If I had been in a bookshop, I wouldn’t have bought this book. I might have picked it up off the shelf, but if I had looked at the language, and tried to understand any paragraph at random, I would have felt stupid and popped it straight back on the shelf.
As it was, I was looking for something by Alejo Carpentier in an online second-hand bookshop and typed in the name ‘Octavio Paz’ because I’d come across the name a few times and knew that he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew he was a poet, but I wasn’t sure what else he’d written. I wanted to just check and see if there was anything cheap going that would give me a taste for his work and tell me if I would like to read more of it, after all, I was already making an order and one more would do no harm. On reflection, one couldn’t exactly describe the blurb as the most faithful depiction of what was to come – it suggested a history of humankind, and so I expected a history book.
Then again, having read the book, I still couldn’t write an accurate blurb
Furthermore, even though I have now read this book, I have no more idea whether or not I like his writing. I’m not even sure how to describe what the book was about. I had expected something about Mexico and instead I found myself reading about the contrast between Asian religions and Christianity. Mix this with some of Freud’s ideas and a surrealist infatuation, and you get a history of mankind which is quite unlike anything that I have ever come across before.
Sometimes, I felt completely lost, like he was trying to make a point, but I had lost the starting position and couldn’t quite step beyond my own perspective into the wider one he was offering. Like trying to walk on clouds. The language wasn’t exactly easy going. There were philosophical or historical references which I could make no connection with. What would make this book better, I concluded, would be a detailed glossary of the terms and individuals referenced in the book. A version heavy with footnotes could guide the modern ordinary reader through the jargon and possibly more accessible for the ordinary reader. But would the ordinary reader really want to read this?
Yet, something made me continue reading
I found the second half of the book much easier going than the first, although maybe that was because, by the time I was reading the final two essays, I was also investigating who exactly this Octavio Paz chap was.
I headed to the London Review of Books and searched through their archive for references to the poet. First, I came across a recent article (November 2019) which talked about the problems resulting from the fact that when they died, neither Octavio Paz nor his wife had a will or a clear descendant.
The article outlined the couple’s romance, from their meeting in India where Paz was stationed as the Mexican ambassador, until he left diplomatic service following the October 1968 massacre in Mexico City. Hundreds of protesting students were killed by soldiers and police. Paz and his wife first went to Cambridge, where he worked at the university, and then Mexico.
Knowing that he lived and worked in India and took interest in the cultures and religions of the region, gives a context to the writing of Conjunctions and Disjunctions.
I continued my research
Real isn’t real, an article by Michael Wood in July 2013, reviews the translation of The Poems of Octavio Paz edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. This article shares some of Paz’s poetry in both languages, and it was interesting to get a taste of how clear his poetry reads in comparison to Conjunctions and Disjunctions. But mostly it was useful to comprehend the relationship Paz’s work has with the surrealist movement. Wood talks about how ‘the ghosts of literary otherness never quite go away’ and mentions how the unconscious and the dreamworld shape the poet’s work.
My reading helped me understand the context for the book but gave little illumination regarding the actual content. I find myself unable to describe quite what I read. There were sentences impossible to comprehend followed by lines which hit you and made you think.
The truth is that contemporary art has not given us an image of the body: this is a mission that we have turned over to couturiers and public-relations men. This is not a defect of today’s art, but of society.Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz
Couturiers, for anyone like me who doesn’t use this word every day, are the people of the fashion industry who design and sell clothes, especially high-end women’s fashion.
Then there is the popularity of sports, which has created a confusion between vigor and beauty, physical skill and erotic wisdom.Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz
And touching on the art of writing:
Tantric metaphors are not only intended to hide the real meaning of rites from intruders; they are also verbal manifestations of the universal analogy that is the basis of poetry. These texts are governed by the same psychological and artistic necessity that caused our Baroque poets to build a language of their own within the Spanish language, the same necessity that inspired the language of Joyce and the Surrealists: the conception of writing as the double of the cosmos.Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz
So it’s a book which I wouldn’t have ordinarily read
And yet, somehow it has sunk its strange claws into me. It’s a different sort of read, one which I can’t entirely follow, but which feels like it stretches my brain a little in a way that is good for it. I wonder if The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, which is supposedly about Mexico, would be quite as challenging.
Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz, translated by Helen Lane, 1969
Real isn’t Real, Michael Wood, London Review of Books, 04 July 2013
On Octavio Paz and Marie-José Tramini, Homero Aridjis, translated by Chloe Aridjis, London Review of Books, 21 November 2019