Paz, Octavio.  The Labyrinth of Solitude. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Can solitude be a national characteristic, a trait of an entire culture or nation? Mexican writer and critic Octavio Paz (1914-1998) maintained that Mexico is a labyrinth of solitude, that solitude is intrinsic to its historical character and a key to understanding its history.

Labyrinth of Solitude is a collection of essays, most of them reflections on political history, but several key sections address the phenomenon of solitude directly. Paz maintains that forms of solitude in a culture originate in a psychological complex of defeat.

 For the Aztec, this crushing of spirit began with its own extremely authoritarian rulers, who were overthrown and replaced by the authoritarian Spanish conquerors, who were then replaced by the authoritarian oligarchies during the Independence period, and finally adding intimidation by North America (i.e., the United States). A result is oscillation between violent resentment and passivity. The sense of oppression is not, however, a feeling of inferiority, as Paz explains.

Our sense of inferiority -- real or imagined -- might be explained at least partly by the reserve with which the Mexican faces other people and the unpredictable violence with which his repressed emotions break through his mask of impassivity. But his solitude is vaster and profounder than his sense of inferiority. It is impossible to equate these two attitudes: when you sense that you are alone, it does not mean that you feel inferior, but rather that you feel you are different. Also, a sense of inferiority may sometimes by an illusion, but solitude is a hard fact. We are truly different. And we are truly alone.

Paz explains that the history of Mexico is a search for historical origins, for the character of indigenousness, a search for a time before the "catastrophe" of historical time. The Mexican experience is an "orphanhood, an obscure awareness that we have been torn from the All, and an ardent search: a flight and a return, an effort to re-establish the bonds that unite us with the universe."

Paz suggests the utility of myths in exploring this sense of historical loss and alienation, but does not pursue it in these modest essays. But one may extrapolate from his premise about Mexico to an understanding of the cultures of East Asia, for example, or the cultures of Latin America, Islam, and Africa in the confrontation with the West. The topic is beyond the scope of the book, of course; Paz only wants to describe the Mexican of the present, leaving to others the "genealogy" of culture.

Mexican Masks

In chapter 2, titled "Mexican Masks," Paz argues that Mexicans of all classes and ages present a mask to the world in self-defense, "building a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself." The result is "hermeticism" and the

reaction is justifiable if one considers 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, obliges us to close ourselves in, like those plants that survive by storing up liquid within their spiny exteriors. But this attitude, legitimate enough in its origins, has become a mechanism that functions automatically.

The resulting solitude is not embraced or refined but a reaction that tends to oscillate between extremes of defensiveness and aggression, between bravado in "machismo" and a crippling reticence that is later resented as an offense and transferred back to others. The virtues of patience and long-suffering coexist with distrust, irony, and suspicion. The result is not a self-abolition like Narcissus, or a self-effacement like an East Asian, but an absence of presence, an identification with what Paz calls "Nobody" rather than "Somebody."  "Silence -- the prehistoric silence, stronger than all the pyramids and sacrifices, all the churches and uprisings and popular songs -- comes back to rule over Mexico."

Among other interesting observations about Mexican culture:

"The Dialectic of Solitude"

Chapter 9, titled "The Dialectic of Solitude," is a philosophical essay that stands alone. No particular reference to Mexico is necessary. Paz here taps the universal character of solitude, the universal situation of human beings in the labyrinth that can only be transcended with a dialectic, a reasoning about our existence.

Solitude -- the feeling and knowledge that one is alone, alienated from the world and oneself -- is not an exclusively Mexican characteristic. All people, at some moment in their lives, feel themselves to be alone. And they are. To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future. Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone, and the only one who seeks out another. His nature -- if that word can be used in reference to man, who has "invented" himself by saying "No" to nature -- consists in his longing to realize himself in another. Man is nostalgia and a search for communion.

Human beings maintain the contradiction of self-awareness and the longing to escape from the self. Solitude is both a test and a purgation, a sentence and an expiation. The longing of everyone is to discover "at the exit from the labyrinth of solitude ... reunion, plentitude, harmony with the world."  But if birth, plunging us into life, into solitude, is not the source of union, is death? We are impelled to return from the exile of life, "to descend to the creative womb from which we were cast out." But we do not know what lies beyond death. Still, in its own way, it is a return to whence we came.

Society represents the same dualism. Society presumes to be indivisible and whole, but cannot satisfy the dualism of order versus instability, precepts versus potential, the dualism of "good and evil, permission and taboo, the ideal and the real, the rational and the irrational, beauty and ugliness, dreams and vigils, poverty and wealth, bourgeoisie and proletariat, innocence and knowledge, imagination and reason." The movement of society to reconcile these opposites represents the historical events we know and the ones that never had a chance to happen.

Paz argues that the reconciliation (of thesis and antithesis, we might say) can only occur with the dialectic of solitude, guided by love. Love is a distinctly non-social phenomenon, relegated to the individual, to emotions and feelings. So, too, is solitude. The child and young person must discover in their solitude a sense of feeling, of heroism and sacrifice, argues Paz. Youth must be open to the world in uniting personal consciousness with time and history, past and future, myth, saints, redeemers, poetry. Youth is a period of solitude and withdrawal, well described as a preparation and study in all the great sages from Plato to Paul, to Buddha, to Muhammad, to Dante. We live in solitude and retirement in order to purify ourselves, then return to the world.

Of course, this expectation depends on the receptivity of society, where solitude is not seen as a prison, a punishment for sin, a maladaption to the world. We long for a lost place, and that place has been displaced by our present world, by society itself. Cast out of this place into the center of the world, the mythical place of origin, we contrive new ones to symbolize or prefigure the lost one -- Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome, the Aztec Mictlan. To get there one must follow the way out of the labyrinth of mythology, of Perseus, of the Holy Grail, the path of the Fisher King. Contemporary society has rationalized the myths but has been unable to destroy them because they resonate deeply within the human psyche. The substitutes of utopia, wealth, politics, technology, are too sterile to quench the soul's thirst for meaning.

Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.