OCTAVIO PAZ                                  UDK 140. 8:39

NZ Asturia 210                                   Izvorni znanstveni rad

COYOACA                                        Original scientific paper

Mexico 04000

Mexico DF


Loneliness – the feeling and knowledge that you are alone alienated from the rest of the world and yourself – isn’t exclusively a Mexican trait. All humans, in certain parts of their lives, feel lonely. And they are, living means being separated from what we were so we can get closer to what we will be in our mysterious future. Loneliness is the deepest fact of mankind. Man is the only living being that feels loneliness and the only living being that is in search of others of his kind. His nature – if this word can be used in relation to man, who found „himself“ by saying „No“ to nature – is made of his desire to establish himself in others. Man is nostalgia and seeking relationships. Because of this, when he is aware of himself, he is aware that he is missing another human being, in other words, he is aware of his loneliness.


A foetus is united with the world around it; it is mere life, unaware of itself. When we are born, we end our ties with the blind life we have been living in our mother’s womb, where there aren’t any doubts between wishes and satisfaction. We feel this change as a separation and a loss, as abandonment, as if we are thrown into a place with an unfamiliar and unfriendly atmosphere. Later, that first feeling of loss becomes the feeling of loneliness, and even later in life it becomes our consciousness: we are sentenced to live alone, but to also conquer our loneliness and again establish relations that connected us with our past life in heaven. All our strengths are biased against loneliness. This is where the feeling of being lonely has two meanings: on the one hand, we are conscious of ourselves, and on the other hand, we have a desire to run away from ourselves. Loneliness – this very fact of our lives – seems to us like some sort of temptation and absolution to end our anxiety and insecurities. At the finish line of the labyrinth of loneliness we will be reunited with serenity and happiness, our world will be in harmony. Our everyday language maintains this dualism by making sure that loneliness is equal to suffering. Troubles with love are troubles with loneliness. Unity and loneliness are opposites, but they complete each other. The liberating power of loneliness cleanses our hidden feeling of guilt: a lonely person is „abandoned by God’s hand“. Loneliness is judgement and forgiveness at the same time. It is a punishment, but also a promise that our persecution will end. The whole of human life is based on this dialectic. Death and birth are lonely experiences. We are born alone and we die alone. When we are thrown out of our mother’s womb, we begin a torturous fight which ends with death. Does death mean return to life which precedes life? Does it mean giving life to life before birth, where being motionless and moving, day and night, time and eternity are not opposites? Does dying mean the end of life as a living being? Is death the true form of life? Is birth death or is death birth? That, we do not know. But, although we don’t have the knowledge, our whole being fights to avoid the opposites that bother us. Everything – our self-awareness, time, understanding, traditions, habits – everything is directed toward making our refuge of life, but at the same time making us go back, go back to our mother’s womb from which we were banished. What we want from love (which is a craving for unity, a wish to lie down and die, but also to be reborn) is to give us a whiff of true life and true death. We do not look for happiness and peace, but for a moment of that true life, in which there are no opposites, where life and death, time and eternity are one. In an unclear way we see life and death as only two phases – opposite phases that complete each other – the one and only reality. Creation and destruction become one during the love making process, and for a split second man experiences a dash of a more perfect being. In our world, love is an incomprehensible experience. Everything is against it: morals, classes, laws, races, even lovers themselves. A woman was always a man’s opposite, what yin is to yang. If one part of our being wants to be united with her, the other part – equally demanding – refuses. A woman is an object, sometimes a precious one, sometimes a harmful one, but always a different one. By turning her into an object and letting her be affected by a man’s interests, desires, anxiety and his love, a woman becomes an instrument, a device used for achieving an understanding and satisfaction, a way for a man to survive. A woman is an idol, a goddess, a mother, a witch or a muse, said Simone da Beauvoir, but she could never be her own personality. That is how our love relationship is flawed in the beginning, rotten to the core. We make our own vision of her, an image that we made out of her, and an image with which she is cloaked. When we try to touch her, we cannot even touch her thoughtless body, because of that sweet image of a body that surrenders itself to us is always on our mind. And the same thing happens to her: she can only see herself as an object, as something „else“. She is never her own master. Her being is divided between what she really is and what she thinks she is, and that image is given to her by her