“There is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth. It is a moment of reflective repose before we devote ourselves to action again.”
I came to this country not having inherited its sins, not being afforded many of its rights, but eager to share — and having by now devoted my adult life to sharing — in its responsibilities, its atonements, its healing. I came alone, barely out of my adolescence, into a country not yet out of its adolescence — that developmental stage when the act of taking responsibility is most difficult, and the impulse toward evasion and escapism most intense. “I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic, staggeringly timely conversation about race, forgiveness, and the crucial distinction between guilt and responsibility — historic also in speaking to Baldwin’s definition of history as “a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.”
These complex dynamics are what the great Mexican poet and political activist Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores in the opening chapter of his superb 1950 book-length essay The Labyrinth of Solitude (public library), written in Paris months after the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation, while Paz was serving as a newly appointed Mexican diplomat, and shortly after he lived in the United States as a Mexican poet, having chosen to use his Guggenheim Fellowship to study at U.C. Berkeley in California.
Like me, Paz arrived to the United States as an other — as an alien of a different tongue, from a country scarred by centuries of violent invasions and decades of dictatorship, with a culture older than the American by epochs; unlike me, he arrived male, non-white, an adult, and an award-winning poet of cultural standing. It was with all of these multitudes that he observed and interpreted what he saw in his adolescent host country. In a sentiment his contemporary Louise Bourgeois echoed in her diary — “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.” — Paz writes:
All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall — that of our consciousness — between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates, between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question.
Much the same thing happens to nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development. They ask themselves: What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are? The answers we give to these questions are often belied by history, perhaps because what is called the “genius of a people” is only a set of reactions to a given stimulus. The answers differ in different situations, and the national character, which was thought to be immutable, changes with them.
In a sentiment of staggering timeliness today, as we face the challenge and discipline of reflection in order to respond — and respond robustly and effectively — rather than merely react to unbearably triggering events, Paz adds:
There is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth. It is a moment of reflective repose before we devote ourselves to action again… It does not matter, then, if the answers we give to our questions must be corrected by time. The adolescent is also ignorant of the future changes that will affect the countenance he sees in the water. The mask of an old man is as indecipherable at first glance as a sacred stone covered with occult symbols; it is the history of various amorphous features that only take shape, slowly and vaguely, after the profoundest contemplation. Eventually these features are seen as a face, and later as a mask, a meaning, a history.
The questions we all ask ourselves today will probably be incomprehensible fifty years from now. Different circumstances are likely to produce different reactions.
On this latter point, Paz may be wrong — or at least incomplete, neglecting the vital outliers, the rare far-seers who speak of their present and speak to the future, voices like Baldwin’s and Mead’s, whose questioning quickenings of mind and spirit remain not only comprehensible but acutely relevant fifty years later.
Before we go on, we must pause to remember that language is the supreme vessel of meaning-making, hulled with a history and masted with a future. It carries in its colossal careening body all the baggage of its culture. Paz uses man to say citizen, to denote universal humanity — a convention by which writers of his era, male or female, abided; a convention at the gendered Goliath of which Ursula K. Le Guin shot her perfectly aimed pebble in her exquisite civilizational service of unsexing the universal pronoun. It may be a useful exercise to note with disquietude the biases of language, but the exercise becomes distinctly unhelpful when the disquietude deafens us to the message inside the vessel. Paz’s message transcends the bounds of his time to speak to ours:
In the United States man… has built his own world and it is built in his own image: it is his mirror. But now he cannot recognize himself in his inhuman objects, nor in his fellows. His creations, like those of an inept sorcerer, no longer obey him. He is alone among his works, lost — to use the phrase by José Gorostiza — in a “wilderness of mirrors.”
Upon arriving to the United States — which, as a resident of a neighboring landmass the shared name of which a single nation has usurped as its own, he insistently and correctly refers to as culturally North American rather than “American” — Paz found himself “surprised above all by the self-assurance and confidence of the people, by their apparent happiness and apparent adjustment to the world around them.” Drawing on the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s distinction between uses and abuses in differentiating the revolutionary spirit from the merely reformist impulse, he dismantles the apparent with the hard actuality:
The revolutionary is always radical, that is, he is trying to correct the uses themselves rather than the mere abuses of them. Almost all the criticisms I heard from the lips of North Americans were of the reformist variety: they left the social or cultural structures intact and were only intended to limit or improve this or that procedure.
