The Wayfarer of Being

On February 20, 2014 by admin

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Manash Bhattacharjee

 

[This obituary piece was written on the night of 19 April 1998, in Poorvanchal, JNU, on receiving the news of Octavio Paz’s death. It was handwritten in a ruled class register, and typed in a manual typewriter in Munirka by a vexed typewriter. He was placated by tea and cigarettes. The article, published in Literary Review of The Hindu, on 17 May 1998, has been retrieved from the physical archives of the newspaper, in Chennai. I would like to render my gratitude to Amit Sengupta, who had read this piece in the journal section of JNU’s library and encouraged me to send it to Nirmala Lakshman. I am also indebted to Kaustabh Deka, who currently works at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, for retrieving the piece for me.]

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The Buddha did not teach me

how to die.

He tells us that faces dissolve,

that names are empty sounds.

But at death we have a face,

and we die with a name.

In the borderland of ashes,

who will open my eyes?

~ ‘Remembrance’

For Octavio Paz, to die meant ‘to return / to the place we don’t know’. Like most experiences, death for Paz for also a paradoxical event: to leave a place and move into another. Loss and recovery. But to this world, for us who cannot travel with him to that unknown frontier of self-experience, his death can only mean a loss. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Paz (1914–1998) will now be addressed in the past tense. At 84, he was still referred to as ‘a youthful man’. As a poet and essayist he was, till recently, pouring out his enormous wealth of creativity with impatient regularity and a furious sense of life. For Paz, poetry itself was a suspension between two paradoxical statuses of being: a bridge between solitude and communion. Poetry is born in the womb of solitude, but to Paz, solitude is never absolute. It is always populated by the presence of the other, which can even be ‘our shadow’. ‘I am never alone’, he wrote, ‘I speak with you always / you speak with me always’.

Paz glimpsed reality always through the paradoxical nature of time. The ‘present’ for Paz was both motionless and fleeting. It cannot be touched. It is real in its clarity and unreal in the excess of its apparitions. The present is also a ‘presence’: ‘a fountain of reality’. Through time, poetry becomes a search for presences where you lose what you receive and retrieve what you lose.

The day is short, the hour immense

hour without my I and its sorrow

the hour goes by without going by

and escapes within me and is enchained.

~ ‘Constraint’

The antimony of this experience reveals a ‘third-state’ between what passes and what stays. This, says Paz, is the state of ‘empty plenitude’. Here, being inhabits a transparency and poetry slips between the affirmation and negation of its impulses: a bridge in the interstices between the ‘tangible’ and the ‘intangible’. By interpreting reality, poetry, however, alters it and leaves behind a residue of beauty. This aesthetic quest in Paz’s case was surrealistic in nature. Contrary impulses and meanings collapsed into each other, and a subversive and playful interaction occurred between language and experience. A turbulent imagery resulted along with the slippage of being between dream (past) and vision (present). In this way, Paz fuses different levels of being and reality into a rich and complex unity of poetic experience. His long poems like ‘Sunstone’ and ‘A Draft of Shadows’ are expressions of such kinds. Paz’s long poems are like spiral staircases through which the soul passes through different states of emotions, bordering on ‘vertigo’, and at last descending to the tranquil emptiness of clarity.

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Paz’s poems reveal his mixed inheritance. He drew together the Spanish and Nahuatl strands of Mexican poetry. Wordsworth particularly influenced ‘The Draft of Shadows’. His love poems had the fury of Breton, and the intensity of Eluard. He was also influenced by Freud, Sade, Bataille, and the Tantric and Zen Buddhism. All these disparate influences make Paz an interesting poet. Philosophically, Paz, like Eliot, suffered the modern dilemmas of communion. To counter this despair, Paz searched for the moment of experience outside time, which is also Eliot’s preoccupation in ‘Four Quartets’. But through the maze of dream and vision, such an escape for Paz ended with an affirmative negation. Manuel Duran calls Paz a ‘philosophical poet’ like Eliot, but ‘more intimate, more erotic, warmer than Eliot’. He says this because Paz always probed the alienated relationships of life with lyricism and a profound sympathy.

