Petrified Pasts:

Octavio Paz and the Representation of Ruins


Cecilia Enjuto Rangel

Yale University


Ruins are the witnesses and the victims of time, history, nature, war, pollution, oblivion and melancholic fascination. In the poetic landscape of ruins one encounters multiple metaphors of waste and an overwhelming accumulation of literary and historical echoes. In his study of allegory in German Baroque drama, Walter Benjamin explains the connection between allegory and ruins. Benjamin suggests that allegorical representations such as statues or poems "concretize" ideas in the same way ruins "concretize" historical change: "The allegorical physiognomy of nature-history, which is put on stage in the Trauerspiel, is present in reality in the form of the ruin… Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things. This explains the baroque cult of ruin." (Benjamin177-178) The ruined city reveals how the natural elements overpower and invade the historical space. Benjamin does not view in that menacing nature the emblems of the eternal, but quite the contrary, he perceives the ruins as signs of destruction not of endurance: "In the ruin, history has physically merged into the setting and in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much that of irresistible decay."(177) Still, ruins are frequently portrayed as traces of the "eternal," always remainders and reminders of the "presence of the past."

In this essay I will analyze the representation of ruins in Octavio Paz’s hopeful Himno entre ruinas (1948) and the hopeless Petrificada Petrificante, from the collection of poems Vuelta (1969-1975). (1) Paz’s Himno entre ruinas projects an ideal vision of the classical ruined space, merged with nature, which reconsiders baroque aesthetics and poems like Rodrigo Caro’s Canción a las ruinas de Itálica, and opposes the modern cities in ruins, as the ones represented in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Petrificada Petrificante has provoked little critical commentary in comparison to Himno entre ruinas, yet I will argue that it is Paz’s most explicit homage to Eliot’s The Waste Land and his version of Mexico’s sterile historical landscape. Paz’s dialogue with both Baroque and Modern traditions exemplifies the tension with canonical poets he discusses with his notion of "la tradición de la ruptura," (Los hijos 17) and simultaneously, it enables him to propose different poetic versions of the topos of ruins.

The appreciation of ruins changes through history and through diverse artistic movements from Baroque and Romantic works to Modernist aesthetics. Svetlana Boym summarizes very accurately the development of the topos of ruins, and asserts that: "in the baroque age, the ruins of antiquity were often used didactically."(Boym 79) The ruins of lost cities and empty empires were meant to teach us about the fleeting greatness of the past and the present’s possible destruction. The Baroque fascination with antique ruins does not only reflect an admiration for their great monuments; it is also aimed to grasp the "eternal," what survives the destruction of pagan culture. Obviously, the Baroque, the Romantic and the Modern ruins project diverse significations and preoccupations. But what all the representations of ruins have in common is a visceral search for the "eternal," the fascination of what remains after everything is destroyed.

Boym also underlines the difference between the narcissistic portrayal of Romantic ruins and the traumatic depiction of modern ruins: "Romantic ruins radiated melancholy, mirroring the shattered soul of the poet and longing for harmonic wholeness. As for modern ruins, they are reminders of the war and the cities recent violent past…" (79) Nostalgia may be conveyed in both Modern and Romantic poetry on ruins, but melancholy mostly characterizes the Romantic work. In his essay "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud explains the mental features of melancholia as "painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity… self-reproaches…" (Freud 244) The main difference between mourning and melancholia is the self-regard; melancholic feelings tend to be narcissistic. And poems on modern ruins try to erase the traces of melancholia from the depiction of an experience that is usually suffered by a community and not just an individual. Romantic poetry tends to empty the historical and political significance of the ruins, and in that sense they contrast with Paz’s representation of a city in ruins, charged with the political implication of manifesting historical change in its most concrete ways. However, modern ruins portray the scars of war or violent history, as well as what Baudelaire designates in "Le peintre de la vie moderne" as the eternal and the fugitive elements of modernity. The Waste Land and Himno entre ruinas are poems marked by World War I and World War II, respectively; but that does not mean that their ruined landscape is only a product of a recent war or catastrophe. These poems evoke a modern city in ruins that has been part of a process of destruction and construction, of natural and mechanical fatalities; its ruins are part of the project of progress marked by constant regression.

