The Border of Time
Mexico City - Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and essayist, is one of the major figures of contemporary Latin American literature. The Labyrinth of Solitude, which he wrote in 1950, remains an unsurpassed classic. Paz, who has also served as his country's ambassador to India, is presently the editor of Vuelta, a lively journal of literature and critical thought influential throughout the Spanish-speaking world. As an engage intellectual in the great artistic movements and political debates of the postwar period, Octavio Paz is an authentic witness of his time.
NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with Paz recently at his borne in Mexico City. In their conversation, Mexico and the United States are cast as two characters in the historical drama of conflict between tradition and modernity.
Nathan Gardels: Mexico and the United States are not only divided by a geographic border, but by a border of time. How is it that time is conceived so differently in Mexico than the US?
Octavio Paz: Time has to do with culture. Each civilization has its own vision of the past, present and future. Although neighbors, Mexico and the United States are extremes within Western civilization.
First, and most important perhaps, the core of Mexico is Indian. It is non-European. When the Spaniards arrived, an original civilization which owed nothing to the Old World was already here.
The second difference is that the country which conquered and colonized Mexico - Spain - was not only a Catholic country, but a country which experienced the Crusades and the war against Islam until the 16th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain became the defender of the Faith during the Counter-Reformation This religious idea was central in Spanish culture and policy at the time of colonization, and thus became the Mexican heritage. Mexico, therefore, is a reflection of anti-modern Europe. It was born of the negation of modernity.
The US was born rushing into the future. It was, and still is, the Republic of the Future, built on an evanescent substance - time. It is, in fact, the perfect expression of modernity. The heritage of the United States springs, first, from the Protestant Reformation and secondly, from the Enlightenment. The US was born as the most extreme expression of modern Europe.
Our differing conceptions of time come from inside our different heritages. One of the characteristic aspects of modernity, and this is especially true of the US as the most perfect expression of modernity, is the super-valorization of the future.
The US started as the new beginning of Europe. With great purpose, the US set out to forget the past and the Old World of monarchy, hereditary nobility, traditional values and fixed hierarchies. It is written on the US dollar "novus ordo seclorum" - the New Order of the Ages. The US was a country without roots, or rather, the roots of the United States were not in the past, but in the future.
In Mexico, history and tradition are the center of our existence. One of the most visible things for a foreigner is how the past is present, not only in public life, but in the life of the people. This past has been the subject of our writers and painters, the obsession of our intellectuals. Cortes is still alive. So is Cuauhtemoc, the Aztec king who was defeated and killed by Cortes. There are still fights between people who are partisans of Cortes or partisans of Cuauhtemoc.
Even as colonizers and conquerors in the great march to the West, the Spanish Catholics and the North American Protestants created very different realities. The north of Mexico and the Southwest United States were colonized by Spaniards and Mexicans before the arrival of the Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. But we tried to build a relationship with the natives, incorporating them into ourselves. For Mexicans and Spaniards, the most important thing was not only to dominate and use the labor resources of the Indians but also to convert them to Spanish Catholicism. This was very different from the US attitude. For the US, the natives remained outside what was being built. The US was not interested in incorporating the natives. Their past did not become a part of the American future.
We had the idea of integration. You had the idea of separation. This idea of separation has been a constant in US history and it affects your perception of time. The United States isolated its rush to the future from the historical people met along the path. The United States has always liked the idea of purity, of isolation, even in foreign policy. That's a very deep and very important current in the American psyche.
Now we are condemned to live together, the past and the future side by side.
Gardels: Because we share a border, the US and Mexico are perhaps the two most poignant characters in the larger historical drama of conflict between tradition and modernity. History heavily handicaps the Mexican mind. In the US, the future is an open space ahead of us, the imagination is free.
I wonder if you might agree with the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski:
"The danger for America, the danger for the whole world, is that American development is so dynamic and creative that by the beginning of the next century, it will be a completely different world on the same planet. The big problem for the future of mankind is the position and rule of dynamic America and the paralysis of historical societies.''