family, her class, her school, her friends, her religion and her loved one. She never shows off her femininity, because her femininity depends on the image of her created by men. Love is not a „natural” thing. Love is something human, the most human trait of all. It is something we have created on our own, something that cannot be found in nature. It is something we create and destroy – every day. Those are not the only dangers that stand between us and love. Love is a choice… maybe free will of our destiny, a sudden discovery of the most secret and most important part of our being. But in our society, choosing love is impossible. In one of his masterpieces – Mad Love – Breton said that love was from the very beginning forbidden by two norms: social unacceptance and the Christian idea of sin. For love to come to fruition, it must disobey the laws of our world. It is dishonourable and unruly, a rule broken by two stars that jumped out of their already determined paths to be together in the vast reaches of space. The romantic meaning of love, which includes a break up and a catastrophe, is the only one we know today, because in our society everything prevents love from being a choice. Women are trapped in images of stereotypes created by men; because of this, if they want to do something of their own free will, it is considered to be some kind of escape from a dungeon. Women in love say that „love changed them, turned them into a different person“. And they are right. Love completely changes a woman. If she dares to love, if she dares to be herself, she has to break out of the image the world has trapped her in. Men are also prevented in their choice. Their possibilities are very limited. A man, as a child, discovers femininity in his mother or his sisters and from then on he relates love with taboos. Our eroticism shapes our fear of incest and its attractiveness. Modern life in huge doses encourages our wishes, but at the same time it prevents them with social, moral and even hygiene rules. Our guilt is our encouragement and our discouragement of our sexual fantasies. Everything limits our choice. We have to adapt our tendencies to stereotypes of women made up by society. It is hard to love people of a different race, religion or social class even though it is possible for a light-skinned man to love a dark-skinned woman, for her to love a Chinese man, for a „master “to love his maid -and vice versa. Although we blush when we think of the possibilities, we do not have the freedom of choice, instead we only choose women that are „suitable” for us. We never tell ourselves that we married a woman that we do not love, a woman that maybe loves us, but is incapable of being who she really is. Swann once said: „ To think that I spent the best years of my life with a woman that was not even my type“. Most men of today could repeat this sentence on their deathbed. The same sentence, with a slight change, could even be repeated by most women of today. Society paints love as a stable relationship whose main goal is to give birth to children and to raise children. In a way, society associates love with marriage. Breaking this rule results in punishment, and the punishment itself varies from age to age and from place to place. (In Mexico, if the perpetrator is a woman, it usually results in a death penalty, because – as it is with all Hispanic people – we have two morals: one for men, and the other for women, children and the poor.) The protection of marriage would be justified if society would allow freedom of choice. Considering that society does not allow freedom of choice, it should accept the fact that marriage isn’t the perfect fruition of love, but a form of love shaped by social norms and whose goal differs from the form of true love. The stability of a family depends on the marriage, which becomes a device for society whose goal is to reproduce the same society over and over again. That is why marriage is, by nature, a conservative act. Attacking it would also mean attacking the very foundation of society. That is why love is an unintentional act against society. Every time love succeeds, it destroys marriage and turns it into something that society wants to prevent it from becoming: the discovery of two separate souls who create their own world, a world that doesn’t accept the lies of society, a self-sufficient world where time does not exist. It is not strange for society to punish love and her witness – poetry – with the same evil intentions, sentencing them to an odd, secluded world full of abnormalities. It is not a surprise that love and poetry are dispersed into weird and pure forms: seduction, a crime, a song. As a result of the protection given to marriage by society, love is outlawed and prostitution is either tolerated or officially blessed. Our two sided relationship with prostitution tells us a lot. Some people consider this intuition holy, while we consider that one moment, it is worth loathing, the other moment that it is worth having. A prostitute is a caricature of love, a victim of love; she represents various forces that are ruining our world. But even this deformation of love is not enough: in some circles promiscuity is a common rule among married couples. A person who goes from bed to bed is not considered relentless anymore. A seducer – a man who cannot surpass himself because he uses women for his own purposes – is a figure as old as the wandering knight. There is no