Octavio Paz

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Octavio Paz, Mexican writer, poet, diplomat, and 1990 Nobel Prize winner for literature

Octavio Paz Lozano (March 31, 1914 – April 19, 1998) was a Mexican writer, poet, and diplomat, and the winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was one of the most important literary figures of the postwar period in Latin America. He founded and edited several prominent literary and political journals. Early on Paz was influenced by Marxism, surrealism and the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, but like many intellectuals, his interest in Marxism waned as it failed to deliver on its promise. His influences also included East religious traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism. His poetry was dedicated to overcoming isolation.

Early life and writings

Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City, Mexico during tumultuous times, as his country was undergoing a revolution. Born to Josefina Lozano, a religious woman, and Octavio Paz. His father was a journalist and lawyer for Emiliano Zapata, who was involved in agrarian reform following the revolution, activities which caused him to be largely absent from home. Paz was raised in the village of Mixcoac (now a part of Mexico City) by his mother, his aunt and by his paternal grandfather, a liberal intellectual, novelist and former soldier supporter of President Porfirio Díaz.

Paz was introduced to literature early in his life through the influence of his grandfather's library filled with classic works and modernist Mexican literature. During the 1920s, he discovered the European poets Gerardo Diego, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Antonio Machado; foreign writers who had a great influence on his early writings. As a teenager in 1931, Paz published his first poem–calling it, Caballera. It carried an epigraph from the French poet Saint-John Perse. Two years later, at the age of 19, Octavio Paz published Luna Silvestre (Rustic Moon), a collection of poems. By 1939, Paz considered himself first and foremost a poet.

In 1937, Paz ended his university studies and left for the Yucatán for work to find a school near Mérida. There, he began working on the poem "Entre la piedra y la flor" ("Between Stone and Flower") (1941, revised in 1976), which describes the situation and fate of the Mexican campesino (peasant) within capitalist society.[1]

In 1937, Paz visited Spain during that country's civil war, showing his solidarity with the Republicans. Upon returning to Mexico, Paz co-founded a literary journal, Taller (Workshop) in 1938. He wrote for the magazine until 1941. In 1943 he received a Guggenheim fellowship and began studying at the University of California at Berkeley in the United States and two years later he entered the Mexican diplomatic service, working in France until 1962. While there, in 1950, he wrote and published El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), a groundbreaking study of Mexican identity and thought.

Later life

In 1962, Octavio Paz was appointed as Mexico's ambassador to India. While he served there, he also completed several works, including The Monkey Grammarian and East Slope. His time in government service ended, however, in 1968, when he resigned in protest of the Mexican government's killing of hundreds of students in the Tlatelolco massacre. He returned to Mexico in 1969, working as a visiting professor of Spanish American Literature at several universities in the United States. From 1971 to 1976 he edited and published Plural, a magazine he founded dedicated to the arts and politics. In 1976 he founded Vuelta, a publication with a focus similar to that of Plural and continued editing that magazine until his death. He won the 1977 Jerusalem Prize for literature on the theme of individual freedom. In 1980 he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Harvard University, followed by Cervantes award in 1981 - the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world, and in 1982 he won the prestigious American Neustadt Prize. A collection of his poems (written between 1957 and 1987) was published in 1988. In 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature "for [his] impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity."[2]

Paz died in 1998. In his 2002 essay on Paz, Ilan Stavans wrote that he was “the quintessential surveyor, a Dante's Virgil, a Renaissance man”.[3]


A prolific author and poet, Paz published scores of works during his lifetime, many of which were translated into other languages. His early poetry was influenced by Marxism, surrealism, existentialism, as well as religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. His poem, Piedra del Sol ("Sun Stone") written in 1957, referring to the Aztec calendar that was inscribed in circular pattern on a stone surface, was praised as a "magnificent" example of surrealist poetry in the presentation speech of his Nobel Prize. His later poetry often focused on the paintings of international artists like Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Antoni Tapies, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roberto Matta. Several of his poems have also been adapted into choral music by composer Eric Whitacre, including "Water Night," "Cloudburst," and "A Boy and a Girl."

