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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Existential Octavio Paz or the poetic essence of being Zamorano Meza, Jose Manuel


Octavio Paz is one of the fundamental literary figures of Latin America. His works are diverse in genre, extensive in topics and in many cases polemical. Paz’s thinking about Mexican identity, poetry and modernity through his essays and his poetry pose a problem of philosophical interpretation that deserves attention. My hermeneutical reading of Paz’s poetics in light of the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger and José Ortega y Gasset facilitates the understanding of some of Paz’s fundamental and most enduring tenets. Moreover, studying Paz in this way may help us understanding Mexican culture today. Phenomenology, vitalism and existential ontology were crucial in the anti-rationalistic environment of post-revolutionary Mexico of Paz’s youth. His polemical thoughts on Mexicanness as an identity void of an essence (e.g. in The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950) make sense in dialogue with Ortega’s vitalist call for spontaneous living and Heidegger’s notion of authentic existence (i.e. being not defined but open to possibilities). Also, Paz’s concern for the existential meaning of poetry and his belief in the poetic essence of man and history (e.g. in The Bow and the Lyre, 1956) gains coherence when considered alongside of Heidegger’s critique of the aesthetic tradition and his premise that poetic language is the house of Being. Finally, Paz’s ambiguous critique of modernity and modern technology as events that alienate but, at the same time, liberate human existence (e.g. in “Signs in Rotation,” 1965), gains coherence in light of Heidegger’s critique of modern misunderstanding of the essence of technology. In the end, all these structural premises in Paz’s poetics may be understood as his radical call to interpret human existence as otherness; a call with strong ties to Heidegger’s belief in human destiny as authentic existence. At a time when the most recent version of narrow views on Mexico’s future have already ignited one of the country’s most violent periods to date, it is useful to look back at these existential concerns. The call of Ortega, Heidegger and Paz to avoid programmatic essentialisms, appropriate historicity and to live authentically as a being-in-the-world of socialized others, now gains renewed importance.

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