Friday, November 23, 2018

The Poet in His Labyrinth

“Criticism unfolds the possibility of freedom and is thus an invitation to action.”
“Criticism tells us that we should learn to dissolve the idols, should learn to dissolve them within our own selves. We must learn to be like the air, a liberated dream.”—Octavio Paz, trans. Lysander Kemp
I recently finished Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude. It's been on my to-be-read list since my undergraduate studies decades ago. Because I've been spending more time in Mexico over the past couple of years,  I finally decided to pick it up.

I thought the first few chapters were terrible. They read as if they had been written for the most virulent American racists and xenophobes. I found them misogynistic and clichéd. I was beginning to think that it wasn't worth the time or effort.

But then Paz started dealing with historical events, offering sociological interpretations of the Conquest and its aftermath. He critiqued positivism and its role during the Porfiriato. Who the fuck even knows what positivism is these days?! (Think of it as the shittiest view of the world and the unwarranted and privileged role of science in coming to know that world.)

His robust defense of criticism is impressive. His critical eye for the iniquities of orthodoxy in its various guises (religious, political, aesthetic) is necessary. His critique of the pyramid is substantial and essential. His insight into the United States's role in maintaining Mexico's labyrinth(s) of solitude shows the depth of his comparative knowledge and understanding.

It's not a perfect text. It's not even one of my favorite books. But still: essential reading for the intellectual who is about fifty years too late to the party. If I were teaching a course on semiotics, it would be required reading.

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