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Octavio Paz on Being Other, the Courage of Responsibility, the Meaning of Hope, and the Only Fruitful Portal to Change

“There is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth. It is a moment of reflective repose before we devote ourselves to action again.”

Octavio Paz on Being Other, the Courage of Responsibility, the Meaning of Hope, and the Only Fruitful Portal to Change

I came to this country not having inherited its sins, not being afforded many of its rights, but eager to share — and having by now devoted my adult life to sharing — in its responsibilities, its atonements, its healing. I came alone, barely out of my adolescence, into a country not yet out of its adolescence — that developmental stage when the act of taking responsibility is most difficult, and the impulse toward evasion and escapism most intense. “I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic, staggeringly timely conversation about race, forgiveness, and the crucial distinction between guilt and responsibility — historic also in speaking to Baldwin’s definition of history as “a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.”

These complex dynamics are what the great Mexican poet and political activist Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores in the opening chapter of his superb 1950 book-length essay The Labyrinth of Solitude (public library), written in Paris months after the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation, while Paz was serving as a newly appointed Mexican diplomat, and shortly after he lived in the United States as a Mexican poet, having chosen to use his Guggenheim Fellowship to study at U.C. Berkeley in California.

Portrait of Octavio Paz from his FBI file

Like me, Paz arrived to the United States as an other — as an alien of a different tongue, from a country scarred by centuries of violent invasions and decades of dictatorship, with a culture older than the American by epochs; unlike me, he arrived male, non-white, an adult, and an award-winning poet of cultural standing. It was with all of these multitudes that he observed and interpreted what he saw in his adolescent host country. In a sentiment his contemporary Louise Bourgeois echoed in her diary — “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.” — Paz writes:

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall — that of our consciousness — between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates, between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question.

Much the same thing happens to nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development. They ask themselves: What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are? The answers we give to these questions are often belied by history, perhaps because what is called the “genius of a people” is only a set of reactions to a given stimulus. The answers differ in different situations, and the national character, which was thought to be immutable, changes with them.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment of staggering timeliness today, as we face the challenge and discipline of reflection in order to respond — and respond robustly and effectively — rather than merely react to unbearably triggering events, Paz adds:

There is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth. It is a moment of reflective repose before we devote ourselves to action again… It does not matter, then, if the answers we give to our questions must be corrected by time. The adolescent is also ignorant of the future changes that will affect the countenance he sees in the water. The mask of an old man is as indecipherable at first glance as a sacred stone covered with occult symbols; it is the history of various amorphous features that only take shape, slowly and vaguely, after the profoundest contemplation. Eventually these features are seen as a face, and later as a mask, a meaning, a history.


The questions we all ask ourselves today will probably be incomprehensible fifty years from now. Different circumstances are likely to produce different reactions.

On this latter point, Paz may be wrong — or at least incomplete, neglecting the vital outliers, the rare far-seers who speak of their present and speak to the future, voices like Baldwin’s and Mead’s, whose questioning quickenings of mind and spirit remain not only comprehensible but acutely relevant fifty years later.

Art by Daniel Salmieri from Bear and Wolf — a tender illustrated fable of walking side by side in otherness.

Before we go on, we must pause to remember that language is the supreme vessel of meaning-making, hulled with a history and masted with a future. It carries in its colossal careening body all the baggage of its culture. Paz uses man to say citizen, to denote universal humanity — a convention by which writers of his era, male or female, abided; a convention at the gendered Goliath of which Ursula K. Le Guin shot her perfectly aimed pebble in her exquisite civilizational service of unsexing the universal pronoun. It may be a useful exercise to note with disquietude the biases of language, but the exercise becomes distinctly unhelpful when the disquietude deafens us to the message inside the vessel. Paz’s message transcends the bounds of his time to speak to ours:

In the United States man… has built his own world and it is built in his own image: it is his mirror. But now he cannot recognize himself in his inhuman objects, nor in his fellows. His creations, like those of an inept sorcerer, no longer obey him. He is alone among his works, lost — to use the phrase by José Gorostiza — in a “wilderness of mirrors.”

