reading my way through every country in the world…

#28 Mexico – All that Paz

The Labyrinth of Solitude
Octavio Paz
Grove Press Inc, 1961
Winner, 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature

General reading value: 5 /5
Armchair travel value: 5 /5

Sometimes you read a book that not only changes the contents of your thoughts but the systems and processes by which you think. It is books like these that you want to tell everyone to read but when pressed to explain why, you find it hard to articulate because uou suspect the response each reader would have to the book would be quite personal. The Labyrinth of Solitude is such a book.

I had absolutely no expectations coming into reading this. The cover was hardly inspiring, the author was not one with whom I was familiar and Mexico is a country that has not offered much interest for me…that is, until now.

Composed of a series of nine essays, this book puts Mexico on the proverbial couch, examining the “psychology of (the) nation”, what it means to be a Mexican and how the history of this country has shaped that psychology and meaning. Paz has subsequently stated that it was not his intent in writing this book to “define” Mexican-ness but rather to critique it. His approach is interrogative and questioning and it is an approach necessitated by the fact that it is his belief that to be Mexican is to wear a mask: to put one face to the world that hides and belies another. To determine what is the authentic Mexican character, therefore, the approach must seek to get in behind the mask. Paz states:

“(The Mexican) builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less imprenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And from himself”.

In the first four essays of this book, Paz explores Mexican-ness as an abstract. He maintains his thesis that part of this Mexican-ness is the building of an illusory Mexican character in order to hide the true one and demonstrates this thesis through a number of examples. One example is the preponderance of pachuco gangs of youths who live in North America and are notorious for their socially antagonistic and violent behaviour. Paz argues that this behaviour, along with the gangs’ identifiable dress style, is intended to create a persona that in order not to be ignored and marginalised, deliberately seeks to provoke (negative) attention thereby creating a “vital relationship with society”, albeit a destructive one.

Paz also unpacks the Mexican fondness of fiestas, suggesting that these festivities serve a much more serious purpose than do similar occasions in other cultures. This purpose is enabling the Mexican people to abandon their carefully worn and maintained masks and to show their real identities. The excitement, the indulgence in food, drinking, dancing and, often violence, is like an eruption of their beings which otherwise remain suppressed and muffled underneath their masks. As such the fiesta is not “recreation” for the Mexican but “re-creation” – a release of their true souls that may have become deadened under the weight of their false characters. Paz also delves into how at these fiestas, Mexicans will often use the much taboo phrase “hijo de la chingada” which roughly translates to offspring of a violated, abducted or deceived. “Chingada” and its derivatives are words that convey and express violence. It is Paz’s view that the Mexican’s relationship with others is a combative one: either he/she commits chingar on others or suffers having chingar committed to him/her. The exclamations of this word during fiestas therefore are another example of displays of aggression intended to signify strength in the face of perceived combat with the rest of the world.

Chapters five to eight delve further into the psychology of the Mexican but this time within the context of the history of Mexico from conquest to independence to revolution. This account is as fascinating for the way that Paz approaches history as for the conclusions he draws. As an example, Paz refuses to indulge – as many are wont to do – in reflexive moralising and generalised condemning of the process of colonialisation that can only be done from the safe vantage point of hindsight and social evolution. Instead he seeks to examine colonialisation in context, exploring the extent of its inevitability and also the positive outcomes that it produced, as well as recognising and respecting the negative ones.

Reading this book, I found myself reflecting on the random and haphazard way national character is formed. Paz says, for example, that Mexico’s “national traits were formed later and in many cases were simply the result of national preachments of various governments. Even now noone can satisfactorily explain the national differences berween Argentinians and Uruguayans, Peruvians and Ecuadorians, Guatemalans and Mexicans…” As is evident, Paz is not precious about his nationality; indeed it seems he feels he can better wear his Mexican-ness only by forcing it to reveal itself to him in its truest and most pure form – which can only be arrived at by putting it under the microscope and probing it in every way imaginable.

It must be acknowledged that this book was written in the 1950s and is therefore a picture of Mexico and Mexican-ness at a point in time. As Paz demonstrates through his historical analysis, the “psychology of a nation” changes over time, though surprisingly not as regularly or dramatically as one might expect. Nevertheless, it is likely that writing this book today, Paz would have different views, if only because he would be informed by different events. Likewise, his diversions into topics such as labour, feminism or, more accurately, the role of women in society, class and politics contain some thoughts which seem a little backward, at least in the way they are expressed if not the content of the thoughts themselves. It is important to note that there have been more recent editions of this book that contain further and more recent essays in addition to those that originally comprised The Labyrinth of Solitude.

My view of what is intended by the title of this book is Paz’s view that in order to better understand ourselves we must withdraw from what it is that defines us – whether that be a place, a country or a culture – and enter into a labyrinth of solitude which snakes and weaves around our identity, forcing us to work hard to explore all the contours of that identity and be able to return to it with a renewed and enlightened understanding. It is an inspiring and thought-provoking idea as is this entire book which is now one of my favourites.

Until next time,
The Literary Nomad xx

More on Mexico…
Capital: Mexico City
Population: 112,372,757

Area: 1,972,550 km2

Language: Spanish

Religion: Roman Catholicism

Currency: Peso

Delay your stay: Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquevil; The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes; The Burning Plain and other Stories by Juan Rulfo; The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela; Here’s to You Jesusa by Elena Poniatowska.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens

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