El Laberinto de la Soledad


Octavio Paz's prefatory quote:

"The incurable otherness from which oneness must always suffer"

Antonio Machado

1950, Estados Unidas de Mexico

Table of contents

Mexican Masks

Conclusion | T.S. Elliot quote


isolation and communion, community, reason & criticism, time, imagery & form, geography, modernity, dialectic

Mexican Masks

Historical meaning of the Mexican masks




"He passes through life like a man who has been flayed ; everything can hurt him, including words and the very suspicion of words."

p. 29.

"His face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation."

"He builds a wall of remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible."


"Hermeticism is one of the several recourses of our suspicion and distrust. It shows that we instinctively regard the world around us to be dangerous. This reaction is justifiable if we consider what our history has been and the kind of society we have created. The harshness and hostility of our environment, and the hidden indefinable threat that is always afloat in the air, oblige us to close ourselves in, like those plants that survive by storing up liquid within their spiny exteriors"


"In a certain sense the history of Mexico, like that of every Mexican, is a struggle between the forms and the formulas that have been imposed on us and the explosions with which our individuality avenges itself."



An exegesis of his meaning.


"Speech of our people" . . . "never to 'crack,' never to back down."

pp. 29-30.

" . . we instinctively regard the world around us as dangerous."

p. 30.

"Our relationships with other men is always imagined with suspicion."

"Therefor confidences result in dishonor,"

p. 30.

" . . . Mexican views of life as combat"

"Stoicism is the most exalted of our military and political attributes."

p. 31.

The persistence of classical humanism, . . .our love of geometry . . . the excellence of our Baroque art . . ."

The Mexican not only does not open himself up to the outside world, he also refuses to emerge from himself, to 'let himself go.'"


"Our devotion to form, even when empty, can be seen throughout Mexican art from pre-Conquest times to the present.




The problem of gender and women seen as merely an extension and thus an instruments of a masculine culture:

"An instrument, sometimes of masculine desires, sometimes of the ends assigned to her by morality, society and the law.

35-36 .

"the North American hides"

"The Mexican, heir to the great pre-Columbian religions based on nature, is a good deal more pagan than the Spaniard, and does not condemn the natural world."


There is a cosmic analogy here: woman does not see, she attracts, the center of attraction is her hidden, passive sexuality. It is a secret and immobile sun."


"Dissimulation . . .demands and active inventiveness and must reshape itself from one moment to another."




"Perhaps our habit of dissimulating originated in colonial times. . . .The colonial world has disappeared but not the fear, the mistrust, the suspicion.


"And now we disguise not only our anger but also our tenderness."

". . . we almost cease to exist."

"The Indian blends into the landscape until he is almost an indistinguishable part of the white wall against which he leans. . ."


"Mimicry is a change of appearance rather than of nature, and it is significant that the chosen representation is either of death or of inert space."


"Dissimulation as mimicry, then, is one of the numerous manifestations of our hermeticism."

"In either case we hide our true selves, and sometimes deny them."

"We dissimulate in order to deceive ourselves, and turn transparent and phantasmal."


This the person who creates Nobody, by denying Somebody's existence, is also changed into Nobody. And if we are all Nobody, then none of us exists."


". . .the prehistoric silence, stronger than the all the pyramids and sacrifices, all the churches and uprisings and popular songs – comes back to rue over Mexico.

p. 45.

defining terms;


1, from hermetic; hidden (also Hermetic ) of or relating to being sealed -- insulated or protected from outside influences:-- derived from an ancient occult, a tradition of hidden, sealed, or esoteric knowledge encompassing alchemy, astrology, and theosophy.

• esoteric; cryptic: obscure, an hermetic potient, spell, or curse.
hermeticism –hidden, cryptic or obscure--insulated or protected from outside influences .

ORIGIN mid 17th century: from modern Latin hermeticus, from Hermes [ the planet Mercury ], identified with the Egyptian god Thoth, regarded as the founder of alchemy and astrology.



Mexican masks

Table of contents

Unity, rational and intuitive

"Any contact with Mexican people, however brief, reveals that the ancient beliefs and customs are still in existence beneath western forms. These still-thriving remains testify to the vitality of pre-Cortesian cultures."


"No one embodied the duality of that world [The Enlightenment] like Sor Juana, even though the surface of her work, like that of her life, does not reveal any fissures."


Occult link among all truths:

"Her curiosity was not that of a man of science but rather of a cultivated man who aspires to integrate all the particulars of knowledge in one coherent vision. She sensed an occult link among all truths. Referring to the diversity of her studies, she said that their contradictions were more apparent than real, 'at least in the realm of the formal and the speculative.' The arts and sciences, however contrary they may be, not only do not hinder a general comprehension of nature but actually assist it, 'shedding light and opening avenues from one to the other, through variations and occult ties...in such a manner that they seem to correspond and be united in a wonderful coalescence and concert....' "


Conquest & Colonialism

Table of contents


value of science and reason


Revolution (1910) as revival of the independence movement of 1820s.


Independence to Revolution

Communal values

defines community


Present Day


men and women; the impossibility of love



Time and duration

time ceased to coincide with the flow of reality

time as a perpetuation of this moment


criticizes the modern fallacy of objectivism and objectivity


Dialectic of Solitude

Table of contents

Imagery and form

Masks conceal character as a shield - a hieroglyph-- or symbol; the covered surface

displaying evidence of masks that both protect and suffocate character




US Mexican relations

Ours is a heritage built on misunderstanding and prejudice, racial superiority and cultural superstitions.

      1. US dismissal of the antiquity of Amerindian cultures.
      2. US mistrust of mestizo, or mixed blood ethnic peoples.
      3. US belief in White Anglo-Saxon superiority.
      4. US inheritance and fostering of the English hatred of Catholic Spain.

Therefore, the US denial of the meaning and outcome of the Mexican War, 1846.



Critique of western values



The revolt (rural) of the Yellow Turbans at the end of the Han Dynasty, Taosim, the Han dominion and resistance.

The recovery of enduring symbols capturing a more authentic past is the first condition, ironically, in the search for a modern national identity.


Development & other mirages

Table of contents

The antiquity of Amerindian peoples: Maya, Toltec and corn

Time and the meaning of history and culture


Creating geographical meaning

the meaning of geography and landscape


Critique of the Pyramid


"Perhaps we have mistaken the path, perhaps the way out is to return to our origins."


on going "modernization" of Mexico begun under Charles III in the late 18th century, still unfinished.


plea for ideology free historical criticism.

"I Believe that Mexico, like other Latin-American countries, must find her own modernity. In a certain sense she must invent it....It is a task that demands not only favorable historic and social circumstances but an extraordinary imagination....First we must cure ourselves of the intoxication of simplistic and simplifying ideologies."



Table of contents

Examples of imposed formulas and forms:

Aztec domination of Mixtec, Toltec, Zapatec, Maya, etc.

Hernando Cortés' promises, treachery and larceny

Spanish rationalism and the enlightenment

Roman Catholicism

US filibusters

corporate laissez faire

European Fascism

Soviet Communism




concluding poetic quote

Between the ideal

And the reality

Between the motion

And the Act

Falls the shadow"

T.S. Elliot, The Wasteland


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