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ONE EARTH, FOUR OR FIVE WORLDS : REFLECTIONS ON CONTEMPORARY HISTORY by Octavio Paz, translated by Helen R. Lane (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; 224 pp.)

June 16, 1985|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

The Latino poet is supposed to have--is almost required to have--a place in politics, a role in diplomacy, a stake in the hurly-burly of temporal events. No contemporary Latino poet has lived the political part more knowingly or independently than Octavio Paz, the Mexican-born septuagenarian who fuses the study of language, history, government and art in a world view free of superpower prejudices or theocratic certainties.

Here are essays of the immediate, some of them written for Spanish-language newspapers in the '80s, some of them brand new--all of them celebrating human freedom as opposed to manufactured ideology. "Ideology," Paz writes, "converts ideas into masks: They hide the person who wears them, and at the same time they keep him from seeing reality."

He offers aid, but little comfort, to the United States. He offers explanation, but no support, for Marxist-Leninist regimes: "Not a few European and Latin American intellectuals attempt to equate the policy of the United States with that of the Soviet Union, as though they were twin monsters. Hypocrisy, naivete or cynicism? It seems to me that what is monstrous is the comparison itself. The errors, the failures and the sins of the United States are enormous, and I am not trying to absolve that nation." Paz goes on to criticize the United States, Western democracies and Japan for incoherent policies, for blindness to the social problems in less developed nations and for being the accomplices of brutal dictatorships.

"All this having been said, however," he continues, "it must be added that the capitalist democracies have preserved fundamental freedoms within their own borders. On the other hand, ideological war abroad and totalitarian despotism at home are the two constituent features of the Soviet regime and its vassal countries."

The trouble with America, he suggests, is a two-faced approach to the world--one inside expression for its citizens, another outside appearance in dealing with other nations. The United States is, internally, a democracy, and its people enjoy the freedoms attached to a changing society. But the American approach to foreign affairs is too often the posture of empire, with all the oppressions and power plays associated thereto. "The needs of empire create a bureaucracy whose specialty is espionage and other methods of intelligence used in the international power struggle. . . ." Witness U.S. adventures in Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere for examples of Paz's charges. Not so incidentally, he sees the contadora group of nations--Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico--as the best brokers for peace in Central America.

The trouble with Mexico, he suggests, is proximity to the United States, to sometimes aping and sometimes loathing the big neighbor with the fancier house and larger yard. "The passion of our intellectuals for U.S. civilization ranges from love to bitter rancor, from adoration to horror," Paz writes. While Mexico embraced U.S. notions of freedom and modernity, Mexico arrived at that embrace from a wholly different history: "Between puritanism, democracy and capitalism there was not opposition but affinity; the past and future of the United States are reflected without contradiction in these three words. Between republican ideology and the Catholic world of the Mexican viceroyalty, a mosaic of pre-Columbian survivals and Baroque forms, there was a sharp break: Mexico denied its past."

Paz discusses Protestantism as a positive force for a young United States, as a religion without the hierarchy and immutability of a church assuming universal allegiance. He takes the next step and compares the relative inflexibility of Catholicism with the almost absolute inflexibility of Marxism as a kind of kinship between sworn enemies. The certainty and the pseudo-science of Marxism, he writes, has a logical appeal for revolutionaries who grew up in a Catholic culture. When such people rebel against the present authority they pledge new allegiance to a system more authoritarian and far less spiritual, replacing religious belief with an acceptance of state.

The magnificence of these essays is fearlessness, intelligence, literary grace and a willingness to make the opposite seem apposite and the paradoxical appear predictable. Paz knows his neighbors' histories, and he knows the global stories in Asia, Africa and Europe. The weakness here, if lack of a political formula is in fact a weakness, is the absence of Paz--translate peace--proposals to cure what ails humanity. The poet's solution, logically, is language and discussion: "Dialogue keeps us from denying ourselves and from denying the humanity of the adversary." The trouble with that solution is the presumption that both sides of a struggle want to talk. Look at Geneva, right now. Listen for dialogue and hear vilification instead.

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