Paz’s search for cultural origins leads him to the buried past in Aztec and modern ruins, where the Pre-Colombian and the European traditions coincide: "México buscaba el presente afuera y lo encontró adentro, enterrado pero vivo. La búsqueda de la modernidad nos llevó a descubrir nuestra antigüedad… era un descenso a los orígenes…"(La búsqueda 389) In Homenaje y profanaciones the allusions to the ruined cities of Itálica and Uxmal exemplify the conjunction of both the Hispanic and Aztec heritages. In his essay "La búsqueda del presente," Paz places himself in the tradition of Lope and Quevedo, yet maintains that Mexicans are and are not literally Europeans, "Somos y no somos europeos."(384) This quest for the lost origins in both the European and the Indigenous cultural backgrounds links Paz’s work to a Neo-Baroque poetics. As he states in relation to the Baroque poets of Nueva España, what would become Mexico, like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, "Respiraban con naturalidad en el mundo de la extrañeza porque ellos mismos eran y se sabían extraños." (Manierismo 14) Defining the American Baroque as the epitome of what is bizarre, is also a way of essentializing those "origins" as unique and deformed. (2)

Paz’s Himno entre ruinas is both a poem to modern ruins, a sterile landscape similar to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as an hymn to the literary "ruins" and edifices of the Baroque tradition, particularly Rodrigo Caro’s Canción a las ruinas de Itálica. As Paz himself points out in Los hijos del limo, Neo-Baroque poets want to be identified with their precursors. In this poem, John Fein affirms that Paz distances himself from the literary tradition of the ruins "al no evocar las glorias del pasado y fijar su atención más en la naturaleza que en la historia."(Fein 165) (3) Paz does not mention in Himno entre ruinas any specific historical event or proper name, except for Polifemo, a mythical figure. Fein also pinpoints to the tension between nature and history, maintaining that Paz privileges nature. In the topos of ruins nature tends to be the survivor of time, the embodiment of eternity.

Further than that, for José Lezama Lima in La expresión americana, American nature symbolizes culture itself. Its monstrous landscape is the agent provocateur of all its cultural expressions. But in Paz’s poem, nature is not necessarily American; in the first few stanzas, we are transported to the Old European World. The tension between nature and culture, history’s ruins, is materialized through the structure of Paz’s Himno entre ruinas, divided into two types of stanzas: the odd stanzas are characterized by the luminosity of the Mediterranean natural landscape, and the Classical ruins; while, the even stanzas, emphasized by italics, are marked by darkness and a pessimistic tone, alluding to the decadence of the modern city. Paz’s text manifests a desire to honor a mythical, natural world and condemn the historical reality of social oppression and corruption. (4) There are two different ways of signifying these contrasting ruins. In the classical ruins frequently evoked in baroque poetry, Paz finds a de-historicized, eternal and idealized natural landscape. In the modern ruins, Paz depicts a Benjaminian reading of ruins, where the process of historical decay is allegorized.

Himno entre ruinas is introduced by an epigraph from Góngora’s Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, highlighting the metaphorical and literal chiaroscuro we will encounter throughout the text. The first stanza opens with the sunrise, "¡Alto grito amarillo…!," and "la herida cárdena del monte resplandece," an image that will be crucial to close the temporal cycle at the end of the poem. The chiaroscuro is evoked by the odd stanzas that portray a bright sun, and the pair stanzas placed under the shadows of "un sol anémico" or "un sol sin crepúsculo." Jason Wilson denotes how the change of scenery relates to Baroque aesthetics: "The physical landscape of Sicily, with its…fertile nature, enters Paz’s poem from Góngora, as does the notion of the uncorrupt world of poetry, opposed to the mindless violence of World War II, the rivalry between Galatea and Polifemo modernized."(Wilson 45) As in Paz’s Homenaje y profanaciones, Freud’s theories on society’s tension between the death instinct and the life instinct could also be illuminating when we consider Polifemo and Galatea. In Góngora’s poem, Polifemo is overwhelmed and overpowered by what Freud calls the "instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness," while Galatea represents eros, the emblem of love and beauty, which arises those uncontrollable desires.(Freud 78) In contrast with the fusion of lovers in Homenaje y profanaciones, the two characters, never united, personify the antithetic elements of human nature Freud ponders upon. The metaphors of light and darkness that respectively embody Galatea and Polifemo are also projecting Himno entre ruinas’ structural division. (5)

The classical ruins portrayed in the first stanza are contrasted with the Mexican ruins and the young people’s indifference towards the remains of their cultural heritage. (6)

¡Estatua rota,
columnas comidas por la luz,
ruinas vivas en un mundo de muertos en vida!

