Tag Archives: octavio paz

Of Fruits and of Dust

20 Jun

A lot of people’s minds in Duluth will be on a visit from the President today. Given the current political climate, I get that. Mine, however, will be elsewhere.

When I was eight years old, my parents had a second son. He was born on this day in 1998. He died three months after his birth. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—which is a fancy way of saying that all the power of modern medicine hadn’t the slightest clue what went wrong.

I’ve written posts to mark this day every year since I started this blog, and a careful reader will find veiled references to him scattered elsewhere, too. Still, I write this post with some reservation. It’s not a story I share often; I don’t like to be maudlin or dwell too much, nor do I enjoy woe-is-me tales or to seek over-emphasize my sufferings, which, on the whole, are few compared to most people on this earth. But my own story is impossible to understand without his story, and so much of me, from guarded opinions to fatalistic tendencies to a belief in brotherhood and community as my highest ideal, stems from him.

Eight years old is old enough to bear witness to everything that happens, but not really to process grief in a mature way. My coping methods were myriad, from distracting myself with baseball to a restless search for a deity that could make sense of things for me. They sometimes brought momentary peace, but never closure. It took me maybe fifteen years to get over certain triggers of bitterness such as questions over what it’s like to be an only child or even just answering the “do you have any siblings” question. Trauma steeled me, and because it forced me to confront terrible questions head-on, I can perhaps only be truly, intimately comfortable around those who also confront them, in one way or another. Commitment hasn’t come easily because I only commit myself to people or things that can live up to this ideal.

The outpouring of support that followed my brother’s death was overwhelming, and is no small reason why I became such a loyal Duluthian. (Hence my decision to quote this line on this day four years ago.) There are a few stray plaques and markers around Duluth that bear his name, or note donations made in his honor. If you’ve ever seen me in a suit, there’s half a chance I was wearing a lapel pin gifted to me by then-mayor Gary Doty at the funeral, or at least had it tucked away in a pocket, ready at hand. I went back to school the day he died because that was the place I felt most comfortable, and my loyalty to my various alma maters probably has some roots in the unwavering support I found that day.

I remember the events surrounding his death as if they were yesterday, but retain only a few details of his life: the delivery room in St. Luke’s, overlooking his crib with the tune of a musical cow toy tinkling away, meeting him and my mom at a state park up the Shore after my dad took me on my first backpacking trip that summer. And since, there have been vivid glimpses of what could have been, if only in my mind: a hazy summer day atop Blue Mound in Wisconsin, a moment of solitude in Zion, standing at the start line of the half marathon in Duluth. (My brother was born the day of the marathon, and in a spurt of serendipity, the last name of the winner of the race that day was the same as his first). The day that would have been his Duluth East graduation day, and the stray dream here and there. At this point, it all feels like dreams; some conscious, some less so.

My mother and I will spend the evening far from any political happenings in downtown Duluth. This is no retreat, though. A life in the world is built on these ties, in what it means to love people or a place or overcome those moments when all hope or reason seems gone from the world. Without them, we have little to build from, and nothing to pass on.

I close with an Octavio Paz poem, as his words have so often seemed fitting for this day.

“The Simple Life”

Call bread bread and that it appear

on the tablecloth each day;

give to the sweat what it wants and to the dream

and the brief heaven and hell

and the body each minute what they ask for;

smile like the sea smiles, the wind smiles,

without laughter sounding like broken glass;

drink and in drunkenness seize life,

dance the dance without losing a step,

touch the hand of a stranger

on a day of hardness and agony

and that that hand have the firmness

that that of a friend never had;

try solitude without the vinegar

that makes my mouth contort, nor repeat

my grimaces in the mirror, nor the silence

that bristles with teeth that grate:

these four walls – paper, plaster,

thin carpet and yellowing bulb?

are still not the promised hell;

may not that desire hurt me more,

frozen by fear, a cold wound

burned by lips unkissed:

clear water never pauses

and there is fruit that falls once ripe;

know to break the bread and share it,

the bread is a truth common to all of us,

the bread sustains us all,

through its leavening I am a man,

a neighbor among neighbors;

fight for the life of the living,

give life to the living, to life,

And bury the dead and forgotten

as the earth forgets them: in fruit …

and at the moment of my death may I reach

death like men and that to me come

forgiveness and the everlasting life of dust,

of fruits, and of dust.

