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The Rembrandt of Surrealism

By Rajgopal Nidamboor - posted Friday, 20 April 2018

Octavio Paz's poetry, or writing, is eternal. It's not only renowned for its vibrant mellowness, but also for the trance-like allegory Paz used to deal with metaphysical questions.

Paz's work is also a quintessential, artistically-crafted canvas of surrealism - a classy framework that exerts more than a profound alchemic pull on Paz's towering, uplifting genii, and his wordy luminescence, juxtaposed by myriad underpinnings, or trappings: Marxism, existentialism, Buddhism and Hinduism, among other influences. The compass bearing is obvious. Paz's most prominent motif is every human being's natural, or inherent, ability to overcome their existential solitude through sublime love and artistic creativity.

For a man who did not relish writing early on, Paz simply savoured and enjoyed its result: be it plaudits, or brickbats. He never used the good old typewriter, nor the word processor, or computer. He always wrote with his hand - the Creator's most simple, yet powerful tool - the oracle and symbol of human creativity. Not only that. Paz worked just a little each day, read poetry and the companionable dictionary - something he often called "his adviser, his elder". This awesome threesome made him perceive the light-and-shadow effect of our living planet as one whole.


Paz's sense of surrealism was intense: almost phosphorescent, political, passionate, complex, moralistic, fervent and, perforce, delicately lonely. The world's pride and its delight, Paz was an institution all by himself, and so much more than just one man and one talent. He was undoubtedly a great author, with more than twenty books. He was also the founder of a host of journals, including his country's most erudite magazine, Vuelta(1976-1998), a professor at Harvard etc., and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. As the Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, said, "Paz (is) one of the greatest poets that the Spanish language world has produced."

Born on March 31, 1914, in Mexico City, Paz's background mirrored several elements of conscious evolution - most especially his gifted mind. His father, a lawyer, was of Mexican-Indian descent; his mother was a Spanish immigrant. His family was quite well off - until, that is, the Mexican Civil War played havoc, and ruined them financially. With that, they lost all their wealth and their dreams, so much so that Paz's early years were spent in poverty, away from his hometown. That changed status, not to speak of its accompanying pain, was enormous. It left its mark, and its manner, and more than just a deep imprint, on Paz and his fertile, yet troubled, psyche.

It was a Freudian setting, yes. But, in a way, it made Paz decipher objects through an artist's mind and eye. As Paz once said, recalling his childhood, "One day, while on a picnic with my friends, we found a small pyramid… this was the Mexico of my childhood - a Mexico rich in pre-Columbian art, the art of the colonialists, and the flowering of modern Mexican art." So, there you are. Paz's canvas was Freudian, his colour perception Jungian, and his framed representation, possibly, Skinnerian. The outcome? Simple - genius unbound, a genius with more than an element of Plato's divine frenzy.

Paz attended Catholic schools. But their teaching never appealed to, or attracted, him. He wasn't a great student either. His forays into academics, at the National University of Mexico, were unproductive too. He left without getting a degree. Yet his destiny was manifest. At age 19, Paz published his first book of poetry, Luna Silvestre (Forest Moon; 1933), followed by a few more volumes, and these gave him the pedestal, and status, of a writer of promise and substance: one who had a great future in the world of words.

In 1944, Paz went to the US on a fellowship. Something went wrong, again: money. But it prodded him on. He never ran short of ideas. A year later, Paz joined his country's diplomatic corps. The job took him to France, Switzerland, US, Japan, and to India - a country which was to influence him profoundly.

For the next two decades, Paz wrote prodigiously. He did what he liked best - discovering Oriental traditions. In 1950, one of his essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude, "hit" Mexico like a storm, and changed its philosophical landscape, penetrating what Paz called the "underbelly" of Mexico. It was a watershed - a work that highlighted the "indecipherable anguish of a race born in violence and obsessed with the past." "The Mexican," wrote Paz, in The Labyrinth…, "seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away… his face is a mask and (he) is always remote." Perfect words, embellished with a profound, yet delicate, sense of logic, and poignancy.


Paz's emotional chemistry was typically Mexican, heart, and soul. Let's cull a passage from Sun Stone (1957), his most celebrated poem, to bring home the point: "(A) bright hallucination of many wings/when they all open at the height of the sky/the sun has forced an entrance through my forehead/has opened my eyelids at last that were kept closed." Call it universal appeal, or what you will, and you have Paz, the quintessential craftsman, with his dexterous flair for words and sequence.

It goes without saying that Paz, notwithstanding his prosilient synthesis of world experience and clear vision, was relatively unknown outside Latin America until many of his monumental works were translated into English in the 1960s and the 1970s. The rest - as the expanded cliché would go - is both poetry and history.

Paz, the diplomat and writer, came to love India, where he lived from 1962 until 1968. It was during this time that he met the charming Frenchwoman Marie-Jose Tramini whom he married in 1965. All was hunky-dory. However, Paz's ambassadorial calling, in New Delhi, came to an abrupt end when he resigned - in protest - saddened by the sombre massacre of student rebels by government troops at Mexico University. He was back to teaching - now at Cambridge, UK, and Texas, US.

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About the Author

Rajgopal Nidamboor is a Mumbai-based writer-editor, and author of Cricket Odyssey. His website is here

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