The broken statues are moulded by time, symbolized by the sun and its devouring light. Some may associate the broken statues with T.S. Eliot’s fallen towers and cities in ruins, but in Himno entre ruinas the classical ruins do not represent destruction. These ruins are "alive," opposed to the human beings who surround them. They may be broken and abandoned columns, but in Paz’s poem they are one with the natural landscape, the sun, the sea, the cliffs and its goats. The verse that precedes the broken statue is "Todo es dios." The statues that used to represent the Roman mythical gods do not represent them anymore. As in Petrificada petrificante, the gods became ideas and their statues were emptied of their allegorical signifation: "las ideas se comieron a los dioses / los dioses / se volvieron ideas." The broken statue and the decayed columns in Himno entre ruinas serve as a paradoxical contrast with the Mexican youngsters, smoking marihuana, alive but dead.

Similarly to sixteenth century poem, Rodrigo Caro’s Canción a las ruinas de Itálica, the speaker must embark in an archaeological project: "¿dónde desenterrar a la palabra?" Is there a "word"? Do those pyramids have buried voices that want to tell their story? We do not know, unlike Neruda in Alturas de Macchu Picchu, Paz does not even attempt to speak for the Aztec dead. He only evokes the nostalgic, desperate "canto mexicano… piedra que nos cierra las puertas del contacto." As in Petrificada Petrificante, the stones symbolize the social and economic immobility in Mexico. The Mexican song, in contrast with this poem’s intentions, becomes a stone that divides the past and the present –it impedes any form of reflection, any contact zone. The second stanza reveals a strong critique to the lack of communication in contemporary Mexican society. It is a city of "muertos en vida"; the image of sterility also prevalent in Eliot’s The Waste Land is captured in the last verse, "sabe la tierra a tierra envejecida." The speaker is like a buried corpse, tasting the leftovers of the earth. The land is fruitless and therefore futureless. On the other hand, in the odd stanzas, the speaker finds eternity in the delight of the senses and the abundance of Nature. As in Caro’s last stanza of Itálica, where the only permanent remains are San Geroncio’s, the eternal in the third stanza of Himno entre ruinas is also described with religious language: "resurrección," "vino, pan solar," "esbelta catedral," and "templos en el mar."

Nevertheless, Himno entre ruinas’ fourth stanza situates itself in the urban landscape, and the shadow that surrounds the superpowers: "Nueva York, Londres, Moscú. La sombra cubre al llano con su yedra fantasma." The ruins of post-war Europe are now divided between the communist and the capitalist countries, the "escalofrío" of the Cold War. The reference to the paradigmatic modern cities alludes to Eliot’s "What the Thunder Said" and the enumeration of cities that were once great but whose brightness is now opaque: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal." Paz’s description of a shadow that covers the city not only responds to time and overpowering of nature’s ivy, but it also refers to the repeated verse in The Waste Land: "Unreal city, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn." However, although the brown fog of pollution and of nightfall may be correspondent with Paz’s shadow, these cities in Himno entre ruinas are not portrayed as unreal. Quite the contrary, they represent what is "real." The fragility of power and the omnipotence of Time --so embedded in the poetic tradition of the ruins-- are also suggested by the second reference to Góngora’s work: "Acodado en montes que ayer fueron ciudades, Polifemo bosteza." Polifemo is the witness of history. He is bored by the predictable cycle of destruction and cities in ruins that will merge with the natural landscape of the first stanza. Change and repetition are manifested in the metaphor of "rebaño de hombres," an echo of the first stanza: "Un puñado de cabras es un rebaño de piedras." In a strong criticism of social exploitation, the image of the ruins reminds us of how easily humans can be turned into stones.

The crowds of rats that inhabit these modern cities recall the ones in Itálica and Uxmal in Paz’s Homenaje y profanaciones. The rats may invoke the businessmen in control of the big cities, which induce the crawling behavior of the "rebaño de hombres." As we perceive in the verses:

Abajo, entre los hoyos, se arrastra un rebaño de hombres.
(Bípedos domésticos, su carne
-a pesar de recientes interdicciones religiosas-
es muy gustada por las clases ricas.
Hasta hace poco el vulgo los consideraba animales impuros.)

