand its unique character, one must remember that our revolution owes very little to the revolutionary ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this sense it was the antithesis of 1857 liberalism. This liberalism was a movement derived from universal ideas of European origin; with these ideas the liberals proposed to change society from its roots. Hence their hostility to both the Spanish and the indigenous traditions. The liberalism of 1857 was a true revolution, and its archetypes were the French Revolution and the United States War of Independence. Contrary to this, the Mexican Revolution was popular and instinctive. It was not guided by a theory of equality; it was possessed by an egalitarian and communitarian passion. The origins of this passion lie not in modern ideas but in the tradition of indigenous communities before the conquest and in evangelical Christian missions. If one reviews the declarations and speeches of the chiefs and popular leaders, it is surprising, to start with, to find so many references and quotations from primitive Christianity. The most used were the Sermon on the Mount and the expulsion of the merchants from the temple. Also, it is notable how stubbornly the peasant movement sustained, as the core of its aspirations, the communitarian traditions of its people. Peasants demanded the return of their lands.

Can one talk of a revolutionary ideology? The answer is subtle. At the first level, the revolution passed through different moments, and at each one certain themes and ideas predominated. For example, in the first period political reform and the installation of a genuine democracy seemed essential; later, social grievances and egalitarian aspirations were crucial; even later, political stability and economic development; and so on. Above the changes of ideas in time should be placed differences in space: the movement in the south was primordially agrarian, finding its inspiration in a tradition of struggle for communal land that derived from New Spain and the new Hispanic past; in the north, the nucleus of the movement was made up of ranchers; in the cities, by the middle class. Moreover, during this process there was armed struggle between leaders and factions. The revolution was many revolutions.

As for the influence of ideologies from abroad, the most substantial, although they were [End Page 68] not preponderant, were anarchism, the liberal inheritance, trade unionism—echoes from Chicago’s 1 May—and, perhaps, a vague but strong dream of social redemption. Most crucial, however, was the egalitarian and communitarian current, a double legacy from Mesoamerica and New Spain. It was not so much a clearly defined doctrine as a bunch of aspirations and beliefs, a subterranean tradition believed to have disappeared but revived in the great revolutionary shake-up. It was not easy for this bunching of confused and clear-sighted aspirations, affronts, hopes, and grievances to define itself in a clear reform project. This explains why the revolution ended in a compromise among the liberal inheritance of 1857, the popular communitarian aspirations, and scraps of other ideologies.

Influences from abroad appeared later, when the triumphant revolutionary faction had already established itself in power and the popular movement had been transformed into an institutional regime. Inspired by the Soviet example (the kolkhoz), Lázaro Cárdenas modified communal ownership of the land. The reform did not free the peasants: it tied them to the state banks and turned them into tools of government policy. Cárdenas also started the statist policy in economic matters, followed by nearly all his successors. One of the consequences of the nationalization policy was a powerful bureaucracy embedded in the state. Another factor, perhaps the most decisive, that explains the extraordinary growth of the bureaucracy was a state hegemonic party, in power since 1930. The founder of the party was President [Plutarco Elías] Calles; two other presidents, Cárdenas and [Miguel] Alemán, consolidated it through successive reforms. The models for this party were the Fascist Party in Italy and the Communist Party in Russia. However, not once did the Mexican party reveal totalitarian ideological ambitions. It was and is a party sui generis, the result of a compromise between authentic democracy and revolutionary dictatorship. The compromise prevented civil war between the revolutionary factions and assured the necessary stability for social and economic development.

If one studies the Mexican Revolution from the perspective that I have sketched, one immediately notices that the second period, the so-called institutional one, not only presents radical differences with the actual revolution but cannot strictly be called revolutionary. The protagonists of the second period have been and are professional politicians; they belong to the middle class, and nearly all have college educations. The ruling elite is a strange but not uncommon amalgam of politicians and technocrats. Thus, in a strict sense, the Mexican Revolution should be viewed as a movement that began in 1910 and died out with the founding of the Revolutionary Mexican Party in 1930. Those twenty years were not only rich in dramatic and, at times, atrocious military episodes but fertile in ideas and predictions. Much was destroyed, as much or more than during our terrible independence war, but much was [End Page 69] also created. What differentiates this period, above all, is popular participation: people really carried out the revolution, not a group of theorists and professionals as elsewhere. Because of all this, it is not controversial to state that our movement better fits the old notion of revolt than the modern concept of revolution. In other writings I have speculated on the differences between revolt and revolution. I cannot dwell on this topic here; rather, I will limit myself to underlining that the notion of revolt can be naturally inserted into the image of historical explosion: a rupture that is also an attempt to reunite scattered elements, solitude and communion.

