Childhood & Early Life
Octavio Paz Lozano was born on March 31, 1914, in Mexico City into a distinguished family of Spanish and Indian descent. His father, Octavio Paz Solórzano, was a prominent lawyer and journalist. He served as a counsel for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and took decisive part in his 1911 agrarian uprising.
With his son away, it fell upon Octavio’s grandfather, Ireneo Paz, also a political activist and writer, to look after the family. In 1915, he took the mother and child to his house in Mixcoac; a pre-Hispanic town, located just outside the Mexican City, but now a part of it.
There, young Octavio was brought up by his mother, Josefina Lozano, aunt, Amalia Paz and grandfather. Their big magnificent house, the surrounding garden as well as the cobbled streets of the town left an everlasting impression on his mind and were later reflected in many of his works.
In 1919, after Zapata was killed, Octavio Paz Solórzano relocated to Los Angeles. The following year, he sent for his wife and child and so sometime in 1920, six-year-old Octavio and his mother set off for Los Angeles, where they lived for two years.
At Los Angeles, he was enrolled at a local kindergarten school. Not knowing even a single word of English, he could not communicate with anyone and felt like an outsider. Embarrassed, he took refuge in silence.
Young though he was, he did not miss the cultural difference between the two countries. This feeling would one day be reflected in his writings, especially in ‘El laberinto de la soledad’ (The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950).
In around 1922, they returned to Mexico and started living with his grandfather and aunt in their house in Mixcoac. Once again, young Octavio found it hard to adjust and started feeling like an outsider.
This time, he took to writing, trying to give expression to his intense feelings both in verse and prose. The sudden death of his grandfather in 1924, also added impulse to his writing. He later wrote, “In death, I discovered language.”
In Mixcoac, Octavio was first enrolled at La Salle brothers’ primary school, located in the centre of the town. Later he was sent to study at Colegio Williams, also in Mixcoac, where he received English public style education.
By now, their financial condition had become so bad that they could not maintain their house. As the rooms became inhabitable one by one, they kept on abandoning them, moving the delicate furniture to other rooms.
However, Octavio still had access to the magnificent library his grandfather had left. There he came across the finest Mexican as well as English classics. Thus he discovered Gerardo Diego, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Antonio Machado at an early age. Later they would have great influence on his writings.
His life, which was so far centered on the small city of Mixcoac, changed as he started attending ‘Preparatoria Nacional’ in around 1929. For two years, he traveled daily to the centre of the Mexican City, which exposed him to different viewpoints.
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In 1932, Octavio Paz Lozano entered National Autonomous University of Mexico. Here he was drawn to the leftist movement. Along with his studies and political activism, he also concentrated on writing, publishing a number of poems in the same year.
One of the more well-known poems published around that time was ‘Cabellera.’ His first article, ‘Etica del artista’ (Ethics of the Artist), was also published in the same period.
However, his most noteworthy achievement of this period was the founding of an avant-garde literary magazine titled, ‘Barandal’ (handrail) with three friends, Rafael López Malo, Salvador Toscano and Arnulfo Martínez Lavalle.
Paz’s first book of poems ‘Luna silvestre’ (Wild Moon) was published in 1933. Subsequently, he had two more books published; ‘No pasarán!’ in 1936 and ‘Raíz del hombre’ in 1937.
Sometime during this period, he sent some of his works to well-known Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Neruda not only sent back favorable reviews, but also encouraged him to attend the meeting of leftist writers to be held later in Spain.
Eventually Octavio Paz became so much involved with his political activism and writing that he could no longer continue with his studies. He abandoned his education and in March 1937, left for Mérida to become a schoolmaster. The school was set up for the children of poor peasants and workers.
Here, his job was not only to teach, but also to recruit pupils. While searching for them, he witnessed how the peasants were dominated by the landlords. What he saw here, inspired him to start on a long poem, later named ‘Entre la piedra y la flor.’
However, he did not continue there for long. Within three months, he left for Spain to attend the Second International Writers Congress in Defense of Culture in Spain at Valencia, never to come back to his teaching post in Mérida.