The ironic tone and the parody of the Mexican economic elites are self-evident. Paz criticizes the double cannibalism of Mexican history and the animalization of the working class. The cannibalism practiced by the Aztec priests as a religious sacrifice, and the economic cannibalism performed by the inheritors of the European system, makes religious and moral laws into ridiculous and decorative predicaments. The main parody of the privileged feasts is in the way they change their tastes, what some considered as "impure" as rats and worms, others deemed as sophisticated as escargots and frog legs.

As part of its identification with Neo Baroque aesthetics, Himno entre ruinas is ordered by paradoxical imagery and contrasts. For example, the vitality of the sea is opposed with the urban waters of the sixth stanza: "¿y todo ha de parar en este chapoteo de aguas muertas?" The phallic symbols of the green pines or the "espiga henchida de minutos," point to an elevated form that predominates in the mythical stanzas, and contradicts the vertical shape of the speaker’s thoughts, associated with serpents and rivers. The poetic voice is frustrated: "mis pensamientos se bifurcan, serpean, se enredan…al fin se inmovilizan… ríos que no desembocan…" But his thoughts do lead up to a final stanza, where the sun unifies the poetic structure and its juxtapositions.

In the poems that represent ruins, time is related to death as a symbol of destruction. However, by using the idea of eternal return and circular time, materialized in the sun, Paz makes time a symbol of creation: "Día, redondo día, / luminosa naranja de veinticuatro gajos." The poem’s last stanza provides a synthesis of the opposite worlds of the pastoral and the urban, myth and history, nature and the city, Classical and Modern ruins: "se reconcilian las dos mitades enemigas." The sun as a symbol of time can become an orange, and the "manantial de fábulas" will continue to flow because through poetry, words become deeds.

The notion of a circular time, linked to a mythical world, and its clash with a historical reality is prevalent in Paz’s poem. The odd stanzas of Himno entre ruinas that portray the idealized, natural landscape seem to suggest that the "origins" lie in the Classical ruins, in the Mediterranean rediscovery of the senses; rather than in the Aztec or the Modern ruins, associated with decay and death. Could we read these ruins as emblems of a literary tradition, symbols of the Classical and the Baroque legacy? The incorporation of Góngora’s Polifemo and the allusion to the Classical ruins is not only a literary move toward a certain past that should serve as an aesthetic model. It is also a political choice, used to criticize the present and its discourse of modern progress. Paz’s idealization of a distant place and a mythical time is part of his antinationalist critique to the Aztec and the European legacies, which left violence as the cornerstone of the Mexican nation. Paz’s poem ends by encouraging faith in the power of poetry; the idea that words become actions, that create political and historical awareness. His poetic idealization of a mythical natural landscape does not necessarily mean that he wants to erase or forget the literal and metaphorical cannibalism, and history of genocide. In an idealist positioning, Paz desires to break with that cycle of violence through poetry. Finally, he sings to the poetic imagination as the medium to contribute to historical and literary "memory." Petrificada Petrificante also criticizes the violence and the anger that are encapsulated in the Mexican well of historical origins, but unlike Himno entre ruinas, this poem does not offer any consolation, no reconciliatory move toward the union of opposites, no satisfaction for the unquenched thirst at the end.

Petrificada Petrificante is Paz’s definitive poetic reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and a dim re/vision of Mexican mythological and historical contexts. Often overlooked, this text addresses the longer poem, beginning with "Terramuerta" as a clear allusion to Eliot’s dead land. (7) I will focus on a comparative analysis with Eliot’s The Waste Land since this reading of the poem has not been sufficiently explored; thus, I will not discuss in detail the neologisms and the mythological symbolism that abound in the poem --which has already been thoroughly analyzed by Martha Nandorfy and Alejandro González Acosta.

As part of the collection Vuelta and its section titled Ciudad de México, Petrificada Petrificante evokes Eliot’s desolate landscape but specifically describes Mexico’s asphyxiating reality. The poem cites its own title:

Valle de México
boca opaca
lava de bava
desmoronado trono de la Ira
obstinada obsidiana
torre hendida.

