YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

With Paz's Passing, a Voice of Courage, Reason Is Stilled

The Last Mandarin: An Appreciation

April 21, 1998|MARIO VARGAS LLOSA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mario Vargas Llosa is the author of numerous books, including "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" and the forthcoming "The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto." This piece was translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam

The death of Octavio Paz deprives the culture of our times of an exceptional poet and thinker. While deeply rooted in Mexico, his native land, his work transcends national boundaries and extends throughout Western culture, which is enriched with images, ideas, arguments and inventions that left an indelible mark on poetic creation, on art and literary criticism, on historico-social analysis, and political debate.

In the Spanish-speaking world, Octavio Paz was the last intellectual mandarin, in the style of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in France, Jose Ortega y Gasset in Spain, or Alfonso Reyes in Mexico. (Ortega and Reyes were Paz's teachers--in the larger sense of the word--and he wrote lucid essays on each of them.) Like all these men, Paz was a humanist, animated by a universal curiosity and a cosmopolitan culture that led him to write on the most diverse themes and to become the living conscience of his age, a point of reference in every critical moment--whether an ideological conflict, an aesthetic polemic, or a moral dilemma.

Surrealism aroused his passion in his early years, but his poetry evolved until it explored all the avenues of the avant-garde as well as post-modern experiments. His poetry took equally from the French, English and Spanish traditions and even from those of India, China and Japan, cultures with which he became familiar during the years he served as Mexican ambassador in India.

Paz resigned from that position in 1968, when the massacre in the Plaza of the Three Cultures (Tlatelolco) took place in Mexico. That gesture marks another fundamental aspect of Octavio Paz: his civic integrity and his jealous defense of liberty and democracy against all totalitarian ideologues, right or left. In one of his most celebrated books, El ogro filantropico ("The Philanthropic Ogre," 1979), he took as an example Mexico's ruling party, the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) and its dissimulated dictatorship of almost 70 years in Mexico. With admirable perspicacity, Paz dissected the mechanisms totalitarianism and authoritarian regimes use to asphyxiate culture and destroy civic sovereignty.

Unlike almost all the great writers of his generation, Paz never succumbed to the siren song of Marxism and even during the '50s and '60s, when all around him the dilemma of the intellectuals seemed to be that of choosing between Communism and fascism, Paz, along with Albert Camus, had the courage to fight against the currents then in fashion. Despite the hostility unleased against him by his ideological adversaries, he continued to preach the superiority of the culture of freedom against its enemies. The magazines he edited, especially the one he ran over the course of the past 20 years, Vuelta, were always a civic tribunal from which censorship, dogmatism, dictatorship, political or intellectual terrorism were denounced and tolerance, pluralism and democratic choice defended.

In the Spanish-speaking world today, there is no one capable of filling the void Octavio Paz has left.

--Berlin, April 20, 1998

Los Angeles Times Articles