Paz: Kapuscinski's idea that we are going to have paralysis in one part of the world and acceleration of history in the other may be a kind of modern arrogance which tends to see history and life only in terms of the velocity of time. Acceleration in time is very dangerous. Established societies that develop very slowly do not have the superstition about change the modern world has. These societies can preserve themselves better than societies which have the idolatry of change. We shouldn't forget that primitive societies have endured millennia, but developed societies, after two or three centuries, explode.
There are ambiguous tendencies in the periphery. In the Mexican Revolution, for example, we had two simultaneous tendencies. The tendency to renovate and modernize the country, led by the winning group, existed side by side with Zapata, who led a millenarist revolt. He did not want to go toward modernity but, on the contrary, back to a mythic past of social equality and freedom in an ideal agricultural society.
Gardels I The great creativity that the freedom of modernity unleashes races alongside disintegration of the moral order. As you said earlier, the US was founded "on an evanescent substance - time," as the Republic of the Future, outside of history. But, as you've also noted elsewhere in discussing Sartre's failure, ethics cannot be based on the contingency of evanescent time. If the values which guide ethical behavior are rooted in memory, but America's roots are in the future, where does that leave us?
Paz: The problem here is complex and I believe it revolves around the vigorous opposition between public and private life in American democracy.
The foundations of the US are ethical. Protestantism is mainly an ethical vision of Christianity. Catholicism, by contrast, is sacramental and ritualistic. But, while such ethics are good for private life, for stressing individual responsibility and work, I wonder if they are good for the international policy of a superpower? Tocqueville remarked that international policy is a matter of long duration which requires the persevering efforts of a small group and need be kept more or less concealed. These conditions are impossible to fulfill in a democracy. Confusion on this point has resulted in the familiar pattern of US foreign policy - brutal actions, often short in duration, followed by periods of indecisiveness, amateurishness and naivete.
The central contradiction of American history is that the United States is both an empire and a democracy, It was the same with the democratic empires of Athens and Rome. The question is which way to choose: the Athenian, the Roman, or to find a new way which could preserve both the country and the democracy?
The central internal contradiction of the US - the opposition between public and private - is perhaps more to your point. American democracy was founded to protect the rights of the individual to pursue his or her individual aims. There is not a supra-individual idea, a religion, political or metaphysical notion which could be the raison-d'etre of the United States - the Polis, the Urbi, the Cross, the Crescent, the Hammer and the Sickle, the Kingdom or the Center. This has had a double effect. On the one hand, it limits the sphere of power of the state and thus prevents government abuses. But it also results in the over-importance of individualism. At certain times there has been not only healthy separation, but suicidal rift between private pursuit of happiness and public responsibility.
This modern emphasis on the individual, when combined with the anti-historical character of a nation born rushing into the future, trying to forget the past, creates a kind of narcissism of the present in the culture, resulting in a privatization that is both hedonistic and isolationist. This passive indifference to values is perhaps the real evil of liberal societies. It is, in fact, a form of nihilism.
So, the irony of modern life, expressed most clearly in the US, is that the freedom to create is also the freedom that destroys. In this sense, I agree with the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski when he argues that the ,'modern chimera" which would grant man total freedom from the already existent, far from opening before him the perspective of divine self-creation, suspends him in a darkness where all things are regarded with equal indifference.
Gardels: This reminds me of an essay you wrote several years ago on the disjunctive Modernism of Marcel Duchamp, in which you discussed the "metairony" of an art which affirms itself only by negating itself, and again negates itself in order to invent and transcend itself. It is a cycle of relativity. Everything that is created also disintegrates. There is no absolute reference point, no absolute value. Duchamp, even invented a phrase for his art which also defines what modern society, in its most perfect expression, produces: the "freedom of indifference."
Paz: That is a very profound insight of Duchamp's and it relates to one of the deepest problems of modernity, and thus the United States.