Upon arriving to the United States — which, as a resident of a neighboring landmass the shared name of which a single nation has usurped as its own, he insistently and correctly refers to as culturally North American rather than “American” — Paz found himself “surprised above all by the self-assurance and confidence of the people, by their apparent happiness and apparent adjustment to the world around them.” Drawing on the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s distinction between uses and abuses in differentiating the revolutionary spirit from the merely reformist impulse, he dismantles the apparent with the hard actuality:

The revolutionary is always radical, that is, he is trying to correct the uses themselves rather than the mere abuses of them. Almost all the criticisms I heard from the lips of North Americans were of the reformist variety: they left the social or cultural structures intact and were only intended to limit or improve this or that procedure.

Two decades before he resigned his post as a Mexican diplomat to protest the massacre of hundreds of peacefully protesting unarmed citizens, mostly students, by his country’s armed forces, Paz adds:

It seemed to me then, and it still does, that the United States is a society that wants to realize its ideals, has no wish to exchange them for others, and is confident of surviving, no matter how dark the future may appear. I am not interested in discussing whether this attitude is justified by reason and reality; I simply want to point out that it exists… I found it in the actions, the words and even the faces of almost everyone I met.

Americans, he notes more with curiosity than with condemnation, consider this disposition realism — but it is only a pseudo-realism, sustained by a willful blindness to uncomfortable realities — a form of culturally condoned hypocrisy that has become part of the national character. He writes:

When hypocrisy is a character trait it also affects one’s thinking, because it consists in the negation of all the aspects of reality that one finds disagreeable, irrational or repugnant.

Art by Dasha Tolstikova from Friend or Foe — an illustrated meditation on making unfrightened sense of difference.

And yet, in consonance with Baldwin and Mead’s distinction between guilt and responsibility, Paz insists that the fruitful attitude with which to face those disagreeable realities is not guilt, for guilt is never “transformed into anything other than hatred, solitary despair or blind idolatry.” The fruitful response — the responsible response — has to do with refusing to see ourselves as islanded in the river of time, unaccountable to and for history:

Contemporary history invalidates the belief in man as a creature whose essential being can be modified by social or pedagogical procedures. Man is not simply the result of history and the forces that activate it, as is now claimed; nor is history simply the result of human will, a belief on which the North American way of life is implicitly predicated. Man, it seems to me, is not in history: he is history.

Paz terms his meditation on these immensely complex and interleaved issues his “testimony” — a lovely term and a subtle way of acknowledging that all of our perspectives, however informed by a wide and deep understanding of history, however enriched by experience and empathy, are still at bottom subjective witnessings that render any self-appointed authority over absolute universal truth a farce. It is with this reverence for the shared and the subjective that he ends the chapter, reaching across the millennia, across the panoply of cultures, to wrest an elemental human truth:

A study of the great myths concerning the origin of man and the meaning of our presence on earth reveals that every culture — in the sense of a complex of values created and shared in common — stems from the conviction that man the intruder has broken or violated the order of the universe. He has inflicted a wound on the compact flesh of the world, and chaos, which is the ancient and, so to speak, natural condition of life, can emerge again from this aperture… Man collaborates actively in defending universal order, which is always being threatened by chaos. And when it collapses he must create a new one, this time his own. But exile, expiation and penitence should proceed from the reconciliation of man with the universe.

Art by Leo and Diane Dillon from Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum, 1973.

We have not, he laments, achieved this reconciliation — and out of this unmet longing arises a terror that rattles the root of our humanity:

We have lost our sense of the very meaning of all human activity, which is to assure the operation of an order in which knowledge and innocence, man and nature are in harmony.


It is possible that what we call “sin” is only a mythical expression of our self-consciousness, our solitude. I remember that in Spain during the civil war I had a revelation of “the other man” and of another kind of solitude: not closed, not mechanical, but open to the transcendent. No doubt the nearness of death and the brotherhood of men-at-arms, at whatever time and in whatever country, always produce an atmosphere favorable to the extraordinary, to all that rises above the human condition and breaks the circle of solitude that surrounds each one of us. But in those faces — obtuse and obstinate, gross and brutal, like those the great Spanish painters, without the least touch of complacency and with an almost flesh-and-blood realism, have left us — there was something like a desperate hopefulness, something very concrete and at the same time universal.

