El Laberinto de la Soledad is, among other things, a constant deconstruction of Mexico’s history, culture, and language. This ambitious essay by Octavio Paz, author of multiple award-winning novels, is divided in 9 chapters and covers plenty of ground in just 246 pages.
Paz opens up the book by reflecting on the alienation of the Mexican immigrant, also known as “Pachuco” (curiously a term first used here, in El Paso). This word is used for describing the young Mexican immigrants commonly known for their stand-out style, a flair the author thoroughly describes as something mythical in the eyes of the North American crowd. Standing out among a crowd with such self-awareness, is an attitude that also provokes and potentially winds up causing some sort of conflict. During and after this conflict, a Pachuco is brought to everyone’s attention and finds redemption as they incorporate into society. This does not mean a Pachuco would adopt American traditions or completely blend in, as it never seemed to be the objective. The objective is overcoming solitude, subsequently achieving communion in this new territory.
What exactly is this solitude though? The undeniable gap in culture between two neighbor countries, and culture, is everything. Americans and Mexicans will find differences among themselves begin in their very attitudes. North America is described as a modern and positive, but immature society.’ While Mexicans have a very different but flawed philosophy. A very interesting chapter discussing this philosophy, “Mascaras Mexicanas (which directly translates to Mexican Masks) examines the Mexican’s fear of intimacy and sharing.
In Mexico you’ll frequently hear “Al buen entendedor, pocas palabras” (few words for them who understand best), popular sayings like this one tend to condemn opening up to others. Being masculine means mostly to shut down and remaining distrustful, venting is seen as a trait of the weak/ feminine. “Masculine integrity runs the same risk when facing either benevolence or hostility.” Opening up can even be traced back to a female’s anatomy, a form of stigma that’s been going on for ages. Bad women are adventurous and resilient, while weak men are transparent and open.
A woman is seen as means to an end. Men is beginning and end. A woman is seen as an empty vessel, she must be decent, reserved and passive. And Paz theorizes that once a woman is seen as inherently vulnerable for so long, they become the same as men: invulnerable. It is also curious how after deconstructing many sexist sayings and phrases, the author goes into the old and infamous “albures”, sexually aggressive wordplay prone to drift on homosexuality, where the winner will always be the active partner, the one that hurts and violates.
Everything Mexican culture came to know about a macho figure was about staying defensive and impervious, unaffected or “indifferent”. Mexican people have found virtue in this exactly, always trying to remain unbothered against adversity. Has Mexico always been inclined towards a pursuit for objectivity?
Then there’s also a thorough analysis of traditions, a Mexican is hedonistic, and loves to party. Partying means to escape, to follow no rules from the outside world and ignore the limitations and actions that’d be normally frowned upon. The same disregard a Mexican will feel while partying, in a poetic way, is used to face death. From phrases to attitudes a lot about this behavior spells we are not half as afraid of death as our European counterparts.
With this attitude festivity is naturally born: “Día de Los Muertos”. This day on our calendar doesn’t necessarily mean that people are ready to falter, but it is a way of embracing and accepting the ritual. Mexican society mourns, and the seemingly stoic and unbothered attitude shown for life and death, party or crime is just a way of hiding the “open flesh wound” Paz mentions Mexico has been historically struggling with. A wound from being alone, from losing conscience and connection to an original matrix.
Later the author will further devolve into the eternal cultural distancing between the American and Mexican. One of the first glances into Paz’s Marxist analysis of occidental culture, delving in the theme of social classes and how this social status will always overpower a man’s identity – An arguably common criticism amongst intellectuals at the time, – as the Industrial Revolution as known in Mexico, was experimenting its boom a few years before the essay’s publication. There was -and arguably still is- no conscience of the work being done by the laborer, a reinforced identity crisis for Mexico. A crisis that has been present ever since the Spanish inquisition, when the strongest religions where stripped off national identity and Catholicism was the only available refugee.
Speaking of crisis, Paz recognizes a non-stop persecution among different groups, ethnic races around the world, battling to eliminate one another and end up with whatever the political machine benefits from, something not unlike the “globalization” process. The essay will continue to describe the prototype Mexican as afraid of intimacy and “lonely” (as the title implies) and speak on how major historic events like the Mexican Revolution took a toll on its people and their perception of their country, how history shapes culture.
Octavio Paz would later visit the University of Texas in 1970, to expand upon what was written and reevaluate old points of view and give a different, more recent outlook, texts that can be found in “Postdata”.
written by Diego Ballesteros, November 15, 2021
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