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Always

20 Jun

001

“oh life to live, life already lived,
time that comes back in a swell of sea,
time that recedes without turning its head,
the past is not past, it is still passing by,
flowing silently into the next vanishing moment”
― Octavio Paz, Piedra del sol

***

Seventeen years since those three short months, and yet those short measures of time do it no justice. Everything that came after is in your shadow. First, haunted; now, renewed in timeless joie de vivre. You are mine, and I am yours.

Happy 17th, bro.

Confronting Baltimore: David Simon at Georgetown, 2012

1 May

Baltimore is in the news this week, and any mention of Baltimore seems to make anyone in my very narrow circle make excited references to The Wire, that pinnacle of twenty-first century television. The Wire, in turn, makes me think of David Simon, the producer and brains behind the whole operation. Three years ago, on a sunny morning in Washington D.C., he gave the Georgetown College Class of 2012 commencement address. It will surprise no one who knows his work that it was a thoroughly depressing speech. Here is the text, coming from his blog named (you can’t make this stuff up) “The Audacity of Despair”:

http://davidsimon.com/commencement-address-georgetown-university/

Alright, that’s misreading Simon’s words. He’s making a deeply existentialist appeal, one that calls on people to continue the good fight in spite of the impossibility. He builds a case for national unity in the face of apparent divergence, and the events in Baltimore only underscore that concern. His diagnosis of Baltimore’s miseries in The Wire proved all too prescient, and it may indeed take a dose of Camus for anyone who has confronted this disorder to believe in any chance of improvement.

Unfortunately, Simon isn’t reading Camus quite right. Camus doesn’t confront the question of suicide because he thinks political change is impossible; he confronts it because he knows that all knowledge is impossible, and because there is always another way to look at things, no single political platform will do. There is no answer, and the world is incoherent. This, and not the possibility or impossibility of progress, is what leads Camus to call life absurd, and to suggest we soldier ahead along the one path that offers dignity, imagining Sisyphus as happy.

Very well; onward we go. Simon certainly offers a worldview; a plan of attack of sorts. He offers one lens that purports to make sense of it all. It uses nihilism, the cheapest of philosophical absolutes, as an attempt to come off as a world-wise sage. Who knows where we’re supposed to reconcile that nihilism with the genuine care for humanity that comes out of his lens. It’s a Western liberal lens concerned primarily with the rights of one’s countrymen. It sees humans in isolation, unequal, struggling for these abstractions we call rights. The policy prescription is liberal boilerplate. Halting steps might be realistic, though the end goal, as Simon readily admits, is impossible.

Yes, impossibility can inspire; I begrudge no one for chasing it. We talk a good game, say we can achieve it, and some people out there really do. But it sets an absurdly high bar, and it’s no wonder the platform faces such long odds. Many people spend most of their lives without daring to contemplate that shadow of doubt, focused relentlessly on what is before them, for good or ill. Many who do recognize it fold before it, unwilling to make Simon’s “absurd” leap. A belief of impossibility, after all, is what drives a teenager in Baltimore to throw a rock through a window. If the call to service requires either naïveté or this high a level of philosophical belief, perhaps the lens shouldn’t be our primary entry to the situation.

This doesn’t mean one who wants to “fix” Baltimore can’t have many of the same end goals or employ some of the same analytical tools as Simon; it’s just that one has to understand their place. They are means to approximate reality, not reality itself. No one lens, nor even any number of lenses deployed at once, can see that. Modern liberalism likes to think it can, and while it may come closer than many others, it still fails. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

There is an alternative. An alternative that avoids the knee-jerk turn to the failed dreams of a narrow worldview. One that dispenses with the grand sociological theory and anger at systems, and turns attention to the immediate. One that sees history not as a blind arc from darkness to light, but caught up in a tumult of connections and feedback loops. Full understanding is impossible, but we can approximate it, and that calls for the full arsenal of perspectives we can imagine, and the humility to never claim complete knowledge. When we admit our own limitations, wonder at the void we do not know can return, and suddenly everything is a bit less bleak, a bit less doomed to failure. It is a happier, healthier place to reside.

It was at Georgetown that I came to see that different lens for what it was, and, haltingly, embrace it, though I have some fear the latest curriculum decision there will only push Georgetown further toward the vogue lens. The rush to see everything through the lens of “diversity,” I fear, will neglect any attention to a moral language that underlies the most basic human relationships, the ones that go deeper than identity-driven labels and thought constructs and settle on reality. People will settle on the established battle lines and war away, without stopping to take a closer look. Camus, for one, never lost sight of this: when while the rest of the French intelligentsia embraced the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria, Camus, an Algerian of French origin, saw more nuance. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was able to strip away all the rhetoric of the age and see the human drama beneath, entranced by the little details that no one has time for.