Dostoyevsky understood this. If there is no God, everything is permissible, everything is possible; but if everything is possible, nothing is. If the absence of God makes everything thinkable, there is no difference between everything and nothing. This unbearable absence is what the freedom of indifference exposes. It is the ultimate face of modernity.
The remarkable mass abstentions in the recent US elections, in the same country extolled as the island of democracy in this dark world, confirm the indifference that accompanies freedom for the citizens of modernity.
Gardels: Without a stable moment of foundation, some absolute that doesn't keep collapsing, we get lost in our freedom. I can't see that such a radically impious society is a sustainable proposition.
Paz: I must agree. The religious absence is the great problem of modernity,
Moral philosophy since the Enlightenment has not been able to answer this absence. Reason, Science and Progress are the deities installed in God's vacant niche. They overturn mystery, but they also doubt everything. Reason cannot offer the global explanations of religion because there are limits to what can be rationally known.
That is why modernity has had many revolts, especially in the arts. Here I'm thinking of both Romanticism and Surrealism which sought to escape the repression of Reason. The great movement of modern art from the 18th century to the 20th century was a revolt of the irrational parts - feelings, passions, eroticism and religious visions - against rational modernity. The nostalgia for order we saw with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound was part of this revolt. That's why Pound looked to Mussolini. He fell into absurdity because his historical models were wrong. Eliot, who perhaps was not a better poet but a wiser one, looked toward Medieval Christianity.
Gardels: At the end of your essay, "One Earth, Four or Five Worlds,'' you reach toward a kind of cosmic piety, or sense of interdependence and respect for the other, for dialogue, as the only absolute value to protect us from nihilism in the modern world.
Paz: This is necessary if modernity is to find some way to harmonize all these contradictions we have been speaking about. It Is not true, as Sartre said in a moment of desperation, that ''hell is other people." He forgot that the "we'' is a collective "thou": to love others one must first love the other, the neighbor. The modern world needs to rediscover the "thou."
If it is not possible. I am scared. Everyone is talking about the nuclear menace, that the modern peace rests in terror. But the real menace lies in the inability of modernity to find a way to reconcile itself with the values of tradition, of a way to reconcile social and individual values. Everyone talks about the conflict within societies and between the rich and poor nations, but the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between our past and our future is just as serious.
Modernity has brought on moral and physical disasters, from poverty alongside great wealth to nuclear terror and destruction of the environment, the breakdown of community, the devaluation of love, degradation of sex and nihilistic indifference.
Gardels: Our conclusion seems to be that modernity, when it fulfills its own logic of individual liberation from history and others, destroys not only the past, but also the future.
Paz: This is probably the tragedy that awaits the modern world. The great task of the next generation, therefore, is to find a new way to harmonize the creative and destructive aspects of this process if it is not to be merely tragic. It is to find a way to reconcile sex and love, individual freedom and collective responsibility, national interest and universal peace.
There is a role for art to play in reconciliation and it must once again find a place in our societies. I was educated in the great movement of avant-garde art. When I was young, I could still see the last flames of Surrealism. The masters of my generation were the Modern poets that I have mentioned: Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams.
For them everything was a risk, an adventure. Now, modern art has become institutionalized with museums and corporate philanthropy. Painters and novelists have all lost the risk of experiment.
The only free artists now are the poets because they are outside the mainstream of modern society. Since marginal people can say more important things than people inside institutions, the role of poetry in modern society may be to become marginal. This is positive in some way. Perhaps for this reason, the Latin Americans and the East Europeans are producing the best literature. Think only of Milosz and Herbert from Poland, Kundera from Czechoslovakia or Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa from Latin America. There is some light from this literature being created at the margins of the modern empires.
Gardels: Reconciliation is what will save us from the nemesis we've met on the road to Utopia?
Paz: Yes, reconciliation because we cannot return. Even traditional societies like Iran cannot go backward.
Only the cultures of the Far East, of Japan and China, are succeeding with a pragmatic spirit.
