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On Poets and Others by Octavio Paz; translated by Michael Schmit (Holt: $18.95; 219 pp.)

October 19, 1986|James Harkness | Harkness' most recent fictions appear in Missouri Review. and

Even though its 16 essays vary considerably in subject matter and quality, "On Poets and Others" is so short and congenial a book that it makes a perfect introduction to Octavio Paz.

A philosopher with a poet's language, poet with a critic's penetration, radical with a soft spot for tradition, Paz has been a writer cum man-of-action rather in the mold of his French contemporary, Andre Malraux. Among the parallels: Both served against the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War and were first sympathetic to, then disillusioned by communism and the Soviet Union. In art, both gravitated simultaneously to the avant-garde and the primitive. In later life, each man entered practical politics, Malraux as DeGaulle's minister of cultural affairs and Paz as Mexico's ambassador to India--a position he resigned in 1968 to repudiate a regime he considered too rigid to accommodate democratic activism.

Two axes of partition divide "On Poets and Others." The first demarks literature from politics; the second, Latin America from Europe and the United States. But the boundaries run not so much between the essays as within them--and, like those novelty "wave-machines" popular a few years ago, flat glass boxes in which two liquids of different color and viscosity roil slowly over and beneath one another, the surfaces of contact between categories and areas of experience are fluid, changing and endlessly permeable.

Considering Solzhenitsyn, for example, Paz carefully sets apart the Russian writer's heroic witness against the Gulag from his disquietingly authoritarian theosophy--a valid but by now nearly canonical distinction. A few lines later, Paz is working a more provocative (and less commonplace) vein:

"There is a similarity . . . between the Spanish and the Russian tradition: Neither they nor we, the Latin Americans . . . had in fact anything which can be compared with the Enlightenment and the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in Europe. Nor did we have anything to compare with the Protestant Reformation, that great seedbed of liberties and democracy in the modern world."

Other pieces in "On Poets and Others" suffer, not only by contrast. The memoir of Jean-Paul Sartre is incisive in places, inaccurate in others, and Paz's bewilderment at Sartre's last antemortem interview could have been cleared up had he been aware how much the aging, ailing thinker had become the creature of his interlocutor, the polemicist Bernard-Henri Levy.

The essays on Frost and Whitman are slight, while a longer appreciation of William Carlos Williams is remarkable mainly for some personal reminiscences and a few half-hearted bangs on the tinny drum of structuralism. But the note on Andre Breton is splendid, and best of all are the medititations on Jose Ortega y Gasset, Luis Bunuel, Jose Revueltas, and Luis Cernuda. Those are figures with whom Paz is on terms as intimate as the typical gringo's are remote. The essays devoted to their work form a bridge that leads not only to "The Labyrinth of Solitude" and "The Philanthropic Ogre," but also to the enduring richness of Paz's own poetry. Once across the Rio Grande of Anglo-centrism, intrepid turistas can venture further south for themselves, into the denser and more urgent writing that lies at the heart of Paz country.

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