The following are notes and commentary on selected chapters from The Labyrinth of Solitude (1945) by Octavio Paz, a seminal work of Mexican literature.
The inaugural epigraph from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado underlines a key theme: the variability or contradictory or dynamic nature of the self. Machado writes that the self is, by definition, linked to the other, or the “not-I.” Interestingly, the epigraph underlines that it’s part of the poetic faith to believe in the “essential heterogeneity” of the self. So here we go, as we begin reading: the quote by Machado alerts us to the idea that definitions of identity are not singular but plural. To have an identity is to dialogue with another (an/”other”). The epigraph is useful as a matrix or guidepost for understanding the rest of the work.
After drawing connections between the adolescence of individuals and the adolescence of nations, Paz sets the stage cautiously, telling us that he recognizes the diversity of Mexico, and that his comments about the Mexican self are restricted to a subset of Mexicans who self-consciously see themselves as Mexicans. Theirs is a dynamic group, one that is open, and, we might suppose, asking questions of themselves and of history, like an adolescent hanging between childhood and adulthood. These Mexicans are not the aristocratic Hispanophiles, or those who identify as Indians, but an in between group of national intellectuals. The fact that they are intellectuals and writers becomes clearer later on in the work, in Paz’s exploration of “Mexican intelligence.”
Paz’s acknowledgement of diversity underlines a view shared by many Latin American cultural critics and writers about the essential cultural and historical heterogeneity of the Spanish speaking worlds of the Americas. For novelists like Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier, Latin America is by definition a place of juxtapositions, contradictions, mergings, conflations, combinations, and transformations. The same here with Mexico: it’s a country where different historical periods coexist in the same place. The Pre-Columbian world, the Hispanic-Colonial, and the “Modern” world are bound together within Mexico’s national borders. Multiracialism, multilingualism, multihistoricism. And if the past coexists with the present then it follows that the wounds of the past can bleed into the present.
The core of this chapter is the figure of the Pachuco, a theatrical, exotic, and dandy-like Mexican American adolescent from the 1940’s. In Paz’s view, this is a character who captures the insecure and unstable nature of all Mexicans who live in a city like Los Angeles. He is an oxymoronic figure based on denying his identity and asserting difference. Paz adds other dualities to this initial one : the distinctive costume of the Pachuco hides and discloses him; and his conduct both terrorizes others (Pachuco as delinquent) while and invites denigration (Pachuco as victim.) Like the adolescent we meet at the start of the chapter, the Pachuco is an outsider who lives between worlds and experiences, rejecting both Mexican origins and U.S. models. Paz says that the Pachuco is lacking a self, that he affirms nothing, only his will to pain, solitude, and self-destruction. To some degree, the Pachuco shares some similarities with Paz’s description of Los Angeles: a work in progress, a form of being coalescing and floating, but without a determinate and fixed shape to fix it in one place.
The other half of the chapter tackles a comparison between Mexico and the United States. Solitude in Mexican history is about questing for origins in an eccentric and uneven way, hurtling toward infinity and catastrophe. In contrast, solitude in U.S. history is about how North Americans have ceased to recognize themselves in the world they have constructed, and in which they seek their own reflection. In this formulation, Mexico is about primitive, celestial forces (astral bodies like comets and suns), but the U.S. is about man-made constructs and utilitarianism. In the U.S., the will to change is fundamentally reformist, not about blowing up the system or the framework. The roots are not acknowledged, questioned, or pulled out of the ground to make change. In Mexico, it is customary to acknowledge roots, however horrifying and perturbing they may be. Paz mentions the bloodied Christs of the churches, Mexico’s funerary culture, and the Day of the Dead; nothing like that erupts into the consciousness of Anglo-American attitudes about life and death, which are much more sanitized.
The chapter ends with a discussion of the definition of culture, which Paz defines as a shared community of values created to repair some kind of injury to the divine or spiritual order.