The new fact is that in the 21st century, the Far East which has produced ancient civilizations, great poetry and great political institutions - the Chinese Empire, the Shogunate - will once again be centrally important.
This pragmatism is a cultural trait of these countries which have been able in the past to reconcile Buddhism with Taoism in China and with Shintoism in Japan. Unlike Latin America, with its genius of making opposites irreconcilable, the East has a genius for reconciling opposites.
The Asian genius for reconciliation can be seen clearly in Buddhism. Buddhism is a radical critique of reality and the human condition: the true reality, sunyata, is an indefinable state in which being and non-being, the real and the unreal, cease to be at odds and, in coming together, annul themselves. Thus, history is nothing but a shadow play, an illusion. This is why Buddhism is essentially meditation and contemplation. At the same time, the believer can come to terms with the phenomenal reality, samsara, and act upon it.
The inability to reconcile opposites is a Western trait. It probably comes, not from the Greco-Roman tradition, but from Jewish monotheism - if there is only one God, all the others are idols, fake gods.
Moreover, in Christian culture, the incarnation of Christ and his sacrifice are historical deeds, not just supernatural. Action and conflict in this world are the testing ground for Christians. Latin America's genius for the irreconcilable comes from this tradition. In the Spain of the Counter-Reformation, everything was black or white. This tradition affects all aspects of our life, even our economic situation.
Since independence Mexico has tried to be modern without changing the traditional habits of the past. We have changed our ideas, but not our nature. Bound by our history, many among us have lost faith in our ability to change.
Gardels: So, your past has failed you, while we have failed in our modern project?
Paz: It's not that you have failed. It's that you have lost your old faith in the future. It is in the United States after all, not in France, Germany or Mexico, that the whole idea of "paradise now" has arisen. This emphasis on immediate gratification in the present reveals a lack of faith in the future.
America has become a hedonistic civilization. It's not that I am against hedonism. I am against hedonism when it suppresses death. The true hedonist is not the slave but the master of time and himself He values pleasure, but also sees that everything is fleeting and the end is death. Epicurus was not a vulgar hedonist; he understood that death was the limit of life. I do not see this reflective element in American hedonism.
Another indication of lack of faith in the future is how revolt has moved from a revolt of universals to a revolt of particulars. In the past, the revolution of modernity all over the world was in the name of universal ideas. The great proletarian revolt of Marxism, which called for the unity of all workers everywhere, was the last of these. Now American blacks are revolting because they are black, homosexuals because they are homosexuals, women because they are women. Mexicans are revolting because they are Mexicans.
When particulars are more important than general ideas, it signifies the dominance of present interests over faith in a better future.
Modernity is changing. The country where it is changing most is the most modern place, the United States.
History and Morality
Vietnam clearly demonstrated the limits to American power, as did OPEC and the uncontrollable events of Iran which brought down Carter and now menace Reagan. Remember, in the 1970s we were talking about an "era of limits" for the first time in American history.
Maybe we are not just losing faith in the future, but also learning prudence?
Paz: To lose faith in the future is to learn how to be prudent. Prudence is knowledge of one's limits. We should go back to the ancients. Hubris was the sin of demigods. The old Greek wisdom was to not trespass limits. They found that when limits were exceeded in the cosmos, things were destroyed. If limits were respected, things remained.
The tragedy is that when some begin to learn prudence, other nations forget it. This is what has always caused disaster in history because history is not only a nightmare, as Joyce said, but also tragic.
Gardels: Even within the United States itself, I think we see how prudence is found and once again lost. As I noted, after Vietnam and the development of ecological consciousness, there was talk about limits. Then, the messianic collective unconscious reasserted itself with Ronald Reagan, precisely against the notion that there were any limits to America's manifest destiny.
Those who talked about limits were regarded as naysayers, selling short the essential American character. Wisdom was castigated as weak-willed and unfaithful to the founding promise.
Perhaps Reagan is the last hurrah of America's ahistorical innocence which expresses itself as messianism?