one left to seduce, just like there are no women who need to be saved or man-eaters who need to be tamed. Modern eroticism, on the other hand, is almost always rhetoric, narcissistic literal activity. It is not the discovery of man; it is just another document which describes a society that encourages crime and judges love. Freedom to be passionate? Divorce stops being a victory. It is not the rejection of already established relationships as much as it is giving men and women the choice of free will. In an ideal society, the only reason for a divorce would be the loss of compassion or a newfound love. In a society where everyone had the ability to choose freely, divorce would become an anachronism or a rarity, just like prostitution, promiscuity, affairs. Society pretends to be an organic creature that lives alone and for itself. But when it considers itself an undividable unit, it is split into a duality which maybe comes from a time when man stopped being an animal, when he found himself, his consciousness and his ethics. Society is an organism which suffers from a weird obligation to feed off of its needs and goals. Sometimes goals – disguised as moral rules – match with the demands and needs of the people who make them. But sometimes they deny the aspirations of important minorities or social classes and, in many cases they deny the deepest human urges. When the latter happens, society experiences a time of crisis: it either dissolves or stagnates. Humans stop being its ingredients; instead, they become soulless tools. Dualism, which exists in every society, and which every society tries to avoid by becoming a unity, is still present today: good and evil, permission and restriction, ideal and actual, rational and irrational, beauty and ugliness, being asleep and being awake, the poor and the rich, the ruling class and the working class, ignorance and knowledge, imagination and common sense. By the irresistible movement of its own being, society attempts to conquer dualism and to turn its unfriendly, lonely ingredients into a harmonic unity. But modern society tries to hide the dialectics of loneliness, which is the only way to make love possible. Industrial societies, no matter how different their „ideologies“, politics and economies are, tend to change their quality, that is, human  differences in a quantitative balance. The methods of mass production are applied on morality, art, emotions. Contradictions and exceptions are excluded, and that results in the closing of the deepest experience that life gave us, and that is the discovery of reality as a singularity where opposites complete each other. New forces forbid loneliness… and by that they also forbid love, a mysterious and heroic form of a community. Defending love always was a dangerous and a rebellious activity. Now it is becoming, one could even say, revolutionary to defend love. The problem with love in our world tells us how the dialectics of loneliness is, in the most common sense, prevented by society. Our social life prevents the possibility of achieving a true erotic unity. Love is one of the clearest examples of this two-faced instinct that pushes us into our inner selves and, at the same time, pushes us to open ourselves and gain a foothold in others: death and being reborn, loneliness and unity. But this is not the only example. In the life of every man exist periods which are arrivals and retreats, separations and forgiveness. Every one of these phases is an attempt to overcome our loneliness, followed by diving into uncharted waters, figuratively speaking. A child has to face reality; in the beginning it answers its calls by crying or being quiet. Its bond with life has been broken, so it tries to make up for it by playing games or with love. It is the start of a dialogue that ends with a monologue of its death. But its relationships with the outer world are not as passive as they used to be in its prenatal life because the world demands an answer. Reality has to be filled with its doings. Thanks to its games and imagination, the still world of adults – chairs, books, anything – suddenly receives its own life. A child uses the magic power of speaking or gestures, symbols or acts to create a living world where inanimate objects have the ability to answer its questions. Language stripped of its intellectual meaning, stops being a bunch of signs and starts being a classy and an attractive organism again. A verbal display is the same as the reproduction of the object itself, in the same way as a craved object is not a display for the primitive man, but a duplicate of the shown object. Speech becomes, again, a creative activity that deals with reality, and that is poetic creativity. With magic, a child creates a world as it sees fit and that is how it learns to face loneliness. Our self-awareness starts when we start doubting the efficiency of our magic. In adolescence we are cut off from our childhood and we are put on the doorstep of the world of adults. Spranger points out that loneliness is the signature characteristic of adolescence. Narcissus, a loner, is the true image of an adolescent. In this period of life we come to the realization of how distinctive we actually are from each other. But the dialectics of emotions interferes once again: considering that adolescence is the last step of self-awareness, it can only be achieved by self-forgetfulness, self-surrender. That is why loneliness is not just the