Martha Nandorfy discusses the title’s dual dimensions, underlining that "petrificada" may signal an effect, or the object of an action; and "petrificante" points to the cause, as well as the process of turning into stone. (Nandorfy 573) The title refers to Anger, an allegory of Mexico, as being both the object and the subject of a petrifying history. In these verses México is portrayed as the symbol of anger coming from a volcanic grotto or a hollow pit. The common metaphors in the topos of ruins describing empires through elevated buildings or fortified thrones are turned into symbols of decay and destruction. The stones that built the Aztec empire, the angry México, have fallen and are themselves immobile, petrifying history and "progress." Paz’s poetic style in these verses also corresponds with word plays that abound in Homenajes y profanaciones. In this case, the word play "petrificada petrificante" can point to the stones of literary and historical traditions which not only seem petrified and untouchable, but they have the power to petrify the viewer or the reader. In this sense, Nandorfy’s reading of the Virgin with a "corona de culebras" as a reference to Medusa, "cuya mirada petrificaba al mirado," proves very revealing. Mexico, in the disguise of Anger, Medusa or the Virgin is feminized, and depicted as chaotic and sterile, petrified and petrifying.

However, Paz’s allusions to The Waste Land open the semantics of this poem to the modern city in ruins; Mexico is not the only possible background of the text. Paz’s cracked tower, "la torre hendida," has a strong chain of echoes from the Babel tower to Eliot’s falling towers. The broken cultural phallic symbol of the tower is an intrinsic part of the spaces of waste and sterility depicted by both Paz and Eliot. The barren, dry landscape is obviously not only reminiscent of Eliot, since it also responds to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and El llano en llamas. Still, I will concentrate on how Paz reads Eliot in this poem and how it relates to a Neo-Baroque aesthetic. The metaphysical conceits in all these texts indicate the crude, paradoxical vision of modern nations as ruined spaces. Uncomfortable with their own complacency, Paz and Eliot are morally and culturally criticizing and judging Modernity, which explains as well their particular interest in recapturing the Metaphysical poets and Baroque aesthetic values and oxymorons.

The ecological disaster in Paz’s poem is provoked by men: "los hombres fueron los ejecutores del polvo." The personification of the wind makes him a witness of the passage of time and the destruction of cities. Similar to the river in the Baroque topos of ruins which is the only "constant" element among ruined cities, the wind survives the land and the water:

el viento
en la tumba del agua
recita sus letanías.

The wind like the thunder in Eliot’s "What the Thunder Said" with the impressive image is described both as a poet and a priest: "el viento / cuchillo roto en el crater apagado." The broken knife also corresponds with the shape of thunder, but without its noise or its light. As in Eliot’s poem even thunder is sterile, it comes without rain, in silence.

Although in Eliot’s text Tiresias has a predominant role, in this text Paz decides to underline a nameless, mutilated body, symbolizing the sterility imposed on the land. The metaphors of knives and blades acquire a more poignant signification when he depicts Mexico as "un país de espinas y de púas." The mutilated body parts, the hand, the tongue, the breasts and the penis are the product of those cutting images:

salta la mano cortada
salta la lengua arrancada
saltan los senos tronchados
la verga guillotinada.

The disturbing fragments of the body in ruins also point to images of lack of productivity. Without the hands, they can not work; without their tongues, they cannot speak and communicate; without their breasts, women cannot feed their children; without their penis, men cannot reproduce themselves. The traumatized body is not only sterile, but it has no possibility of enjoyment.