Paz: We don't know yet. New failures in your foreign policy could bring a wave of nationalistic extremism. "Cesarism" is seen, nowadays, as a very remote possibility, but historically it has been a permanent one in all democracies in crisis. The United States is not an historical exception.
Gardels I You have glimpsed the paradox of the US as few Latin American intellectuals have. In the US, religion is very closely linked to politics, leading to a certain messianism and moralizing in foreign policy. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this messianism as the "corrupt expression" of a search for the ultimate within the vicissitudes of time.
Yet, as we have discussed, the US also tends toward nihilism and a civilization of hedonism. How can we be both moralizing and nihilistic?
Paz: Because the US is a modern country with an
anti-historical orientation, it embodies the contradictions of modernity.
On the one hand, the narcissistic present which regards remembrance and
history as the oppressor of freedom leads to nihilism; yet, in a messianic
way, there is also the belief in a special destiny which exempts America
from history to which others are bound. But the US is not exempt.
A dialogue between history and morality would answer the "corruption" that concerns Niebuhr. Morality in the sphere of politics must be accompanied by other virtues. Central to all of them is historical imagination.
If you have only a modern point of view, generally it is difficult to deal with mankind and history because such abstract, rational moralism ignores the nature of reality, ignores passions, ignores sexuality, ignores all the life of instincts, the life of biological urges. Only a new kind of morality founded in the recognition of these drives can deal ethically with the historical experience of mankind
To some extent, this dialogue has happened in the field of private morality. A new philosophy should try to deal with this in terms of history.
Influenced by Kantian rationalism in defining a just society. There is an American penchant for high moral abstraction in public philosophy which ignores the terrible reality of five thousand years of human history.
What is a "just society" and how do we arrive at that kind of society? When Marx envisioned a just society, he recognized the complexities of history and took into account thousands of years of violence and blood. Freud, but also Hobbes and Machiavelli, the Greek tragedies and the Hebrew prophets can teach us a lot about morality and history. Because they have had to deal in their own experience with the breach between morality and history during this century. European writers as diverse as Albert Camus. Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil have all attempted to insert morality into politics. Concerning the history of the South century. Simone Weil has perhaps made the most precious contribution- In her view, historical necessity cannot be substituted for morality. Morality in history is based on freedom of conscience.
Gardels: If the US had this historical imagination, how would we have acted differently with respect to, let's say, Vietnam or the Soviet Union?
Paz: The US went to Vietnam to substitute for the French. Perhaps you should not have gone there, but you could leave Vietnam. The United States can't escape the Soviet Union. You must deal with the Soviet Union knowing what kind of power it is, not with naive assumptions, It's not the reincarnation of the devil, but it is also not just a country like others. It has a history and it has a messianic doctrine of universal domination.
The Soviet Union is an old imperial power, militarily speaking, from Russian times and it is a theocratic state with universal beliefs. These were characteristics of Russia before it was communist. So, even if today they have lost some ideological influence, Russia still lives its history.
Gardels: As the US has lost faith in the future, haven't the Soviets, a Marxist expression of modernity, lost faith in the future? Isn't that the meaning of the reassertion of Russian national interest over Soviet ideology?
Paz: The people have lost faith, yes. Or perhaps it's better to say that they never had total faith in the Bolshevik system. But the bureaucracy forms a new class that rules an old country with an old culture. Russia has always had an historical mission. We see the Pan Slavic messianism in all the great writers, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. Among the many Byzantine traits present in today's Russia there are two which are crucial: first, the marriage of the idea and the sword; second, Byzantium as a theocratic state ruled by a bureaucracy of clerics as Russia is governed by the communist elite.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union is a very modern country with a modern ideology from Hegel and Marx. But the modernity of Russia is a new kind of modernity. It is not the democratic state of the West, but a bureaucratic one. That's a new world phenomenon,
And a bureaucracy can't lose faith, because it has none. It has no beliefs, only interests. The Marxist concept of ideology as a mask can be applied perfectly to the communist bureaucratic class.