“Mexican Masks,” begins with a discussion of Mexican solitude or hermeticism. Mexicans are closed off from themselves and from each other, which is a textbook definition of being alienated. Their sense of distance, separation, and distrust, shows fear about the world that surrounds them, and in turn manifests machismo, which is not only about dispositions, poses, and acts, but also about language (rajar, agachar, venderse, etc.) I was interested in the concept of stoicism and resignation, which Paz describes as one the “popular,” innate virtues of the Mexican.”More than the glow of victory,” he continues, “we are moved by courage in the face of adversity.” One example from Mexican culture that I can offer to his point is the longstanding cult of the Niños Héroes. Another are corridos like Once Tumbas. Many of the classic films of the “Golden Age” of Mexican film underline the values of suffering and stoicism, especially the Pepe el Toro trilogy by Fernando Fuentes, but perhaps the most powerful example of stoicism as a nationalist value is El suplicio de Cuahtémoc.
I’m a little bit uncomfortable because all of this makes it sound like I am agreeing with Paz. Although I don’t subscribe to Paz’s absolute generalizations about the Mexican “soul,” I think that much of what he has to say might be relevant and revealing for discussions of culture. And that’s an important distinction. The intangible, spiritualist connotation of the soul disregards the materiality of history, whereas culture is historically concrete, real, visible, and measurable. If you want to explain culture by appealing to an intangible national soul, you may, but I don’t think we have to.
Paz dwells on formality and formulas as one of the defenses used by Mexicans to contain their own contradictions and frustrations. The broader point about formalities and formulas versus spontaneity is interesting because it also plays out historically and in institutions. A constitution is a form, as is a moral schema, as are laws, as is a literary form like a sonnet etc. These are forms that are designed to filter the self and its self-expression, they put down rules and boundaries, they are the opposite of spontaneity and unfiltered self-expression. Paz writes: “Nuestras formas jurídicas y morales…multilan con frecuencia a nuestro ser, nos impide expresarnos y niegan satisfaccieon a nuestros apetitos vitales” (54).
Paz acknowledges that women are objects in culture, and that they are used by men to manufacture cultural arguments. The oppression of women, in history, is not merely a function of a lack of freedom to do x, y, and z, but rather how culture, built over centuries by men, has transformed women into objects, as opposed to subjects. To be a subject is to be able to make your own meaning through your actions and understanding, and to be a object is to be used by others to make meaning. “Como casi todos los pueblos, los mexicanos consideran a la mujer como un instrumento, ya de los deseos del hombre, ya de los fines que le asignan la ley, la sociedad o la moral. Fines hay que decirlo, sobre los que nunca se la ha pedido su consentimiento y en cuya realización participa sólo pasivamente, en tanto que ‘depositaria’ de ciertos valores” (57). [This argument can be put into dialogue with Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex” (1975), a seminal feminist essay that helps us understand patriarchy and gender roles.]
Paz underlines that Mexican women, unlike Spanish and Anglo-American women, are “dark, hidden, secret, passive” (58). She’s an “idol” with magical powers that emanate from her secrecy and mystery. In Mexico’s symbolic economy of active vs. passive, women are passive insofar as they are not anatomically able to “penetrate” another (they have no penis), a condition that is communicated by her condition as a “rajada,” which essentially means her lack of a phallus. This same logic is used in Mexican culture to talk about winners and losers; machos are penetrators (in a later chapter, Paz will elaborate and call them chingones, from the verb chingar), whereas men who are defeated are the penetrated (chingados). That is why that men who engage in sex with other men as “tops” are judged less harshly than “bottoms.” Paz extends this dialectic between active and passive, chingones and chingados, to the Mexican albures, or dueling jokes and put downs, which he equates with the same sexual dynamic. He writes, “…el perdidoso es poseído, violado, por el otro…lo importante es ‘no abrirse’ y, simultáneamente, rajar, herir al contrario” (61).
Chapter Four. Los Hijos de la Malinche.
