Exploring 'The Labyrinth of Solitude'


In my last column, I wrote about a Mexican nun who wrote in the 17th century and became a famous, recognized literary figure even though she took the habit early in her life. Today, I would like to continue with another Mexican writer who not only is famous but is also a Nobel laureate in literature and a product of the 20th century. Octavio Paz (1914-1998) was not only an excellent writer, poet, diplomat and an overall well-rounded "Renaissance man," he was also an excellent representative of the Mexican ethos. I wonder how wellknown he is today, particularly here in Taos. You know the famous words: so close and yet so far…

Octavio Paz (author of "The Labyrinth of Solitude"), educated and influenced by European literature and philosophy (and also oriental religions and philosophies), was also a diplomat and very much a citizen of the world. However, he never gave up on his Mexican origin, and he became known and respected all over Latin America. In his book, "The Labyrinth of Solitude," he analyzes some of the Mexican cultural traits, so different from its neighbors in the north. Solitude is not exactly loneliness. Solitude is what makes a people take refuge behind cultural myths and beliefs that help deal with the mysteries of life and death. Solitude is the umbrella that covers the only two losses that mark our lives: birth and death.

These two most important events unite people instead of separating them. Paz talks of the Day of the Dead as a cultural phenomenon that brings groups together, and the myth acts as the epoxy that glues communities. Also, it is a way to conquer the fear of death that afflicts so many here north of the river.

Paz excellently describes how the Mexican masks his feelings. Sorry, but he does speak of the "Mexican man". I will address his section on women in a second. He does an excellent job in comparing the Mexican with the North American, so close and yet so different. The wonderful thing is that he is no judge. He is simply a superb analyst.

Unfortunately, today in North America we seem to be attacked by an epidemic of loneliness, definitely aided and abetted by social media, but we do not have the cultural ethos that Mexico does. We are beset by an individualism that cannot help us confront crises and a positivism that stands in the way of behaving like true communities.

Yes, groups and communities exist in America, but they seldom represent a national culture. They seldom agglutinate folks. Instead, they often act more to spread people apart with all the "collateral" damage that can cause.

For Paz, the solitude can be cured by love and the love of a woman. However, women cannot act independently of men. "Women live prisoners of the image imposed by men," Paz wrote.

For Paz, it is very difficult for women to truly love, to elect, to be truly themselves. Interestingly, men also have difficulty being truly themselves because, like the women that are prisoners of societal rigors, men cannot act freely and conquer their fears. The bottom line is that life is a duality between good and bad, love and hate, real and ideal, rational and irrational.

Friends, today we are joined by different crises, by different social phenomena that threaten our very core, not only as individuals but also as a nation, a community of people. Thus, I thought that it was quite interesting and enriching to use the work of a 17th century nun and a respected and illustrious 20th century writer, both Mexican, to try to make sense of the mess we are in.

After all, there is nothing new under the sun, right, so why not take advantage of some of the best the world has already produced? We have plenty of room to enrich ourselves and take advantage of work that is readily available and so close to us.

Read the Spanish version of this column here.