I.   The Hispano-American  Essay

The following looks at the Hispano-American essay through the lens of essays by 1990-Nobel-laureate Octavio Paz (Mexico City, 1914-1998).  Until recently the essay was not considered a literary form, for the three classical genres of epic, lyric, and drama excluded the essay.  By studying Paz's essays - primarily El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950) and Posdata (Postdata, 1970) - in the context of their reception in Mexico, as well as touching on the Hispano-American tradition of the essay, this study traces the evolution of the essay as a literary genre.

The history of the modern essay begins with Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592).  In his work, Essais (1580), Montaigne, immersed in the humanism of his era, discovers his own voice, that of an individual.  Montaigne's voice became possible largely because the unity of the Medieval communitarian way of life, throughout Europe, had fragmented. However, in Hispano-America, the essay did not emerge as a literary form until the nineteenth century, as countries throughout the region fought for independence from the empires of that time:  Spain, North America, and France. The rupturing of empires, the fragmenting of a once-unified community--in both cases the essay emerges as a genre from disturbed circumstances.  The critical voice of Modernity emerges, thus, along with the essay, from these ruptures-personal and historical.

The Chilean writer, Robert Hozven, affirms that the essay is an "interrogation into national identity" (Hozven, 1998, 410).  Essayists throughout Hispano-America - such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz de Asbaje (1651 or 1648-1695);  the Ecuadorian José Montalvo (1832-1889), called the American Cervantes; José Martí (1853-1895), known as the Cuban Apostle; and the main representative of Hispano-American Modernism, the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío (1867-1916) - were forging their nations as activists, both through the pen and the sword, since most of them were directly involved in the independence struggles of their countries. The essay developed extra-literary qualities because the passion for nation building lifted it above the personal and into the historical. This is a major difference from Montaigne's writing in sixteenth-century France.

These Hispano-American essayists were also searching for a way to create a "pan-American homeland" out of the fragments of empires that remained in the region.  Grafting the idea of individual nations onto that of a pan-American homeland led to intellectual challenges, which helped open up the space for a critical voice, a voice which interestingly often drew its inspiration from the older lyrical genre of praise for the beauty of the land and of the indigenous qualities of the continent itself.

II.  Octavio Paz´s Concept of the Essay

Paz's two most famous essays - El laberinto de la soledad and Posdata - describe his methodology. The concept of the "rupture," taken from the Russian linguistic tradition and espoused by the European avant-garde of the 1920s, is central to Paz's view of historical development.  This rupture gives individuals the opportunity to question, and if necessary interrupt, the direction of the recent past in their cultures.  They then have the power to resist the directives of their society and forge their own direction; this is done through the absorption of various aesthetic possibilities, which they then reshape based on their own needs and subversive desires.  It is from this "confession of aesthetic vitalism" (Rubio, 1989, 84) that Paz derives the force to create his own special form of prose--a prose that combines historical, political, social and moral criticism with lyricism - his own personal vision of the Hispano-American essay.

These essays of Octavio Paz trace the development of Mexican identity through archetypes such as "the feast," "myth," "love," and "poetry."  These archetypes are universal and by reaching back to these universal qualities, Paz believed, we could resist the limited choices offered to life by the Cold War division of the world into developed and "third world" (meaning "undeveloped") countries.  Modernity contains the idea of the "rupture," which Paz used to question another key idea within Modernity - the pressure to be "productive."  All nations faced  a similar dilemma - how to be industrially productive while at the same time maintaining "humanity."  Paz believed that most people had lost or forgotten "humanity" in a blind quest for "productivity."  By going back to archetypes such as "the feast," etc., we could eliminate fragmentation and recover our "true humanity" (Paz, 1992, 83).

III.  Mexican Critical Reception of Essays by Octavio Paz 

Some critics praise Paz for his poetic prose while others question his methods for being too idealistic, metaphoric, simplistic, and theoretically incoherent.  Writer and critic Sergio Pitol (1933), praising Paz, stresses those "moments" in his essays when "prose denies itself as prose while at the same time the intellectual discourse uses the resources of poetry" (Pitol, 1998).  By going beyond the limitations of individual genres, writers like Paz unleash what is greatest about literature itself, called by Pitol "gran literatura."

  Professor Jorge Aguilar Mora (1946) takes Paz to task for the "unidirectional" thrust of his history, which leaves out all the pluralities of real life as lived.  For Paz history and myth are a "divine couple" who create together perfect visual images.  When confronted with the real historical movement of the Zapatistas in the mid-1990s, Paz denied them validity (as a "modern movement") because they did not fit into his pre-constructed historical schemas.   Aguilar Mora sees Paz as limiting history to analogies that overemphasize the "Concept of Identity," (Aguilar, 1991, 115), thus paralyzing thought. Paz's concepts of the "tradition of the rupture" and the "rupture of tradition" are simply rhetorical transformations, imposed upon the flow of history, dividing it into artificial periods and relevant moments of change with grand names like "Antique", "Pre-Modern" and "Modern."  For Aguilar Mora, all actions today, or at any historical moment, contain valid traditions that complexly intermingle.  

Mexican academic philosopher Enrique González Rojo Arthur (1928) questions Paz's historicist methodology by critiquing his use of metaphoric language and his "historical metamorphism" (González Rojo, 1990, 48), in which poetry drives change and not, as Rojo believes, with change driven by a society´s structure.  For Paz, history happens by chance, while, for González Rojo, history grows from the determinism of historical law, which he calls the traditional historical dialectic.    

IV.   Conclusion

Octavio Paz's essays represent the crisis of Modernity in Hispano-America.  By investigating the critical reception of these essays in the Mexican context, this thesis shows, first, the close relationship of this debate to the larger debate about the "rupture" of Modernity (and the place of the avant-garde in Europe) and, second, those elements particular to Mexico linked to the historical struggle for cultural recognition and independence from largely European models of history and mentality.  ("Independence" here has two complexly interlinked poles: first, the physical independence of a nation from an empire; second, the independence of an individual's mind from the larger social forces that constrain it.)  "Rupture" in the Hispano-American world is linked mainly to several clearly delineated historical moments, called by Enrico Mario Santí the "incarnation within Forms" (Santí, 2003, 77):  Conquest, Colonization, Independence, Reform, Porfirism (positivism and dictatorship), and Revolution.

Those critics who take on Paz deal with the key issues that have divided historians and literary historians in regard to historical causation and the formation of literary genres.  The genre of the essay has a particularly fruitful place in these debates because it is the meeting point between historical causality and the development of an individual's voice, an idea that goes back to Montaigne.