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At that time, the Civil War was raging through the country and Paz identified strongly with the Republicans. What he saw there was reflected in his fourth book of poem, ‘Bajo tu clara sombra y otros poemas sobre España’, published in the same year in Spain. It established him as a promising writer.
In 1938, on his way back to Mexico, he stopped at Paris. Here, he met many surreal artists and was greatly influenced by both surrealism and its proponents.
Return to Mexico
In 1938, on his return to Mexico, Octavio Paz co-founded two literary journals, ‘Taller’ meaning workshop and ‘El Hijo Pródigo’, meaning the child prodigy. Concurrently, he resumed his work on ‘Entre la piedra y la flor’, the long poem he had started at Mérida and had it published in 1941.
In 1943, Paz won a two-year Guggenheim fellowship and used it to study Anglo American Modernist poetry at the University of California. During this period, he also travelled all over the United States of America.
As a Diplomat
In 1945, Octavio Paz Lozano entered into a new phase of his life. That year, he joined the Mexican diplomatic service and was first assigned to New York City and then to Paris.
Paz lived in Paris from 1946 to 1951. Here he met many well-known thinkers and writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Breton, Albert Camus, Benjamin Peret, etc. and together with them, participated in various activities as well as publications.
This period was very productive for him. Sometime now, he wrote ‘El laberinto de la soledad’ (The Labyrinth of Solitude). Published in 1950, it was a book-length essay dealing fundamentally with Mexican identity. It established him as a major literary figure.
In 1952, he travelled to India for the first time. Later in the same year, he joined the Mexican embassy at Tokyo as the chargé d'affaires and from there he was sent to Geneva, returning to Mexico City in 1954.
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He lived in Mexico until 1957 and in the same year, published his great poem ‘Piedra de sol’ ("Sunstone"). After another stint in Paris, he was sent to India in 1962 as Mexico’s ambassador to that country.
He now took the opportunity to study Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. However, his interest was more intellectual than religious. During this period, he also came in close contact with the members of ‘Hungry Generation’, a group of avant-garde poets based in Kolkata and exerted considerable influence on them.
On October 2, 1968, back in Mexico, an estimated 300 students and civilians were killed by Mexican military and police in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Hearing this, Paz resigned from his post in protest.
While in India, he also wrote vast numbers of poems. Two of his most important works of this period are ‘Ladera este’ (Eastern Slope, published in 1969) and ‘El mono gramático’ (The Monkey Grammarian, published in 1974).
After leaving India, Paz spent some time in Paris and returned to Mexico in 1969. In the same year, he was appointed to the Simon Bolivar Chair at Cambridge University where he taught from 1969 to 1970. Thereafter, from 1970 to 1974 he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard University.
Also in 1970, he cofounded ‘Plural’, a literary magazine, with a group of liberal Mexican and Latin American writers. When in 1975, the Mexican government banned ‘Plural’, he founded another cultural magazine called ‘Vuelta’, remaining its editor till his death.
’Piedra de Sol’ (Sunstone), published in 1957, is one among Paz’s highly appreciated poems. The work is based on circular Aztec calendar and has 584 lines corresponding to its 584 days. It was later translated into English by Eliot Weinberger and published in 1987 as part of ‘The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957–1987.’
Among his essays, he is best remembered for ‘El laberinto de la soledad’ (The Labyrinth of Solitude). The work, divided into nine parts, deals primarily with Mexican identity. It also demonstrates how at the end of a labyrinth, there exists an intense feeling of solitude.
Awards & Achievements
In 1990, Octavio Paz Lozano received the Nobel Prize in Literature "for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity."
Apart from that, he was honored with many other awards, the most significant among them being Jerusalem Prize (1977), Miguel de Cervantes Prize (1981) and Neustadt Internal Prize for Literature (1982).
In 1980, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1937, Octavio Paz married Elena Garro, also a Mexican writer of great repute. The couple had a daughter named Helena Laura Paz Garro. Their marriage broke up in 1959. However, Elena always claimed that they were not officially divorced and if any such paper existed, it was fraudulent.
In 1965, he married Marie-José Tramini, a French lady, with whom he lived until his death.
Towards the end of his life, he was inflicted with cancer and died from it on April 19, 1998, in Mexico City. The body of work he left behind continues to keep his legacy alive.