This Day in Literature: October 11

On this day in 1990, Mexican writer, poet, and diplomat, Octavio Paz won the Noble Prize for Literature “for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity.”

Paz was introduced to literature early in his life through the influence of his grandfather’s library, filled with classic Mexican and European literature. During the 1920s, he discovered the European poets Gerardo Diego, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Antonio Machado, Spanish writers who had a great influence on his early writings. As a teenager in 1931, under the influence of D. H. Lawrence, Paz published his first poems, including “Cabellera.” Two years later, at the age of 19, he published Luna Silvestre (“Wild Moon”), a collection of poems. In 1932, with some friends, he founded his first literary review, Barandal. By 1939, Paz considered himself first and foremost a poet.

In 1935, Paz abandoned his law studies and left for Yucatán to work at a school in Mérida for sons of peasants and workers. There, he began working on the first of his long, ambitious poems, “Entre la piedra y la flor” (“Between the Stone and the Flower”) (1941, revised in 1976), influenced by T. S. Eliot, which describes the situation of the Mexican peasant under the greedy landlords of the day.  In 1937, Paz was invited to the Second International Writers Congress in Defense of Culture in Spain during the country’s civil war, showing his solidarity with the Republican side and against fascism. Upon his return to Mexico, Paz co-founded a literary journal, Taller (“Workshop”) in 1938, and wrote for the magazine until 1941. In 1938 he also met and married Elena Garro, now considered one of Mexico’s finest writers. They had one daughter, Helena. They were divorced in 1959. In 1943, Paz 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 New York for a while. In 1945, he was sent to Paris, where he wrote El Laberinto de la Soledad (“The Labyrinth of Solitude”), a groundbreaking study of Mexican identity and thought. In 1952, he travelled to India for the first time and, in the same year, to Tokyo, as chargé d’affaires, and then to Geneva, in Switzerland. He returned to Mexico City in 1954, where he wrote his great poem “Piedra de sol” (“Sunstone”) in 1957 and Libertad bajo palabra (Liberty under Oath), a compilation of his poetry up to that time. He was sent again to Paris in 1959, following the steps of his lover, the Italian painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis. In 1962 he was named Mexico’s ambassador to India.

In India, Paz completed several works, including El mono gramático (The Monkey Grammarian) and Ladera este (Eastern Slope). While in India, he came into contact with a group of writers called the Hungry Generation and had a profound influence on them. In 1963 he broke up with Bona and married Marie-José Tramini, a French woman who would be his wife for the rest of his life. In October 1968, he resigned from the diplomatic corps in protest of the Mexican government’s massacre of student demonstrators in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. He sought refuge in Paris for a while and returned to Mexico in 1969, where he founded his magazine Plural (1970–1976) with a group of liberal Mexican and Latin American writers. From 1970 to 1974 he lectured at Harvard University, where he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship. His book Los hijos del limo (“Children of the Mire”) was the result of those lectures. After the Mexican government closed Plural in 1975, Paz founded Vuelta, a publication with a focus similar to that of Plural, and he continued to edit 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 doctorate from Harvard, and in 1982 he won the Neustadt Prize. A collection of his poems (written between 1957 and 1987) was published in 1990. In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Prize.  In India he met the Hungryalist poets and was of immense help to them during their 35 month long trial.

Octavio Paz died of cancer in 1998.

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