Among other tropes, Petrificada Petrificante also shares with "What the Thunder Said" the use of onomatopoeia: "drip drop drip drop…" and "tristrás en el polvo tristrás." In "The Burial of the Dead," Eliot incorporates a series of characters from the Tarot cards like the Phoenician sailor, the Belladonna, and the Hanged Man. Paz attempts a similar enumeration of characters yet they correspond with the religious, cultural and mythological heritage of Mexico: "La Virgen… / El Desollado / El Flechado / El Crucificado…" These icons of catholic culture are just some of the desiccated images, forgotten and abandoned. These symbolic figures could also be read as the catalogue of heroes in the topos of poems, exemplified by the Roman heroes in Caro’s Itálica and the Inca workers in Neruda’s Alturas de Macchu Picchu. Nevertheless, Paz’s catalogue is not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition; he also includes Aztec mythological figures. As Nandorfy indicates the "colibrí representa a Huitzilopochtli, el dios de la guerra y también de la vida y la renovación del solsticio" (Nandorfy 581); and as González Acosta affirms the rabbit alludes to the Spanish conquest: "el Conejo (en el Ometochtli, Año del Conejo, llegó Cortés a Tenochtitlán para cumplir la profecía.)" (González Acosta 522) However, in this catalogue, the figures are definitely not depicted as heroic, particularly the feminine characters. The Virgin is characterized by a "corona de culebras," analogous to Christ’s crown of thorns, and as I mentioned reminiscent of Medusa’s head. The "Señora" has "pechos de vino y vientre de pan / horno / donde arden los muertos y se cuecen los vivos." The feminine body, in particular the breasts and the womb, underlining its reproductive capacities, is paradoxically portrayed as an oven, a cave where death reproduces itself. Femininity, and its traditional connotations with fertility, is replaced by a feminized Anger as the producer of ruins and the sterile landscape.

In Himno entre ruinas, the speaker asks himself "¿dónde desenterrar a la palabra?" In Petrificada Petrificante, the speaker turns to the images of these religious and mythological icons and unburies them:

Imágenes enterradas
en el ojo del perro de los muertos
en el pozo cegado del origen.

González Acosta comments that the dog with one eye refers to "Xolotl, el dios ‘doble’ de Quetzalcoalt" and Nandorfy considers that it alludes to "un Cerberus perdido, perro que en la mitología griega guiaba a los muertos a Hades… aquí los conduce a la luna, destino último de muchas mitologías indígenas." Nandorfy responds to the verses: "el can tuerto / el guía de los muertos… / en… la luna." The blind eye of the dog is like the well where the images of the past are encapsulated and buried. The dog who likes digging up corpses also appears in Eliot’s "The Burial of the Dead:"

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?...
O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

Paz’s imagery is surreal and obscure; the images of the historical and mythological past are paradoxically amalgamated in the blind eye of the dog that snoops about graves, but cannot see those images. They are part of the buried "heritage" that lies inside the blocked, dry well. The repeated verse "Hemos desenterrado a la Ira" suggests that the well of origins only contains a history of anger and violence. Unlike Homenaje y profanaciones and Himno entre ruinas which conclude with a poetics of hope and reconciliation, Petrificada Petrificante ends with the impossibility of quenching the thirst; from the broken men and the broken stones, emanates the "agua que alarga más la sed." I agree with Nandorfy’s criticism to the problems presented in this text: "la única posibilidad de cambio parece ser la degeneración… en dar la apariencia de comprometerse con la historia nacional cuando en realidad su configuración viene a ser un petrificado mito de negación petrificante."(578) Petrificada petrificante ends with a petrified apocalyptic landscape that leads nowhere. The historical and mythological past that needs to be unburied seems not to produce any sort of revelation. The final ritual, when stones are broken, presents a paradoxical form of bitter water which prolongs the thirst of the community; and the final question remains unanswered. Although this poem does not address the Baroque topos of ruins as explicitly as Himno entre ruinas, it clearly exemplifies an inter-textual dialogue between Eliot and Paz in their anguished versions of the modern city in ruins.

Neo Baroque poets reread the Spanish Golden Age and Latin American literary tradition -privileging juxtapositions, paradoxes, intertextuality, and the opposition to an authoritative system. (8) The "Neo Baroque" aesthetics has been defined in different ways by Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, and Carlos Fuentes. Lezama Lima emphasizes that the European Baroque is usually interpreted as the art of the Counter-reformation, while he maintains that the Latin American Baroque should be regarded as an art of Counter Conquest. (Lezama Lima 181-182) The return to the sources of the past leads many seventeenth and twentieth century Latin American writers to the mythical background and the aesthetic values of the Aztec, Mayan and Inca cultures. (9) Roberto González Echevarría’s argument regarding Juan de Espinosa Medrano, el Lunarejo, suggests that the originality of these poems is not a product of "an anxiety of influence": "…the Baroque issues from an impasse in the doctrine of imitation, it leads to the enthronement of "ingenio," of "wit," which is, briefly, the self-conscious shuffling of models and the creation of poetry from this reflexive activity." Paz’s Neo-Baroque aesthetic projects recover this notion of an American "originality" that is not intimidated by European poetic models, but quite the contrary, establishes a dialogue with his seventeenth century counterparts, full of wit and paradoxes, irony and hyperboles. González Echevarría pinpoints that the Baroque poets escape the traps of imitation, not only of the "reality" they perceive but also of the literary tradition that precedes them.

