Itinerary: An Intellectual Journey

by Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz was the first Mexican citizen to win the Nobel Prize
for literature, but in many ways his life and work embraced a
profundity that transcended geography, politics, or awards. Paz's
acute sensitivity and mature relationship with the world were
forged in the smithy of experience. As a reporter, ambassador,
essayist, poet, and thinker (in the uncompromising classical sense)
he endeavored to see our world freed from its veil. Paz, a
devoted student of the Enlightenment, witnessed and commented on
modernity --- faults and all.


ITINERARY: An Intellectual Journey, although just two short essays,
contains all of the elements that make reading Paz so illuminating:
the poetic simplicity and seduction of his language, his insights
into the labyrinth of human history, and the genius to hold that
history in his careful hands. Paz described his final work as "an
intellectual biography" because, ostensibly, it follows the path of
its author --- while carefully examining the development of his
ideas. Yet, ITINERARY is neither a memoir chiseled in stone, nor a
hastily conceived coda to a brilliant life, but rather a river of
thought intended to flow through this century and beyond. His
analysis of modern culture, politics, and society is free from the
clutter of intellectual wrangling and always emphasizes the need
for a careful, critical perspective on the world. Jason Wilson,
Paz's friend and translator, captures these elements with elegiac
clarity, "Paz defined his task of making poetic inspiration the
means to change history...To become a poet meant opening his
awareness to the social tragedy, exposing the life-denying
ideologies, the fossilized languages, the numbed responses."


The first essay focuses primarily on THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE, a
work that was published in 1950 (hardly out from the shadows of the
second world war) after a long gestation period in which Paz
traveled to the United States, Spain, and Paris. Distance from his
home allowed Paz to interpret Mexican history and its situation in
the modern world. In this very personal essay, Paz revisits his
investigation into the labyrinth of Mexico, almost like an
archaeologist reopening a tomb. With the advantage of hindsight he
reexamines its history, myths, and desires. Since the explorations
of the Spanish and Portuguese, Mexicans have been a fragment of
world history. Paz considers the phantoms of Spain, whose
psychological presence haunts Mexico's memory, and of the United
States, whose mythic proportions and opportunities have almost
become an unconscious obsession. Among the images and rites of the
Mexican culture he tries, as he describes it, to "rip the veil
apart and see." The first essay comments on his reasons for
contemplating Mexico's place on the world stage and serves to
introduce themes that are dealt with in much greater detail in the
second essay, "Itinerary." Among the most engaging of Paz's themes
are the role of literature; the political, historical and
philosophical implications of revolutions; the false dreams and
legacies of communism; and the rarely examined complexity of
sustaining democracies. Individually, such topics might seem the
subject of doctoral dissertations, but Paz seamlessly weaves them
together with the economy and precision of a poet.


The second essay concentrates the arguments of the first and, like
many of the Platonic dialogues, poses as many questions as it
answers. Based on the premise that revolution is an undeniable
characteristic of the modern age, Paz endeavors to make sense of
historical change. He begins with the Greeks, the inventors of
democracy, who viewed change with suspicion, even horror. In
general, ancient societies embraced the absolute --- whether an
archetypal past or an anthropomorphic divinity --- and scorned
relativism. The deliberate religiousness of Paz's analysis
dovetails neatly with his next premise --- that revolution in the
modern age has been used as a proxy for religion, i.e., they
share a dual function: to change people's behavior and give meaning
to their lives. Like many other European and Latin American
intellectuals, Paz fell in love with the concept of revolution but
gradually became disenchanted with the disparity between concept
and realization, "These pages are the witness of a Mexican writer
who...lived those hopes and disillusions, that frenzy and that
disappointment." What is exceptional about ITINERARY is that Paz
depicts the ardent support for revolution that galvanized his youth
without restraint, free from intellectual pride or compunction. He
confesses that his love for revolution equaled his love of poetry;
in fact, they were, "two wings of the same passion." And, although
Paz recognized communism as a faulty mechanism, he was nonetheless
taken in by its promises ("it was the sole door out of the
impasse of our century") and forgave its chimerical logic.
Throughout ITINERARY Paz derides communism as a false religion
responsible for making efficiency into a god --- a god demanding
"the sacrifice of each one's conscience" but returning nothing to
fill the void.


Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, the year after the
fall of the Berlin Wall. One might easily assume that the fall of
communism and the victory declared on behalf of democracy and
capitalism were the punctuation mark for the shift in Paz's
thought. However, Paz refused to spare modern democracy from the
same scrutiny he applied to communism, "Defending modern democracy,
I must admit, has not been and is not easy." Paz believed that the
engines of modern democracies are fueled by relativism, which in
its purest form assures the coexistence of people, ideas, and
beliefs. Yet, at the core of our relativistic societies is a
hollow, a void that replaces coexistence with conformity.
Capitalism has created the indifferent market, a zero-sum game,
simultaneously creating abundance and poverty. Its effortless
mantra --- produce, consume, work, spend --- echoes the
religious and efficient aspects of communism. In the closing pages
of ITINERARY Paz acts as a voice for humanity, exhorting us to find
ways of enlightening the market before it devours us. In the age of
globalization, with armies of proponents and detractors facing off
in Seattle, Prague, and elsewhere, Paz's words resound with
experience, authority, and prophecy.

If Dante had Virgil to lead him through the dark wood it is clear
that Paz relied on Spanish literature and the poetry of T. S. Eliot
to guide him through the labyrinth of our century. Paz arrived in
Spain amidst the chaos of General Franco, when the literary
movement was incited by the recent execution of Federico
García Lorca. Writers like Juan Ramón Jiménez, Jorge
Guillén, and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda were critical in
nurturing Paz's political and aesthetic sensitivity. For Paz,
unlike other Mexican intellectuals, the Spanish tradition was a
path, not an obstacle, to modernity. The English tradition was
equally important. Throughout these essays and elsewhere Paz freely
alludes to Eliot's work (particularly "The Hollow Men"). He asserts
that "The Waste Land" was seminal to his thought and maintains that
even today it "continues to be deeply topical." This final chapter
of a brilliant career is social commentary that never loses sight
of the relevance of literature. Once again Paz has proven himself
an able guide.

   ---Reviewed by Joel E. D. Wells

Reviewed by on January 22, 2011

Itinerary: An Intellectual Journey
by Octavio Paz

  • Publication Date: November 14, 2000
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151005621
  • ISBN-13: 9780151005628