age of loneliness but also the age of great romantic loves, braveries and sacrifices. People are right when they think of an adolescent as a hero and a romantic. The perception of an adolescent as a loner, an introvert, worn out by his cravings and fears, almost always ends up as an image of young people dancing, singing, moving in a group, or a young couple walking beneath a sea of green leaves in a park. An adolescent opens up to the world: love, action, friendship, sports, adventures. The literature of modern nations – except Spanish literature, where adolescents never appear and when they do, they are shown as either beggars or orphans – is full of adolescents, lone wolves in search of a pack, and they will use a ring, a sword, a Vision to accomplish it. Adolescence is an armed guard which protects the entrance of the world of facts. Loneliness is not a trait of maturity. When a man is fighting other men or objects, he forgets himself in his work, his creation or his object building, his idea building and his institution building. His personal conscience unites itself with the conscience of others: time is given a meaning and a purpose and that is how history is made, a living, meaningful turn of events that has its past and future. Our specialty – which comes from the fact that we are placed in a time, a specific time which is filled with us and us alone, a time that feeds off of us and feeds us – is not actually prohibited, it is soothed out and, in a way, „redeemed“. Our very existence takes part in a history which is coming to be, as Eliot said, „a form of timeless moments“. That is why a grown man who suffers from the disease of loneliness during his living and creative period is an anomaly. This type of a loner is very common today and shows us the hardships of today. In an era of teamwork, group songs, group pleasures, man is lonelier than ever. The modern man never commits himself to what he does. A part of him – the deepest part – always stays separated and cautious. Man tails himself. Work, the only modern god, is not creative anymore. It is an unlimited, endless job which fits the broken life of modern society. And the loneliness to which it gives birth – the goalless loneliness of hotels, offices, stores and cinemas – is not a temptation which strengthens the soul, the needed purgatory. It is a curse which mirrors the world to no end. The double meaning of loneliness – the sinking of one world and an attempt to create another world – can be seen in our stereotypes of heroes, saints and liberators. Myth, biography, history and poetry describe a period of introversion and loneliness – almost always during early youth – which precedes the return to the world of action. These are the years of preparation and learning, but also, above all else, the years of sacrifice and penance, self-questioning, atonement and cleansing. Arnold Toynbee gives us a lot of examples of this idea of Plato’s allegory of the cave, in the lives of Saint Paul, Buddha, Muhammed, Machiavelli, and Dante. And we all lived our own lives, determined by our own limits, alone and withdrawn so we could be cleansed and returned to the rest of the world. The dialectics of loneliness – „withdrawing and returning twice“, like Toynbee said, is clearly discovered in the history of every nation. Ancient societies, less advanced than us, are maybe a better example of this double movement. It is not hard to imagine how many doses of loneliness are required to enter a dangerous and frightening state, for people who we confidently and wrongly call „savages“. The legal system of ancient societies protected individuals from loneliness. Groups are the only source of health. A lonely man is an useless, dead branch that has to be cut off and burnt, because society as a whole is in danger if one of its parts becomes sick. Repeating one hundred years old rituals and beliefs not only insures the existence of a group, but also its uniqueness and unity; when religious rituals and the constant presence of the dead create a centre of relationships which protects an individual from loneliness and the group from falling apart by limiting the actions of free will. To the primitive man, health and society are synonyms, as are death and dispersal. Levy-Bruhl says that everyone who leaves their place of birth „stops being a part of the group. He dies and a funeral is held in his honour. “Permanent exile, according to that, is the same as a death sentence. Relating social groups with the spirits of ancestors, and the latter with soil, is seen in this symbolic African ritual: “When a native man brings home his wife from Kimberley, the locals make her eat native soil every day… so she can adapt to her new surroundings.