Saturday, February 25, 2012

Octavio Paz : Locking Horns with Writers

“On Poets and Others” is a book of essays by Octavio Paz, the great Nobel Prize Winner poet, essayist, thinker and diplomat from Mexico. It contains essays on remarkable poets, thinkers and philosophers, novelists and literary personalities  he met in his life. Although some of the subjects and persons  he writes on  appear   rather dated, the themes and topics he discusses are still   relevant today.    

What would you expect when one of the greatest poets   writes in polemical and stylish prose on such issues as dissent of the intellectuals or the decadence of an ideology or comments on the increasing psychic schism and divided conscience of modern man?   He may not be always right, and sometimes you will find him not very agreeable; and yet he will engage you, allure you.  The poets, intellectuals and other literary personalities, which are really his subjects of writing, come in the picture as if incidentally.  He writes on them with love and penetration, but in the process he unfolds something much larger and greater. He creates a World of his own.  

Amongst the poets there are Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Charles Tomlinson.    His essay on Robert frost   captures some magical moments of interaction between the  two when young Paz calls on old  Robert Frost on his Vermont farm.   Robert Frost speaks to him on  how he sees the world around him and how he communicates with  stones, farms, trees,  hills, knolls and everything around him.  They speak on relationship of poet with his tradition; they speak on how poet challenges tradition, creates the language for his poetry and how he creates a new world of his own.  They agree readily that solemn poets, humourless professors and howling prophets are dangerous entities and be best avoided.     People cannot face the reality of the self that descends on them in solitude, and hence they are in search of new schemes that give them speed and restlessness.  The tragedy is that man is running away from himself, says Frost.   Paz beautifully recaptures and plays the tunes of magical moments of their meeting on the Vermont farm.

Other essays cover such personalities and subjects as Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jean Paul Sartre, Jose Ortega Y Gasset and others. All these are brilliant pieces and narrate the writer's encounters with great minds. They  constitute an insightful commentary on how writers and intellectuals engage with the world which they help shape.  I shall briefly discuss only three essays from this collection: essays on Dostoevsky, Sartre and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

 He argues that though Dostoevsky wrote in the nineteenth century, he is still a modern writer and his writings always appear contemporaneous and relevant to our times. Dostoevsky very competently explores the working of the mind of the modern man that is torn by various forces. It is the fragmented soul and the divided conscience that he explores in his writing and it is, argues Paz, very relevant to our times.  In eighteen sixties and seventies, in his writings Dostoevsky portrayed consciousness of full many generations that were to rule   Russia in future. Dostoevsky was describing something in his writing that actually came into being later in twentieth century. Stavrogin and Ivanov who ultimately commit suicide in “Demons” (or “Devils”) are the victims of nihilism and are possessed by a peculiar spirit that is indicative of the coming of the Russian Revolution, its ideology and absence of the process of dialogue. Ideologues do not enter into a dialogue. They rant and make speeches and indulge in soliloquies and impose on others what transpires from this spirit possession. It is depiction of this consciousness, argues Paz that is the sign of Dostoevsky’s authentic writing.   

 I think Octavio Paz’s analysis of the modern consciousness is very correct and appropriate. It needs to be added that in the twentieth and twenty first century this process of fragmentation of the self is further   accelerated by uneven economic development, barriers of cultures and traditions and absence of dialogue and communication.    Whichever way one looks, fragmentation of the self, lack of wholesomeness and   resulting fractured and distorted vision of the world constitutes  a large part of our existence with which we have to come to terms.

 While we can agree with Paz in hailing Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Self in the modern world as very authentic and realistic, we need to mention that Dostoevsky presents many problems to his readers.  Amongst his novels, the “Crime and Punishment” is deep and philosophically engaging, and the “Brothers Karamazov” succeeds in depicting the existential dilemma of living authentically in the modern world. Both these novels and especially “Brothers Karamazov” repose faith in life and warn against abstraction of life. However,   affirmation of life comes so late and through such tortuous path that winds its way through violence, poverty and depravity that one wonders whether Dostoevsky was really aiming for these at all. Moreover, Dostoevsky’s glorification of the strange mixture of Russian tradition and religion, not to say his maudlin and sentimental scepticism of the West leaves one wondering and somewhat confused.    His other   novels, especially  “The Idiot”, present a very garbled vision   of man.  While, therefore, Paz’s fresh insight into Dostoevsky’s writing is welcome,   to an ordinary reader Dostoevsky’ world still appears dark, sombre and ambiguous.