To his credit, I think David Simon realizes this on some level. His analysis of the state of the Baltimore Police Department, right or wrong, shows keen insight. Beneath all the sociological sharpness of this and The Wire, though, are a lot of paper-thin characters. Simon’s attempt to study deeper human workings just aren’t there. But that, I suppose, would require an audacity far greater than cheap despair.

6/20

20 Jun

“A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

*   *   *

          “Brotherhood”

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
The stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

           — Octavio Paz

*   *   *

Happy 16th, bro. My debt to you is eternal.

Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

8 Jun

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?

One Hundred Years in the Labyrinth

31 Mar

I’m not a big believer in heroes. There are obviously people I admire more than others, and some who have certain exemplary character traits that I can only hope to channel. But for the most part, in a paraphrase of the guy pictured below, people should not be placed in heaven or in hell, but here on earth, where they belong. Here on earth, where they are a jumbled mess of admirable and unfortunate traits, many of which are two sides of the same coin. No one can stand too far above anyone else.

One who does stand a bit higher, though, is Octavio Paz, who was born 100 years ago today.

Image

Image credit:

 http://gestioncultura.cervantes.es/COMUNES/13298_I_octavio%20paz.jpg

Paz led one of the richest lives of the twentieth century. First and foremost he was a poet, but he was also a diplomat, an essayist, and a philosopher. By the end of his career, he was the mandarin of Mexican intellectual life, collecting awards left and right before finally claiming a Nobel Prize in 1990. He became the epitome of a public intellectual, and he took that mantel seriously, refusing to kowtow to anyone or anything. He was no ideologue, yet he had his principles. After the Mexican government massacred student protesters in 1968, he resigned his post as Ambassador to India. At a time when the Mexican academy was almost completely uniform in its Marxist orthodoxy, he came to be a fierce critic of the Soviet Union and of all authoritarian socialism. This made him persona non grata in Mexican intellectual circles, but he challenged it at every turn, and he lived long enough to see most of his theses proven correct.

Paz defied definition. He was fascinated by dualities, contradictions, and dialectics, and held them all together in his head. He wasn’t overtly religious, but he spoke with much respect for Christianity, and for the religious and mythical human impulses. He was obviously no Marxist, but he was willing to say a few kind words about Marx, and thought socialism’s emphasis on justice ought to be rescued from the wreckage of communism’s collapse. At the same time, he denounced the anti-communist military juntas in Latin America. This led some to label him a liberal (in the Mexican and European sense of the word, meaning a capitalist who favored democracy and personal liberty), yet he made thorough critiques of the philosophical underpinnings of liberal society. The Marxist Mexican professor who introduced me to Paz dismissed him as “very conservative,” presumably due to his rejection of both the history and the materialism of Marxist historical materialism. While he certainly wasn’t a conservative in any contemporary understanding of the word, there are some vague aristocratic airs in his approach to the world—a certain delight in taking it as his plaything for further study. Anyone who tried to stick a label on him missed the point.

I could quote from Paz’s magnum opus, The Labyrinth of Solitude, in order to show off some of his brilliance, but it’s a bit too heavy to confront in one simple blog post. Instead, I’m going to pull from a little-known interview that I was assigned to read by that dear old Marxist Mexican while at the Universidad Iberoamericana at Mexico City. This was my introduction to Paz, and while it may not have the coherence of some of his longer works, it is loaded with brilliant little gems, and succinctly pulls together so many of the themes I struck on this blog over the past year. (I’ve added links to those that come most directly to memory.)

The interview was conducted in 1992, as part of a series commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas; the interviewer, a Chilean named Sergio Marras, was primarily interested in Paz’s thoughts on the idea of Latin America. He got that, plus an awful lot more. Take this riff on identities (interview is in italics; my interjections are in normal font; translation mine):

You’ve said that Mexico is different from the rest of Latin America several times in this interview. How would you define mexicanness?

The word “mexicanness” is one that I avoid. It strikes me as dubious. It traps a reality in motion in a prison of concepts and adjectives. Mexico is an invention that, like all inventions, has two sides, or faces: one is the discovery of a hidden reality, not visible at first glance; another is a design, a project. To discover what we are we need to question our past and examine our present but, at the same time, give a sense and a direction to that more or less static reality. The future is an essential part of our present.

In that case, do you believe the famous Latin American identity is possible? What does it consist of?