Also Paz, as Duran rightly points out, opened ‘the windows of Mexican culture to all influences’. He was as much at home in the Orient as he was in Paris, in America or in his native Mexico. It makes Paz a true pluralist. He believed that the ethical foundations of the ‘new civilization’ would be ‘the plurality of different times and the presence of the other’ where ‘we would live in the full freedom of our diversity and sensuality in the certain knowledge of death’. The politics of this new world would be ‘a dialogue of culture’. Yet, in order to avoid nihilism, Paz desired ‘a higher unity’ as a guide.

To Octavio Paz, it was not possible in the modern era to disengage from politics.

He felt is his duty to intervene in the moral conflicts and errors of present-day politics. Stalinist rule and the Russian totalitarian state disenchanted him from communism and he pressed for the necessity of liberal values within socialism. This caused him to be dubbed as a ‘traitor’ and a reactionary among Leftist intellectuals, and it distanced him from his famous friends like Marquez and Fuentes. But Paz refused to be silent on the crimes of the communist states. He called the Soviet state ‘the first soulless state in human history’, as he felt that the millions who died in the Gulag ‘lost their souls before they lost their bodies’. He summed up his disenchantment in his poem ‘Nocturne of San Ildefonso’ with fine precision:

The good, we sought the good:

to straighten out the world.

We did not lack integrity:

we lacked humility.

What we wanted we wanted without

innocence.

He was also against the Sartrean kind of ‘committed’ literature which put literature in the service of ideology. After all, it was an era in which Milan Kundera witnessed the hand-in-hand rule of ‘the hangmen and the poet’. Even great poets like Neruda and Aragon were complicit in this ‘moral crime’, according to Paz. He agreed with Benjamin Pere that ours has been the century ‘of the dishonour of poets’.

To Paz, only criticism is ‘the free form of commitment’. Within history, ‘between revolution and religion’, poetry is always something else, ‘the other voice’, the voice of ‘man fast asleep in the heart of hearts of mankind’. It is the voice of a human being whose uniqueness and freedom have to be preserved. Freedom, for Paz, can be the only true foundation of fraternity.

In spite of his poetic scorn of history as the opposite of truth, Paz engaged in the issues of historical importance for it is here that the values he believed in could be argued and fought for. Passion and detachment, as Michael Schmidt has pointed out, makes Paz a rare commentator of our times. ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, a book which Paz wrote to ‘recover the consciousness’ of his country, and his last work on India are examples of his sense of love and critical veneration for the cultures which had profound influences in his life.

Joined by the ‘arc’ of the human person, and at the other pole of politics, is love. As Paz wrote in ‘The Double Flame’, the fate of the person in political society ‘is reflected in his/her love relationship and vice versa’. Since love is the essential freedom of human beings, to realise it, ‘love must violate the laws of our world’. With such a defiant spirit Paz wrote in the ‘Sunstone’:

better the crime,

the suicides of lovers, the incest

committed

by brother and sister . . . than to turn

the mill that squeezes out the juice of

life,

that turns eternity into empty hours,

minutes into prisons, and time into

copper coins and abstract shit.

Beyond the nightmares of history and the loneliness of life, love is a desire for more being. But this desire to Paz turns us into ‘ghosts’. In this he echoes the sensibility of Fuentes for whom, according to Paz himself, ‘the body is imaginary’ and love is the love of a ‘phantom’. But, unlike Baudelaire, Paz’s aesthetics of love is one of concord, in spite of its bewilderments. Also unlike Baudelaire, Paz exalts sensual love without being cynical of its many failures. He could well agree with Rushdie who says that defeated love ‘is still greater than what defeats it’.

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The realisation of love is born for Paz alongside the realisation of death. Life and death to him were ‘antagonistic but complementary’. What we ask of love is ‘a bit of true life, of true death’. It is, as he wrote in the ‘Letter of Testimony’, ‘the passageway / that takes us to the other side of time’. Paz has finally embraced his other beloved: death. The final transgression towards eternal solitude.

Octavio Paz, Latin America’s foremost poet, and one of the greatest poets and humanists of our long twentieth century, will always speak to us, and we will always speak to him. Even in death, the poet erects a paradox: solitude and communion.

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Manash Bhattacharjee is a political scientist from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and a poet. His first collection, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, was recently published by The London Magazine.

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