* * *

Between 1930 and 1940, as much in Europe as in America, the majority of young writers felt an immense sympathy for the Russian Revolution and communism. In our attitudes were mixed together decent feelings, justified indignation in the face of injustices around us, and ignorance. Had I written The Labyrinth of Solitude in 1937, I would doubtless have affirmed that the Mexican revolutionary explosion—what I have called its quest—would have ended in the adoption of communism. Communist society was going to solve the dual Mexican conflict, the inner and the outer: communion with ourselves and with the world. But the period from 1930 to 1945 was not solely one of faith and noisy support but one of criticism, revelations, and disappointments. My doubts began in 1939; then, in 1949, I discovered the existence of concentration camps in the Soviet Union, and from then on it did not seem so clear that communism was the remedy for suffering in the world and in Mexico. My doubts turned into criticisms, as can be seen in the second edition of my book (1959) and in other writings. I saw communism as a bureaucratic regime, petrified into castes, and I saw the Bolsheviks, who had decreed, under penalty of death, an “obligatory communion,” fall one after the other in those public ceremonies of expiation that were Stalin’s purges. I understood that authoritarian socialism was not the resolution of the Mexican Revolution, in the historical and musical sense of the word: a step from discord to harmony. My criticisms unleashed a bilious eruption of vituperation from many virtuous Mexican and Spanish American souls. The wave of hate and dirt lasted many years; some of the spray is still fresh.

Even as the revolutionary solution was closing, further historical perspectives were opening. It is obvious that our country’s and the world’s new situation demanded a radical change of direction. A marginalized nation, we had been history’s butt; the second half of the twentieth century—marked by colonial independence and by agitation, revolt, and revolution in the peripheral countries—faced us with other realities. I wrote in the last pages of my book: “We have ceased to be the butts and are beginning to be subjects of historical changes.” I then added: “The Mexican Revolution flows into universal history. . . . there nakedness and neglect await us.” Indeed, the collapse of ideas and beliefs, both traditional and revolutionary, was universal: “We are at last alone facing the future, like everybody. . . . We are now contemporaries with all people.” The solitary’s luck: testis unus, testis nullus. Nobody listened: Mexico did not change direction, the governments did not tackle reform but continued their routines and merely survived, while intellectuals gripped on to more and more limited and caricatured versions of Marxism. Some interpreted one of my opinions—“we are now contemporaries with all people”—as confirmation of our country’s maturity: at last we had caught up with the other nations. The notion of history as a race is curious: against whom and toward where? No, history is an intersection between time and place. History, said T. S. Eliot, is here and now. [End Page 70]

I chose a path that, once again, allowed me to be called into question by the majority of Latin American writers, at the time still dazzled by the will-o’-the-wisp of “real socialism.” With a few others, I argued that only the installation of an authentic democracy, with a legitimate regime and guarantees for the individual and for minorities, could ensure that Mexico did not sink into the ocean of universal history, infested with Leviathans. Modernization, a word not yet in fashion, was both our condemnation and our salvation. It was our condemnation because modern society is a long way from being exemplary: many of its manifestations–advertising, the cult of money, abysmal inequalities, ferocious egoism, the uniformity of tastes, opinions, minds—are a compendium of horrors and stupidities. It was our salvation because only a radical transformation, through genuine democracy and the dismantling of the patrimonialism inherited from the viceroyalty (reflecting in turn the European absolutism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), could give us the confidence and strength to face a chaotic and pitiless world. Many of the postrevolutionary institutions, adopted to start with as transitory measures, had already lost their usefulness and reason for being. Others were a frank usurpation of the function usually reserved for the private sector. The unions and other popular associations lived under official tutelage through the monopoly of the government party (a situation that still persists in many ways). To sum up, a system of sly gifts and punishments intended to attract or silence independent opinion was in force. We were not a dictatorship, but we were a society under a paternalistic regime that lived between the threat of control and the prize of subsidy. The urgent task was to give the initiative back to society. For all this, although The Labyrinth of Solitude is a passionate denunciation of modern society in its two versions, capitalist and totalitarian, it does not end by preaching a return to the past. On the contrary, it underlines that we ought to think it out ourselves and face a future common to everybody.

* * *

Universality, modernity, and democracy are today inseparable terms. Each one depends on and demands the presence of the others. This has been the theme of all that I have written on Mexico since the publication of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It has been an acrimonious struggle and has gone on for too long, a struggle that has tested my patience because of the many blows below the belt, malicious insinuations, and campaigns of slander. Defending modern democracy, I must admit, has not been and is not easy. Never once have I forgotten the injustices and disasters of liberal, capitalist societies. The shadow of communism and its jails could have hidden contemporary reality; its collapse has allowed us to see capitalist societies in all their desolation: the desert expands and covers the whole earth. Among the ruins of totalitarian ideology now sprouts ancient and ferocious fanaticism. Present time inspires in me the same horror that I experienced in my adolescence when facing the modern world. The Waste Land, that poem that so impressed me when I discovered it in 1931, continues to be deeply topical. A moral gangrene corrodes modern democracies. Are we living the end of modernity? What awaits us? . . . I halt here: reaching this point, my reflection on Mexico closes. . . . I limit myself to repeating: yes, the children of Quetzalcoatl and Coatlicue, of Cortés and la Malinche, enter now on their feet into the history of all people, and not pushed by a stranger. The lesson of the Mexican Revolution can be distilled into this sentence: We sought ourselves and found the others.

From: Hopscotch: A Cultural Review

Volume 2, Number 1, 2000

pp. 60-71


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