We have now seen this pattern repeat itself all over the world. The young revolutionary hero fighting in Nicaragua or Africa for socialism becomes a bureaucrat when he takes power. And not only a bureaucrat, but a bureaucrat with military and economic power,
Nicaragua and Mexico
Paz I Nicaragua is a tragedy for Latin America and for everybody involved. I had hoped that an intermediate place for Nicaragua could be found, like Nasser's Egypt or Nehru's India. But it has proved impossible for Nicaragua to find an independent path in the stead of a Yugoslavia or a China today, The fault lies partly in the US policies, but also in the ideology of the Sandinista leaders.
Gardels: On Nicaragua, do you agree with your compatriot, Carlos Fuentes:
"Revolutionary leaders such as Obregon and Calles in Mexico in the 1920s, Castro in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua have had to identify the moment of violence with the moment of foundation, so as to obtain territorial unity, national identity and institutional viability. Mexico lived its moment of violence from 1910 to 1930, Cuba is barely coming out of it, Nicaragua is immersed in it...If Lech Walesa came to power in Poland, his first priority could not be perfect democracy, but independence from Moscow. The same goes for Nicaragua. History tells us that Cuba and Nicaragua are minorities, not menaces, and they represent the inevitable rise of marginal societies, not necessarily totalitarian societies."
Paz: I regret it, but I have to disagree with my friend Carlos Fuentes. There is some historical confusion in his words. At the start of the Mexican revolution, there was only one hegemonic country on the American continent, the United States.
We had to deal with the US. We dealt alone, and in the end we arrived at a compromise the result of which is that we are not a colony of the United States. The Cuban revolution also had to deal with the United States. Castro opened the door to the Soviet Union with the result that Cuba now is a satellite of Russia. And I am afraid that the Cuban process will be repeated in Nicaragua. It is a gross misconception to compare the Mexican revolution with the other two.
Gardels: So, you would say to North American liberals that they are naive for believing that, if left alone, Nicaragua will follow the path of the Mexican revolution?
Paz: Mexico was never left alone. There was always American pressure. At one of the most critical moments of the Mexican Revolution, Carranza, the president, looked to the Germans for an alliance. In the period around WWI, many entreaties were made. But Germany was defeated and for some years ceased to be a world power.
Besides, the historical nature of the German Empire was very different from Soviet Russia. There wasn't any international ideology in German Imperialism. William 11 never represented a revolutionary movement. But, it is not only a matter of leaving Nicaragua alone. First, the just revolt of the people of Nicaragua was confiscated by the Sandinistas, a revolutionary elite made in the model of the Cuban elite. And second, the Cubans are already there. Perhaps the best solution would be a compromise with a Nicaraguan Tito or a Deng. I wonder if it's not too late.
Gardels: Adam Michnick, the Polish historian and Solidarity adviser, argues for a strategy called the "New Evolutionism." In his approach, the Poles must create a movement that democratizes Poland, but doesn't threaten Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. This is the upper limit of their historical possibility.
Paz: That would be prudent advice for Cuba and the Sandinistas. It was what Mexico did in order to make our revolution a real historical possibility. If the Sandinistas did this, I would go to Managua to be with them.
Gardels: Are the democratic pretensions of the Sandinistas any worse really, than those of Mexico's ruling party, the PRI?
Paz: It is very different. The PRI is the inheritor of a national and democratic revolution, although it is a petrified revolution. Also, the PRI is not an instrument of any foreign power. The real affinity of the Sandinista regime is not with Mexico and its revolution, but with the militaristic Leninist regimes of Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia or Vietnam.
Gardels: But in terms of the formalities of democracy?
Paz: In Mexico, we don't have a dictatorship. We have freedom of the press. We have a government which is elected.
What I object to is the election fraud in some states like Chihuahua. I am also against the imbrication of the PRI in the government, the existence of a bureaucratic caste monopolizing part of the economy and the political and social life. We want a pluralistic society with strong political parties, a reform of the economy and of the national culture.