Two decades before he resigned his post as a Mexican diplomat to protest the massacre of hundreds of peacefully protesting unarmed citizens, mostly students, by his country’s armed forces, Paz adds:
It seemed to me then, and it still does, that the United States is a society that wants to realize its ideals, has no wish to exchange them for others, and is confident of surviving, no matter how dark the future may appear. I am not interested in discussing whether this attitude is justified by reason and reality; I simply want to point out that it exists… I found it in the actions, the words and even the faces of almost everyone I met.
Americans, he notes more with curiosity than with condemnation, consider this disposition realism — but it is only a pseudo-realism, sustained by a willful blindness to uncomfortable realities — a form of culturally condoned hypocrisy that has become part of the national character. He writes:
When hypocrisy is a character trait it also affects one’s thinking, because it consists in the negation of all the aspects of reality that one finds disagreeable, irrational or repugnant.
And yet, in consonance with Baldwin and Mead’s distinction between guilt and responsibility, Paz insists that the fruitful attitude with which to face those disagreeable realities is not guilt, for guilt is never “transformed into anything other than hatred, solitary despair or blind idolatry.” The fruitful response — the responsible response — has to do with refusing to see ourselves as islanded in the river of time, unaccountable to and for history:
Contemporary history invalidates the belief in man as a creature whose essential being can be modified by social or pedagogical procedures. Man is not simply the result of history and the forces that activate it, as is now claimed; nor is history simply the result of human will, a belief on which the North American way of life is implicitly predicated. Man, it seems to me, is not in history: he is history.
Paz terms his meditation on these immensely complex and interleaved issues his “testimony” — a lovely term and a subtle way of acknowledging that all of our perspectives, however informed by a wide and deep understanding of history, however enriched by experience and empathy, are still at bottom subjective witnessings that render any self-appointed authority over absolute universal truth a farce. It is with this reverence for the shared and the subjective that he ends the chapter, reaching across the millennia, across the panoply of cultures, to wrest an elemental human truth:
A study of the great myths concerning the origin of man and the meaning of our presence on earth reveals that every culture — in the sense of a complex of values created and shared in common — stems from the conviction that man the intruder has broken or violated the order of the universe. He has inflicted a wound on the compact flesh of the world, and chaos, which is the ancient and, so to speak, natural condition of life, can emerge again from this aperture… Man collaborates actively in defending universal order, which is always being threatened by chaos. And when it collapses he must create a new one, this time his own. But exile, expiation and penitence should proceed from the reconciliation of man with the universe.
We have not, he laments, achieved this reconciliation — and out of this unmet longing arises a terror that rattles the root of our humanity:
We have lost our sense of the very meaning of all human activity, which is to assure the operation of an order in which knowledge and innocence, man and nature are in harmony.
It is possible that what we call “sin” is only a mythical expression of our self-consciousness, our solitude. I remember that in Spain during the civil war I had a revelation of “the other man” and of another kind of solitude: not closed, not mechanical, but open to the transcendent. No doubt the nearness of death and the brotherhood of men-at-arms, at whatever time and in whatever country, always produce an atmosphere favorable to the extraordinary, to all that rises above the human condition and breaks the circle of solitude that surrounds each one of us. But in those faces — obtuse and obstinate, gross and brutal, like those the great Spanish painters, without the least touch of complacency and with an almost flesh-and-blood realism, have left us — there was something like a desperate hopefulness, something very concrete and at the same time universal.
In yet another resonance with Baldwin’s insistence that “we’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” Paz concludes:
The memory will never leave me. Any one who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes, among all kinds of men. And he will dream of finding it again someday, somewhere, perhaps among those closest to him. In every man there is the possibility of his being — or, to be more exact, of his becoming once again — another man.
The Labyrinth of Solitude is a resplendent read in its entirety. Couple the vital human issues Paz explores in it with an equally vital non-human counterpart in the great nature writer Henry Beston’s reflections on otherness, belonging, and the dignity of difference, then revisit Toni Morrison on borders, belonging, and the violence of otherness, Walter Lippmann’s tremendous century-old treatise on the psychology of and the antidote to prejudice, and Baldwin’s prophetic insight into race and reality.
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