“ The social solidarity of those people has a „vital, organic nature. An individual is a body part, literally. “Because of this, individual interactions are rare. „Nobody is protected or judged by his own“, and the action of every individual affects the whole group. Despite all these protections, the group is not protected from disbandment. Everything can break it: wars, religious differences, changes in the way of production, conquests… As soon as the group splits itself, every part of it faces a brand new situation. When the source of health – an old, secluded society – is destroyed, loneliness is not just a threat anymore: it becomes a permanent state of mind. It then leads to the feeling of sinfulness – not a sin that would be caused by breaking a certain rule, but a sin that is the very root of its nature. Or, to be precise, a sin that is now its nature. Loneliness and the Original sin become one of the same. Health and unity become synonyms again, but they are set in ancient history. They symbolize the Golden age, an era which preceded history, an era we could return to if we escape the dungeon of time. When we accept the feeling of sinfulness, we become aware of our need for redemption. This then leads to the creation of mythology and new religion. The new society – unlike the old one – is open and fluid because it is made up of refugees. The fact that man was born in a group does not guarantee him membership anymore: he has to earn it. Prayers start replacing magic formulas and cleansing becomes more apparent in initiation rites. The idea of redemption gives birth to religious thinking, theology, asceticism and mysticism. Sacrifice and the Holy Communion stop being totemic rituals (if they ever were) and start being initiatives to enter the new society. God – almost always a god, who is also the son, the descendant of ancient gods, creators – dies and is resurrected in certain eras. He is the god of fertility, but also a redeemer, whose sacrifice is an inspiration for groups beyond death. These expectations we have for our life after death are nothing more than a nostalgic feeling for the old society. The return of the Golden Age is what was promised to us during salvation. It is hard to find all these factors in the history of any society. Still, there exist various societies which meet the schematic requirements in almost every way possible. For example, let’s take a look at the birth of Orphism. Orphism was founded after the destruction of the Achaean civilization, which caused the spread of the Greek Culture and forced it’s people various changes. The need to establish these ancient relations again, both cultural and religious, created a number of cults whose members were „rooted out“… they dreamt about making an organization in which they could not be segregated. They called these groups „orphans“. (I would like to mention that orphanos means both „orphan “and „empty“. Being alone and being an orphan are similar forms of emptiness.) Orphic religions, which bloomed during the destruction of the old world, show us how a closed society becomes an open society. The feelings of guilt, loneliness and remorse have two roles in the life of an individual. The feeling of loneliness, which is a nostalgic desire for the body from which we were torn from, is a desire for its own place. According to an old belief, which every nation has, that place is the centre of the universe, the belly button of the world. Sometimes that place is related with heaven, and both are related with the real or mythical origin of the group. The Aztecs believed that the dead return to Mictlan, a place in the north where the Aztecs originated. Almost all rituals that have to do with the founding of a city point to people looking for that holy place from which they were banished from. Holy cities – Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca – are in the centre of the world, or they symbolize it. Pilgrimages to those holy places are imitations of what every group in the mythical past did before they settled in their promised land. The ritual of doing circles around a house or a city before entering it has the same origin. The myth of the labyrinth belongs to the same group of beliefs. A number of related ideas make the labyrinth one of the most important mythical symbols: an amulet or some other object capable of returning health and freedom to the people living in the middle of the holy place; a hero or a saint who, after confessing his sins and repenting, goes inside a labyrinth or an enchanted palace; the hero’s safe return so he can save his city or found a new one. In the myth of Perseus mystical elements are almost invisible, but in the myth of the Holy Grail asceticism and mysticism are connected: a sin which causes a drought in the land of King Fischer; rituals of cleansing; a spiritual fight and, finally, a unity. We were banished from the centre of the world and we are sentenced to search for it through the jungles and the deserts or underground labyrinths. There was a time when time itself was not a sequence of events, but a source of contemporaneity where the past and the future were kept together. When man was banished from eternity, where the past, the present and the future were one, he became a slave of hours and months. As soon as time divided itself into yesterday, today and tomorrow, into hours, minutes and seconds, man lost his interconnection with time, he stopped fitting in with the flow of reality. When people say „at this moment“ that moment has already passed. These measurements of time separate man from reality – the present time that lasts – and they turn the present in which reality is manifested, like Bergson said, into phantasms. If we keep in mind the nature of these two opposing ideas, it becomes clear that chronometric time is a homogeny series of events where all parts are the same. It is always the same, always indifferent towards joy and pain. Mythological time is filled with all the little bits of our life: it is as long as eternity or as short as a breath, deadly or merciful, fertile or infertile. This idea keeps in mind the existence of different timelines. Life and time merge