I don’t like the word “identity.” I like the currently fashionable phrase even less: “search for an identity.” What we now call identity and what we used to call, more precisely, “character,” “soul,” or the “temperament” of a people, isn’t something one can have, lose, and recover. Nor is it a substance or an essence. Latin America is neither an entity nor an idea. It is a history, a process, a reality in perpetual motion and continual change. Words that I would apply to anyone who is “searching for an identity.” Who are we? Our histories—a living and incomplete history, but one that cannot negate the past. Nor should it try to whitewash that past:

We cannot forget that history has always been tragic. Joyce said that history is a nightmare. No, history is a reality, but it is a reality that has the incoherence and the horror of a nightmare.

Even so…Something from the past always remains. It’s very arrogant to condemn our ancestors: they don’t need simply our judgment, adverse or favorable, but our faith. And faith means sympathy: maybe I would have done the same as you, if I’d been there. There’s a norm we’ve forgotten: respect the adversary and honor the defeated. For a while I’ve rebelled against the official histories.

Speaking of Latin America, but applicable to anything with a less-than-ideal past: I think our history–more precisely, that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–has been an immense failure. But defeat does not degrade; the real degradation is not knowing what to do with the defeats. Turning a failure into art is beautiful. We’ve made a few very admirable things out of our failures: a handful of poems, a half dozen novels and collections of stories. Moreover, we’re not dead: we’re a living culture. This has been a great triumph. Latin America has character; it has a soul. This is our great victory.

Those histories lead to the formation of different cultures, and when it comes to culture, Paz strikes a somewhat more cynical note than his more universalistic colleagues. He still finds some room for hope all the same:

Culture will always divide usThe great civilizations have been made through dialogues between different cultures. I’m a believer in dialogue because I’m a believer in diversity. When unity transforms into uniformity, society petrifies. This is what happened to the communists. To live, democracy needs to accommodate contradictory elements so it can make permanent criticism a part of itself. Dialogue, critiques, the exchange of opinions: that is the political life, and that is culture. It’s easy for talk of dialogue between cultures to fall into clichés and a sappy universalism, but Paz avoids that with constant criticism. He most certainly is not an ideologue, and though he does reflect on revolutions fondly at times (his father was a backer of the Mexican Revolution, which was raging at the time Paz was born), he sees better ways to resolve problems:

He who rides a burro [common people, that is] doesn’t believe in utopias nor in ideologies. He believes in heaven and hell. Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people…I don’t lament the end of the myth of revolution. It lived for three centuries and left us both admirable and abominable things; but it has lost all its power. Now it’s not even a ghost: it’s a relic. What we need to do now is clean the dust off our minds with the feather duster and the broom of critiques, not with hysterical moaning about the end of the utopia…Today we don’t have anywhere to take refuge; we’ve run out of universalist ideologies and we have to reinvent everything. A great loss? More like an enormous possibility.

At the time, Paz was trying to be hopeful for a more cohesive hemisphere; history hasn’t really gone in that direction. But he was aware of that, and could salvage some things here, too. Here’s his take on the existential uncertainty of a world after revolutions, one in which philosophical liberalism has, in large part, triumphed:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

Paz suggests Kant, for his critiques of reason; this makes good sense, though my own bias is toward the Greeks. Still, the Greeks don’t always speak clearly about modernity, and it has to be studied on its own terms. For that, we move to a quote that has appeared on this blog before, and perhaps my favorite in the entire piece:

If we think of that trio upon which the modern world was founded–liberty, equality, fraternity–we see that liberty tends to turn into tyranny over others; thus, it needs to have limits; and that equality is an impossible ideal that cannot come to be without the use of force, which implies despotism. The bridge between these two is fraternity.

if we don’t rediscover fraternity, we’ll come to the real devil: the Last Man.

This is one of those apparent contradictions that Paz embraces. He’s a believer in democracy and modernity, for the most part; he knows they’re flawed, but he can’t see a better alternative. The world would be a better place if everyone lived in modern liberal democracies…and yet, even there, he can’t be happy. The world loses something when bourgeois, democratic norms take control; everyone is content to live out their routine suburban lives, and there is no pursuit of glory, no more human greatness. (The phrase “Last Man” was Nietzsche’s contemptuous take on such people.) Paz, despite his general support for the modern project, can’t quite accept this: hence his continued fascination with revolution, with people in the middle of the arena, even if he doesn’t quite agree with them. He reconciles all of this on an existential plane: yes, material comfort is important, but that isn’t what we live for. We live for something more:

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

If you read Spanish, the wonderful Nexos Magazine has a great series of reflection pieces here.

Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas

27 Nov

It’s late November 2010, and for the first time in my memory, Thanksgiving week doesn’t involve that drive south across Wisconsin, south to family and football and gluttony and sneaking a beer from the basement fridge, that sense of rightness taking hold. No; instead I’m far to the south, sprawled in a hammock on a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, writing idly in a little red notebook, nodding off, and then waking with a sudden start, at first unsure of where I am before the delight of paradise takes control. What bliss.

Truth is, though, I’ve never been very good at staying in the realm of bliss for very long. I’m too restless. I need action, I need meaning. And so I’ve deigned to drag my eclectic traveling party on to another destination, one that will require a bit more thought. Our grand tour across southern Mexico won’t just stop at the beach; instead, it has to go back up into the turbulent heart of this nation, as far away from any façade of Mexican serenity. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas.

We leave Puerto Escondido on an overnight bus, the road hugging the coast, and we wake somewhere near the crossing point into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It shares a long border with Guatemala, and its twisting mountain ranges and jungles are near-impenetrable: this is as far as one can get from the borderland Mexico so many Americans know, the last frontier of a nation trying to convince the rest of the world it belongs in modernity. A state whose people trace their roots back to the Mayan empires of past millennia. The coach rolls through the dismal state capital before scaling the ramparts of the Sierra Los Altos. Base camp for Thanksgiving weekend is the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city whose name pays homage to Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who convinced the Spanish monarchs to have mercy on the natives. In the heart of indigenous Mexico, some things never change: after the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the one man who managed to tried to bring the rebels and the government to the table for dialogue was the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz.

Our first day in San Cristóbal is a tame one, as we wander the sprawling markets and sample the most real coffee we’ve ever encountered. The sky is grey, the air cool up here in the hills, and though the city bustles with tourists and boasts restaurants from every corner of the globe, it still has a sense of quiet, a sense of reverence. We dine at a Lebanese place and find a colonial hall that shows a documentary on the Zapatista revolt, brush up on the details of their unexpected 1994 uprising against the Mexican state after the ratification of NAFTA. A group of peasants in ski masks stood no chance against the Mexican army, but the Zapatistas captured the hearts of many in Mexico and beyond, a native group that knows the power of a symbol and stays true to its roots. The fighting stopped years ago, but the Zapatista caracoles remain autonomous, carrying on life at their own pace.

We wake early the next morning and begin our Thanksgiving Day pilgrimage. We board a van that rises up from San Cristóbal de las Casas on a newly-built road, winding its way even further up into the sierra. I marvel at the sheer vastness of mountains, those barriers that no free trade agreement could flatten. Pictures cannot do it justice, the verdant green hills and the towering cliffs, the homes clinging to their sides, perched so precariously that they seem vulnerable to any great wave of change, yet sitting on plots of land that have barely changed over the past thousand years. We come to San Andrés Larrainzar, where the government and the rebels met in a church atop a mountain, reachable only by a long stair marching straight up its side. Here, the parties negotiated their peace accords some fifteen years prior. They answered no questions, resolved no disputes. There are no signs of that now, though: life goes on.

The driver pulls to the side of the road and announces Oventic. The four of us clamber from the van and make our way over to a gate that blocks off a side road. A man in a ski mask awaits; he scarcely reaches my chest, but he still has an air of control. We deliberate, and he asks us our reasons for visiting. We answer as respectfully as possible. A few other masked men mill about, murmuring in Tzotzil. We wait. Are they suspicious? No; this is merely the pace of life in Oventic. Explosions echo further down the road. Has the fighting resumed, on this day of all days? No; a religious procession is climbing the way, shooting off fireworks as it goes. Before it arrives, we are summoned inside.

The cement street cascades down the mountainside, wooden buildings lining both sides. Shops, meeting halls, a women’s center, a school, a clinic with an ambulance. Another masked man, this one somewhat older, guides us downward with a few declarative statements. We may photograph the murals along the walls, but not the people. The street empties into a level clearing, a schoolyard with a basketball hoop. The children tear about the schoolyard, all save one, a boy settled beneath a tree, plugging away at his schoolwork with contented poise. The two of us steal a quick grin. No, they don’t have much; most everything is made of wood, and the public restroom is little more than a trough. But it is no failure, either: behind the gate, there is an ease to life not visible in the poor Mexican communities on the outside, a difference most obvious in the children of Oventic.