 Was Dostoevsky a nihilist?   Paz answers that he was not.   There is no doubt that as a young person he was a revolutionary. However, as time passed he increasingly came to identify himself largely with the Russian tradition and old Christianity. Much of his writing was critical of not only nihilism but also of the western influences that were trying to undermine the local tradition. Dostoevsky, argues Paz, refuted both, nihilism and western ideas.  Even in “Crime and Punishment”, Raskolnikov, another product of the then extant Russian nihilism, ultimately realizes the value of human life. This again confirms Dostoevsky’s position as a novelist of the modern rising consciousness in the traditional societies that were being assailed by western ideas and modernity.  

 Paz’s essay on Dostoevsky, though at times bordering on oversimplification and at other times deliberately avoiding complexities, is a great testimony to his love for Dostoevsky. But more than that, its vision, lyricism and flow demonstrate with lucidity the   organic relationship between affairs of a nation and its literature.

Paz’s essay on Sartre too is very trenchant and insightful. Though unusually and highly critical of Sartre, the essay has great style and it shows power the pen can wield in destroying myths and reputations.  The essay very directly indicts Sartre, and I have rarely come across writing that demolishes anything so brutally and with such force.    He says that as a philosopher Sartre was certainly very formidable but that also underlined his limitations. Sartre may have been very scholarly, but much of his work was a continuation of others, such as Heidegger for example, without whom Sartre’s work could not have existed independently. As an artist, Paz says, Sartre had his limitations. He did not possess   creative powers and   capacity of a novelist to create the world and to populate it with   characters. His writing was full of abstractions and lacked authenticity. It did not, somehow, connect with the real world.  But he had great passion and emotion with which he debated and argued.  There was so much of passion and emotion in his thought and writing that it removed his writing farther away from reality. His hobnobbing with Marxism turned out to be a serious matter as it lent respectability to Marxism and in a strange way prolonged its tenure longer than was natural to it. Although, later on he admitted his mistakes of judgment in this case, he had already gone so far as to assert that all the leftist autocrats were at heart great non-violent souls and merely carried a mask of violence for the sake of appearances. 

We all  have read writers who have denounced Sartre and showed him up as a hypocrite and a diabolical intellectual machine. But Paz appears to be doing more than this in far less words. Sartre has rightly been criticized from many groups and many sides. And yet I find this assessment of Sartre rather harsh and one sided.  Mistakes of judgements by ordinary people are usually seen as blunders when they are committed by great men. This is what perhaps happened to Sartre.   One feels that before judging Sartre so harshly, Paz should have recorded, for sake of fairness alone, Sartre’s contribution too.    Sartre   revolutionized the whole world of intellectuals and gave it power and prestige.  His intellectual contribution during Resistance Movement during the Second World War was greatly hailed and became a world event.  Sartre was honest, intellectual, philosophical and fiercely independent, not amenable to compromising with powers. He gave voice to intellectuals and demonstrated how intellectuals can speak up to the power.  Had Paz mentioned some of his contributions perhaps the essay would not have looked as prejudiced as it looks!

Paz’s two essays on Alexander Solzhenitsyn too are very remarkable and insightful. Hailing Solzhenitsyn’s work “The Gulag Archipelago” as important he dwells at length on the various threads of Solzhenitsyn’s dissent and explores its anatomy. And in that he offers some very important insights into Russian history.  He argues that Solzhenitsyn’s dissent is not an ordinary dissent of an intellectual reared in western tradition that centres on individualism and   political freedom.  Solzhenitsyn speaks from an ancient tradition, and that his ancientness is that of the Old Russian Christianity that has passed through the central experience of the twentieth century---the dehumanization of the totalitarian concentration camps----and has emerged intact and strengthened.  While agreeing with Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of the Russian regime he also brings out Solzhenitsyn’s limitations especially his partially blind world view that is mired in some typical traits of Russian history.  Paz, in this essay, has done some very skillful tight-rope-walking here; and reading this essay is a tribute to his graceful and lucid writing that tends to seek both, truth and justice.  

I have already said in the beginning that   a few subjects that Paz handles here appear dated somewhat in perspective! And yet I would say the collection of essays is worth reading simply because despite globalization, the world has really not changed as much as we think. The Russian state   has still not been able to extricate itself from the historical clutches of its traditional bureaucracy; if anything Putin’s Russia appears as picturesque as portrayed by Paz.   Hubris and   arrogance of the western democracies that he discusses here have not abated a whit!  And Paz’s observations that the systems of local and traditional beliefs, especially in the emerging Eastern and Southern economies would evoke a strange ensemble and would play increasingly important role in world economy and politics also appear correct!

Even if, therefore, the collection of essays was published in 1986, it still makes sense to read Octavio Paz;  for the wisdom he brings with his essays is rare and unique.


shteller... said...

good essay, Sir. well written.

Ashwini Bhide said...

Very interesting and impressive writing Dr. Bagal.