As an essayist Paz wrote on topics like Mexican politics and economics, Aztec art, anthropology, and sexuality. His book-length essay, The Labyrinth of Solitude (Spanish: El laberinto de la soledad), delves into the minds of his countrymen, describing them as hidden behind masks of solitude. Due to their history, they are ashamed of their origin and do not know who they are, acting "like persons who are wearing disguises, who are afraid of a stranger's look because it could strip them and leave them stark naked." A key work in understanding Mexican culture, it greatly influenced other Mexican writers, such as Carlos Fuentes.

Paz wrote one play, La Hija de Rappaccini (1956), a lyrical tale of love, death and the loss of innocence. The plot centers around a young Italian student who wonders about the beautiful gardens and even more beautiful daughter (Beatrice) of the mysterious Professor Rappaccini. He is horrified when he discovers the poisonous nature of their beauty. Paz adapted the play from the eponymous 1844 short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, combining it with sources from the Indian poet Vishakadatta. Paz also cited influences from Japanese Noh theater, the Spanish auto sacramental and the poetry of William Butler Yeats. Its opening performance was designed by the Mexican painter Leonora Carrington. The play was first performed in English in 1996 at the Gate Theatre in London. It was translated and directed by Sebastian Doggart, and Beatrice was played by actress Sarah Alexander.

Paz's other works into English include volumes of essays, some of the more prominent of which are: Alternating Current (tr. 1973), Configurations (tr. 1971), The Labyrinth of Solitude (tr. 1963), The Other Mexico (tr. 1972); and El Arco y la Lira (1956; tr. The Bow and the Lyre, 1973). Along with these are volumes of critical studies and biographies, including Claude Lévi-Strauss and Marcel Duchamp (both, tr. 1970) and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe (The Traps of Faith,) a work on Sor Juana de la Cruz.

His works include the poetry collections La Estación Violenta, (1956), Piedra de Sol (1957), and in English translation the most prominent include two volumes which include most of Paz in English: Early Poems: 1935–1955 (tr. 1974), and Collected Poems, 1957–1987 (1987). Many of these volumes have been edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger, who is Paz's principal translator into English in the United States].

Disillusionment with communism

Originally Paz showed his solidarity with the Republicans during the Spanish civil war, but after learning of the murder of one of his comrades by the Republicans themselves he became gradually disillusioned. By publishing his critical views on Joseph Stalin in March 1951, he broke away from his leftist friends.

Later, in both Plural and Vuelta Paz exposed the violations of human rights in the communist regimes. This brought to him much animosity from the Latin American left and some university students. In the Prologue of the IX volume of his completed works, Paz stated that since the time when he abandoned communist dogma the mistrust of many in the Mexican intelligentsia started to transform into an intense and open enmity; and that he did not suspect that the vituperation would accompany him for decades (page 44).

In 1990, during the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall, Paz and his Vuelta colleagues invited to Mexico City several of the world’s writers and intellectuals to discuss the collapse of communism, including Czeslaw Milosz, Hugh Thomas, Daniel Bell, Agnes Heller, Cornelius Castoriadis, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Jean-Francois Revel, Michael Ignatieff, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Edwards and Carlos Franqui. The Vuelta encounter was broadcast on the Mexican television from August 27 to September 2.

The animosity of some Mexican leftists to Paz’s political views persisted until his death, and beyond.


  1. Jason Wilson. Octavio Paz. (Twayne Publishers, 1986), 1-10
  2. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1990 [1] Retrieved November 16, 2007.
  3. Ilan Stavans. Octavio Paz: A Meditation. (University of Arizona Press, 2002. ISBN 9780816520909), 3

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Stavans, Ilan. 2001. Octavio Paz: A Meditation. University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0816520917
  • Wilson, Jason. 1986. Octavio Paz. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805766308
  • The Nobel Prize Foundation [2]1990 Laureates.. Retrieved April 28, 2007.

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2022.


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