The criticism of modern progress and the search for origins in the representation of cities in ruins cannot overshadow the ideological complexities that lie behind a discourse that desires to rescue an idealized past. Paz’s ruins evoke the conventional Baroque dichotomies of the eternal and the temporal, eros and thanatos, in experimental and grotesque ways. While Eliot’s The Waste Land provides the imagery of the modern ruins from which Paz re-conceptualizes "the presence of the past" in the contemporary Mexican landscape. Although one may want to read Paz’s apocalyptic visions of modernity in Himno entre ruinas and Petrificada Petrificante as literary moves towards a future where progress is not attained through war and devastation, they are really calling to a move towards an unreachable, mythical past.



(1). The first version of this poem appears in Plural 29 (Sept. 1973), coinciding with the military coup in Chile and the oil crisis –dim historical situations.

(2). Roberto González Echevarría discusses Paz’s aesthetic of the bizarre with regards to Lunarejo’s reflection on deformity and what it means to be an "indiano." "Octavio Paz is the critic who has most explicitly linked the strangeness of the Baroque to the oddity of the Creole." González Echevarría indicates that the oddity of the Creole is augmented by "…his displaced condition, his dependency on wit, elevate him to the realm of artifice." ("Poetics and Modernity in Juan de Espinosa Medrano, Known as Lunarejo." Celestina’s Brood 164-165)

(3). A comparative analysis of Paz, Neruda and Caro’s poems has been suggested by John Fein in his essay on Himno entre ruinas. Referring to Paz’s poem, he comments: "De inmediato todo parece sugerir la afiliación del poema con una tradición literaria que se extiende desde los clásicos griegos al barroco español (por ejemplo, A las ruinas de Itálica de Rodrigo Caro hasta llegar al Neruda de Alturas de Macchu Picchu.)" (165)

(4). Ramón Xirau sees in the juxtaposing stanzas, the contrast between a "solitary" attitude and one that calls for a "communion" with others (ex. 5th stanza). I could connect this with Neruda’s passage from "soledad a solidaridad" (Yurkiévich), but unlike Xirau, I do not read in Paz’s poem a message of social communion. The end of Himno entre ruinas in a hopeful tone sings to the power of words, of fables, of poetry that may grow like flowers and fruits, and become actions.

(5). Wilson also points out to Paz’s move, dismissing "lyrical obscurity to seek intellectual lucidity," very much in the vein of Góngora and Sor Juana. This is also similar to Yurkiévich’s suggestion that Neruda moves from a solitary, more obscure attitude to a more "common," simple language.

(6). Fein also explains very accurately the transition between these two stanzas: "La transición a la caduca sociedad de hoy es anticipada por la referencia a los muertos en vida." (Fein 166)

(7). Of the two critics who analyze Petrificada petrificante, Martha Nandorfy is the only one who mentions but does not develop the poem’s allusion to Eliot’s work. (Nandorfy 572) While Alejandro González Acosta begins his analysis indicating that it is a poem of "profunda mexicanidad," which may be too complex for a critic who is not Mexican or who is not a deeply familiarized with Mexican history.(González Acosta 519-520) He does not comment the relevance of Eliot’s The Waste Land in Petrificada petrificante, although he alludes to a very wide range of echoes, which he never justifies, from Aristophanes’ Frogs and Posada’s dead imagery to general references to the Civil War and the Mexican revolution. (522-523)

(8). Severo Sarduy. "El Barroco y el Neo Barroco," América Latina en su literatura. Ed. César Fernández Moreno. Siglo XXI editores, México, 1972.

(9). José J. Arrom argues that the "Barroco de Indias" "al saltar a su pasado… se topó con el mundo prehispánico… el barroco tenía esenciales rasgos en común con la visión estética y religiosa de los aztecas, mayas, e incas, en América se le aceptó como un inesperado reencuentro con lo propio." (66-67)


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