The core chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude, the most cited and talked about, is this chapter, which explains the root cause of the alienation of the Mexican. I define alienaton as a sense of disconnection within oneself that leads to a disconnect with others. Paz argues the same: Mexicans are enigmatic within themselves and with others. Identity is a problem of the self, and of relationships with others (93). This chapter finally answers the question of why Mexicans are alienated.
Key to Paz’s approach here is to set aside historical or materialistic interpretations of national identity. We can call his approach psycho-mythological-historical because he proposes psychological dynamics to explain collective behaviors and attitudes, and then links them to historical events or myth. A strictly historical or historicist approach would not allow Paz to generalize about all classes of Mexicans, to boil down attitudes, traumas, and worldviews to some relatively simple points, such as saying that Mexicans are closed, ashamed, and cruel because they carry within themselves the horror of a literal and symbolic violation that occurred during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. Paz plays with us a little because as he begins to explore the answer to what makes Mexicans alienated he seems to veer toward historical reasons but then he backs off and says that approach is inadequate (94-95). He turns to psychology, trauma, and myth.
Paz refers to the moral de siervo, or a submissive, fearful and deferring attitude that is symptomatic of a colonized or dominated people (94). One example of this from colloquial Spanish, which Paz does not mention, but which Spanish speakers will recognize, is how a lot of Mexicans say “¿mande?” (what do you command?) as a euphemism for “what?” or “what did you say?” or “I am listening.” There is something profoundly undemocratic about “mande,” which is intended to be a polite and respectful substitute for “¿qué?” This would be an example of how a spirit of servitude is infused in Mexican speech. Paz asks: who is the invisible master behind the moral de siervo? Who is the invisible master to which Mexicans continuously defer through their fearful and defensive attitudes and actions? Is is it a class of persons, such as the rich and the powerful? No. Such an explanation is class based and as such historical. Such an explanation would make identifying, pinning down, and resisting the colonizer relatively easy because he would be a concrete target. The problem is that the “hidden master” or colonizer (my expression, not Paz’s) is a ghost or an “imaginary entity” (96). Mexicans were traumatized in the past and although that trauma and its circumstances have faded away, the feelings they engendered, their effects, continue to reverberate inside the Mexican mind or soul. Paz calls these ghosts untouchable and invincible because unlike a flesh and bone antagonist, they are not outside of Mexicans, but inside of them. This kind of argumentation draws from Freudian concepts of trauma, repression, and neurosis.
Paz now moves on to the realm of language, and to the verb chingar, and to the nouns chingón and chingada, and variants. This is a section about the poetry of cursing and its psychological and mythological significance for explaining Mexican identity. Curse words are portals that reveal secrets. They are the explosion that shows what’s hidden. That is why Paz calls them sacred words, and magical words, and words of damnation. Mexicans say Viva México hijos de la chingada as both a celebration of the self and a condemnation of the other. But the paradox is that the other is Mexicans themselves. The hijos of la chingada are the Mexicans who say Viva Mexico. In this way, Mexicans are at war with themselves, and with their shame over the rape of their symbolic mother, La Malinche. The language of curse words uncovers this dynamic. To chingar is to violate but conceptually the verb enacts the dyad of closed versus open that is central to Paz’s arguments throughout the book as a whole. The verb is sexual to some degree but it transcends sexuality to encompass power relations in general. Chingar refers to the opposition between what is closed (culturally imagined as masculine) and that which is open (culturally associated with feminine). Etymologically, the word has echoes of that which is broken, what is not good, and acts of aggression. To send someone to La Chingada is to send that person to what Paz calls the country of broken and wasted things (102). Paz’s entire discourse about chingar underlines what he has been saying up to now about how Mexicans feel unsafe in the world, and how they wear masks, are guarded in with others, and have a penchant for covering their true selves through invisibility, imitation, deference, and an excess of courtesies or social protocols (which he calls formas.) The true reality of the Mexican self, or his true terrain, is that of violence; will I be the violator (chingón) or the violated (chingada)? That is the reality of the Mexican self according to Paz. (How women are included in this dynamic, besides being a symbol, and a mother or bad woman archetype, is something that Paz does not explain adequately.)
to be continued…