Books: Cultural Amnesia — Octavio Paz |
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Octavio Paz (b. 1914) is not only the great poet of modern Mexico, but the great essayist. Nobody in any of the main Western languages does more to demonstrate the closeness of those two forms. His every poem opens up a topic, and his every essay glows with treasurable turns of phrase. In his capacity as essayist he can be approached with confidence by the beginner in Spanish, because Paz’s prose style might have been put on earth specifically as a teaching aid to that language. Attractively wrapped in coated white paper by the Spanish publishing house Seix-Barral, his collections of essays are almost beyond counting and cover every artistic subject. They leave the reader amazed that their author ever found time to be a poet. That he found time to be a man of action as well beggars belief. In the Spanish Civil War he fought on the Republican side. In the 1960s, in his role of diplomat, he was Mexico’s ambassador to India. His engagement with the politics of his own country was unceasing and often tempestuous. All his artistic enthusiasm, and all his political experiences, yielded material for poetry: he was the embodiment of Goethe’s principle that there could be no event in life without the golden shadow of a poem. In the light shed by this active volcano of high-quality creative activity, the award of the Nobel Prize in 1990 made his admirers wonder why some previous recipients were not shamed into handing their prizes back. Of the old imperial European countries, Spain has been the most conspicuous example of a homeland having its energy restored by the creativity of its colonies. From Rubén Darío onwards, the writers of Latin America were conscious of their mission to restore the intellectual force of the Spanish world. We can pick favourites among the twentieth-century exemplars—Sabato and Vargas Llosa are among mine—but Paz is up there with Borges no matter what we think of either. As it happens, I think Paz’s homage to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is one of the most romantic books in the world, and would still have made him a master if it had been the whole of his work, instead of only a hundredth part.

* * *
Faced with the disappearance of the correspondence of Sor Juana, the melancholy
provoked inevitably by the study of our past is transformed into desperation.

IN OTHER WORDS, he was in love with her. Any man who reads the book will feel the same way about its heroine, and wish for himself Paz’s Camusian good looks, the dark charm with which he has always carried his immense learning. He had all the qualifications to think of himself as her saviour from the solitude of the cloisters. Luckily he remembered, as we must remember, that the lyrically gifted beauty’s life as a nun was a life she chose. Our own salvation is to reflect that it was not necessarily the love of Christ that drew her to the convent in the first instance. In Mexico, in the age of the Baroque, learning was a man’s business. Colonial Mexico had been founded by the conquistadores, and their suits of armour were still standing in the hallways of the haciendas. Mexico is still a macho culture today. Imagine what it was like then. In her childhood, Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez de Santillana was so gifted that she taught herself Latin in a breath. She dreamed of going to university and at one stage planned to pass herself off as a boy so that she could enrol. Finally the would-be Yentl had to face facts. Her grand name had no money to back it up. Much courted for her beauty and lively personality, she could have picked a rich husband and so gained the leisure to read and write. But she didn’t want to sell herself. The convent was the only recourse. Though her faith was real, it undoubtedly came in handy. If we can’t look on her lifelong piety as lip service, we can see it as a part expedient, and so dream of joining the long line of suitors who came to her at the convent. One of them might have succeeded, although, as was bound to happen, there has always been much speculation about her sexuality. Some believed that she was a man all along.

Even Paz thought she had a male mind. Women dream of her as men do, and might even be closer to the truth. There was a direct connection from the convent to the viceregal palace, where her poems were valued as evidence of the colony’s growing place in the world. One of the vicereines was as attentive as any male suitor. She was the splendidly named and titled Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, Condesa de Paradis y de la Laguna. This time the big name had all the accoutrements, but with the wealth and the position went blue stockings. The accomplished and superior Condesa de Paradis was drawn to Juana Inés as one intellectual aristocrat to another. Since the nun could not go to the palace drawing-room, the Countess of Paradise and the Lagoon went to the book-lined convent cell. The nun wrote poems in praise of the noblewoman’s beauty. The vocabulary of adoration was standard for the day, but there is no mistaking the passion, even after the lush lilt of her Spanish is cut and dried into English.