and together they form an integrity. For the Aztecs, time was connected with space and every day was connected with one of the main dots. The same thing could be said about every religious calendar. A holiday is more than a date or an anniversary. A holiday does not celebrate an event, it reproduces it. Chronometric time is destroyed and, for a short time, an eternal present is established. The holiday becomes the producer of time; repeating becomes a term. The golden age is coming back again. Whenever a priest takes part in a Mass, Jesus Christ comes from above and gives himself to every man, woman and child. The true believers are, as Kierkegaard said, „the contemporaries of Jesus“. Myths and religious celebrations are not the only ways that the present can break the sequence. Love and poetry can offer us a taste of those heavenly times. Juan Ramon Jimenez once said that more time does not mean more eternity, thinking of the eternity of poetic moments. The definition of time as a fixed present and an objective reality is older that the definition of chronometric time, which is not the understanding of reality, but, is in fact, the knowledge that it does not last forever.  This dichotomy is expressed in the conflict between history and poetry. In myths – and also in religious rituals or in fairy tales – time does not have a date:“ Once upon a time…“, „During a time when animals could speak…“, „In the beginning…“. And that beginning, which is not a specific date, contains all beginnings and it introduces us to a time in which everything truly starts at every moment. Throughout the ritual, which renews its mythical meaning, man gains access to a world in which opposites are at peace. Like Van der Leeuw said, „all rituals have a property of being an event at this very moment“. Every song we read leads to creation, in other words, a ritual. Plays and epos are also rituals. In theatrical plays and when we are reciting poetry, normal time is replaced by the original time. This mythical time – the father of all times – aligns with our inner, subjective time. As he enters a current time, man is freed from his invisible dungeon: his subjective life starts being the same as the outside time, because the outside time stops being the measure of all things and starts being a source in the present time. Myths and rituals, no matter the kind, allow us to stop being lonely and meld with the rest of the world. Because of this, myths are closely tied with our history: they open up the gates of unity. The modern man has rationalized myths, but he could not destroy them. A lot of scientific facts, as well as moral, political and philosophical terms are just a new way of expressing our tendencies that were earlier present in myths. The rational language of today can hardly suppress ancient myths that are behind it. Utopias – especially modern political utopias (despite their rationalistic disguise) – are tendencies in which every society encourages people to imagine a Golden age to which they will return on the Day of days. Modern rituals – political meetings, parades, demonstrations – are just announcements for that day of redemption. Everyone hopes that society will return to its original state of freedom and that man will return to his original state before he ate the forbidden fruit. Only then will time stop bothering us with doubts, the need to choose between good and evil, fair and unfair, reality and imagination. The empire of a lasting unity will be established again. Reality will throw off its disguise and we will finally be able to meet it and our close ones. Every dying society tries to save itself by creating a myth of salvation which is also a myth of fertility and creation. Loneliness and sin are eliminated by unity. The society we live in today also created its own myth. The sterility of today’s society will end with suicide or a new form of taking part in creation. This is the „theme of our time“, in Ortega y Gasset’s words; it is the point of our dreams and the meaning of our doings. The modern man likes to pretend that his thoughts are completely awake. But this awaken way of thinking has led us to a nightmare where torture chambers are infinite. When we come out, maybe we will understand that we have been dreaming with our eyes open and that the dreams of our mind are unbearable. Maybe then we will start dreaming with our eyes closed.

Studia ethnologica Vol. 2, stranice 1-235. Zagreb, 1990., stranice 21-32.

(Original Croatian translation: Jelka Vince-Pallua;

English translation: Dorian Štefanek, 4 B, February 2020.)



Octavio Paz, (born March 31, 1914, Mexico City, Mexico—died April 19, 1998, Mexico City), Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat, recognized as one of the major Latin American writers of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

His major poetic publications included No pasaran! (1937; “They Shall Not Pass!”), Libertad bajo palabra (1949; “Freedom Under Parole”), ¿Águila o sol? (1951; Eagle or Sun?), and Piedra de sol (1957; The Sun Stone). In the same period, he produced prose volumes of essays and literary criticism, including El laberinto de la soledad (1950; The Labyrinth of Solitude), an influential essay in which he analyses the character, history, and culture of Mexico; and El arco y la lira (1956; The Bow and the Lyre) and Las peras del olmo (1957; “The Pears of the Elm”), which are studies of contemporary Spanish American poetry.