Our present economic crisis linked to the debt problem has resulted from the lack of pluralism in Mexico.
The economic crisis has much to do with Mexico attempting to modernize in the same foolish way in which Mao tried to modernize China - with one great leap forward. This was the consequence of Mexican authoritarian power and the lack of controls on the president. The magnitude of Mexico's debt problem is linked to the lack of democracy in Mexico. Mexico's lack of checks and balances has been disastrous. Contrary to the noises made by so many leftist intellectuals, it is not Lenin that we miss in this part of the world, but Montesqieu.
In 1977, I warned that oil would produce two results
if we didn't have democratic checks and balances. I argued that it would
cause corruption, and also that it would stimulate the
But these are complex problems that have nothing to do with foreign intervention of the Americans or the Russians. Nothing.
Gardels: After the student massacre at the 1968 Olympics by Mexican troops, you wrote that Mexico could not be rescued from the earthquakes of the legendary Aztec era of the "fifth sun" by the stone rigidity of the pyramid, but by flexibility and the capacity for change.
Has the real earthquake of 1985 precipitated the demise of the political pyramid of the PRI because of the government's inability to put the pieces back together? Can the PRI embrace change and move toward democracy?
Paz: One of the most significant results of the earthquake was autonomous action outside of the PRI and the government.
We are in the process of a transformation that began in 1968 with the student revolt. While the student revolt was a leftist revolt, its main demand was welcomed by the Mexican public: democratization.
That revolt instigated the Echeverria "apertura," the Lopez-Portillo political reforms and now De La Madrid's proposed changes for more seats in the legislature for the opposition parties. I wrote in 1968 that either we are going to have serious upheavals or we are going to move toward a more modern democracy. Although the effort is too slow for me, I am happy to say that democratization is happening, little by little. We are on the verge of change.
One of the great obstacles to democratic progress in the past has been the weakness of the opposition parties. Now we have a new phenomenon in Mexico: the democratic right is more powerful than ever before, mainly in the north.
That power is linked with another very important development for Mexico: the appearance of regionalism in political life. This is all the more remarkable when we recall that Mexico has been a centralized country for the 2000 years of its existence, since Teotihuacan! By contrast, the US has always been a federal republic since its foundation, only 200 years ago.
Now, for the first time in our history, there is a resurrection of the regions.
Also of importance, the left in Mexico has become more and more democratic. For many years, it was impossible for independent people
like myself to have a dialogue with the left. Now we can talk and exchange ideas. For me it is a positive sign that both the left and the right have become more open, tolerant and democratic. Finally, there seems at last an enduring consensus that change must come without violence.
These are all signs of maturity. Mexico is changing. Corruption, nepotism and this terrible economic crisis have created a deep frustration that only strengthens democratic aspirations.
The Earthly Purgatory
Is Mexico condemned to the paralysis of these contradictions or can it transcend them? Is the future both a hostage of the past and, at the same time, mortgaged to a poor imitation of modernity? Can there be faith in the future in such a state?
Paz: Purgatory is a very apt characterization. Purgatory is a transitional state, a compromise. Perhaps that has been Mexico's fate. We have always had these two poles, pre-Columbian civilization and Spanish Catholicism and monarchy; great art and historical setbacks; marvelous poets and weak criticism; beautiful churches and palaces side-by-side with huts and hovels.
We have made a mix of this and that is our purgatory. We live amid our contradictions - our saints and our Indian gods; our republic and our enduring centralization of power; our peasants adoring the Virgin with the same fervor which their ancestors praised the Earth Goddess alongside our young economists from Harvard and our professors of philosophy fresh from Paris.
We have not solved these contradictions, but with them and through them we have created a truly original culture. We are alive at the end of the 20th century.
A young Mexican, looking to the future, lives in neither hell nor paradise. He lives on earth. And earth, with the limits and contradictions of real history, is purgatory. Earth is the place where we test ourselves; in history we lose our souls or attain salvation.