Our guide, warming to us, takes us to a pair of stores filled with Zapatista swag. The shopkeepers know just enough Spanish to conduct a sale. Foreign capital in action, even in a commune. The mess of modernity, the impossibility of true isolation: they try to build an autonomous community, but if it were not for their international allure that draws in us tourists of revolution, history would have forgotten the Zapatistas. The Mexican government would have crushed them in short order. They may not exactly be a model for other struggling villages; few others can match their PR savvy. But they’ve succeeded, and even if they do not have much wealth, they certainly have their pride. We are shown the gate and flag down the next pickup truck to head down the highway, offering the driver a few pesos for a ride in the bed.

The truck dumps us in San Juan de Chamula, a dusty town of 50,000 that serves as the gateway to Zapatista country. The feel couldn’t be any more different: the poverty is immediate and anything but idyllic, the vendors aggressive even by Mexican standards, with one little girl dropping her wares on our lunch table at a restaurant and refusing to leave. It is a different world, but yet another world awaits: the inside of the town church is something wholly alien for all of us. The nave is dark, lit only by thousands of small candles, its floor covered in pine needles. The worshippers kneel before countless altars to saints, chanting in Tzotzil, the aroma of incense lulling everyone into a trance. Christian and pagan faith, blurred together in the haze. We stumble out and wander the square in shock for some time before coming back to our senses.

A van takes us the rest of the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of indigenous Mexico somehow reborn as a cosmopolitan magnet for adventure-seekers. We meander its streets, sit in the placid zócalo and try to imagine an army of invading masked men. We visit an Irish pub, climb a hill to a church, fool around on a curiously placed exercise course. Then, Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, just pizza in a colorful Italian place, with the Tuscan countryside painted on its yellow walls. A bit of wine, a beer run to the Oxxo, and a night of drink and debate.

What’s it all worth, this rebellion in the backlands? An assertion of identity that transcends any losses, makes all the costs worthwhile? A noble but failed effort, doomed by the march of progress? Delusion on the part of a bunch of uneducated natives? It’s nearly seventeen years since the Zapatistas first took up arms. Seventeen years of fitful fights and useless treaties, of paramilitary incursions and aggressive government responses. Surges of interest, with the tales of Subcomandante Marcos circulating the internet, the foreign support flowing into San Cristóbal. Claims of a new left, a postmodern revolution, the birth of indigenous rights in the Americas. Moments when it seemed like it would all go wrong, when the obstacles blocking the Zapatistas seemed more imposing than the mountains of Chiapas: the brutal massacres and that image of Marcos, shrunk down to size by the austerity of a Mexico City plaza, desperately trying to rally the revolt into a broader movement with his “other campaign” during the 2006 presidential race. It wasn’t to be: whatever its gains in Chiapas, the EZLN has not changed life for the vast majority of Mexicans. It never did quite know if it was a localized revolt or a national movement, and the question of scale kept it from taking off. The paradox of the modern left: it understands the importance of unique identities and is happy to harness the power of the state, but there is no bridge between the two.

Most of those trappings are gone now, as are the forceful rejoinders from the Mexican state. Forget the leftist rhetoric, the development theories, the ideals of efficient economics and what a modern nation should look like. There are only people, trying to make do. Maybe someday the government will finally be able to provide for Mexican peasants high in Chiapas; it’s certainly made some progress on that front, however haltingly. Maybe someday free enterprise will open up those mountain passes, or they might fade into irrelevance as globalization’s losers empty the land. Consider me a pessimist on both fronts.

“Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people,” said Octavio Paz. It was a disease that afflicted even him, a critic of the revolt that destabilized the treaty that was supposed to welcome Mexico into the modern world. For the children of Chiapas, there is no economic theory, no national liberation, no grand vision of a changed world: simply life as it has been, and their daily struggle to make it all work. Culture may shift and erode, but its shadow is long, and its loss drains the world of some of its wonder. It will endure, and with it the people of Chiapas, trying to carve out some stability in a world increasingly wont to discard any sense of order and tradition.

The next day is a quiet one, all in San Cristóbal. And then another van, this one north, past more Zapatista art and a few military installations, winding through the mountains to a pair of waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. The Mayan city in all its splendor, then its drab modern counterpart, a mercifully short stay. Then another overnight bus ride, once again putting pen to paper as I try to give it all some order. Mexico defies order, of course, and that may be its greatest lesson: even in its turbulence, it holds together, pulsing with life, a life I’ve found during my four months south of the border.

It is a pulse that is, blessedly, alive and well in my own family, and it’s time to make that drive south across Wisconsin again. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.