In yet another resonance with Baldwin’s insistence that “we’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” Paz concludes:

The memory will never leave me. Any one who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes, among all kinds of men. And he will dream of finding it again someday, somewhere, perhaps among those closest to him. In every man there is the possibility of his being — or, to be more exact, of his becoming once again — another man.

The Labyrinth of Solitude is a resplendent read in its entirety. Couple the vital human issues Paz explores in it with an equally vital non-human counterpart in the great nature writer Henry Beston’s reflections on otherness, belonging, and the dignity of difference, then revisit Toni Morrison on borders, belonging, and the violence of otherness, Walter Lippmann’s tremendous century-old treatise on the psychology of and the antidote to prejudice, and Baldwin’s prophetic insight into race and reality.


Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant Reads Audre Lorde’s Poignant Poem “The Bees”

A fierce anthem for the alternative to destruction.

Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant Reads Audre Lorde’s Poignant Poem “The Bees”

Bees hum the essential harmonics in the symphony of life — crucial pollinators responsible for our planet’s diversity, responsible for the flourishing of the entire food chain, responsible even for Earth’s resplendent colors. It is hardly a wonder that they have long moved poets, those essential harmonizers of human life, to rapture and reverie. Emily Dickinson reverenced “their velvet masonry,” Walt Whitman their “their perpetual rich mellow boom” and “great glistening swelling bodies,” and Ross Gay their murmured assurance, “saying everything is possible.”

And yet these tiny, tenacious creatures, older than us by millions and millions of years, now face the very real possibility of demise by colony collapse disorder — a direct consequence of the destructive choices we have made as a species. It is a terrifying thought, the possibility that the honey our ancestors took from them to tuck into the tombs of Egypt — a substance so miraculous that its deliciousness remains unspoiled by the passage of millennia — might outlast the entire species that makes the miracle.

It took another of humanity’s great poets to insist that against every choice of destruction, there is always the choice of creation; that against the extractionist, there is always the generative, against the exclusionary, always the inclusionary and the generous.

Audre Lorde (Photograph: Robert Alexander)

Half a century after Bertrand Russell observed that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) — a human miracle who catalogued herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and who became Poet Laureate of New York in the final year of her tragically truncated life — draws on these miraculous creatures for a delicate and powerful illustration of this counterbalance in her poem “The Bees,” originally written in 1974 and posthumously included the excellent anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (public library) pollinated by poet and essayist Camille T. Dungy.

At the fourth annual Universe in Verse, Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — whose unexampled one-woman orchestral storytelling masterpiece Ogresse, a lyrical meditation on race, otherness, belonging, and becoming, is one of the most original and breathtaking works of art I’ve ever seen — brought Lorde’s poem to life in a spare, stunning reading:

by Audre Lorde

In the street outside a school
what the children learn
possesses them.
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
in destruction
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.

Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”

For a conceptually kindred forgotten treasure, reach back across the epochs to George Sand’s only children’s book — a bee-inspired parable about choosing generosity and kindness over cynicism and destruction — then join me in supporting Cécile’s soulful art on Patreon and revisit Lorde on kinship across difference and the importance of unity in movements for social justice, the indivisibility of identity, and the courage to break silence.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor James Baldwin’s humanistic-scientific meditation on light and time set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Marie Howe’s poignant poem about our inter-belonging in an animated short film, and a breathtaking choral tribute to Rachel Carson’s courage by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and composer Paola Prestini.


Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“Until each breath refuses they, those, them…”

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“When we come to it,” Maya Angelou beckoned in her stunning cosmic vision for humanity, “when the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate…” Then, she bent the mind in language to remind us, and only then will we have risen to our cosmic destiny — a destiny built on the discipline of never forgetting, never daring let ourselves forget, our shared cosmic belonging. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.    Remember?” But we do forget, and so the minstrel show of hate remains with us; the curtain falls, only to rise again, as if to affirm Zadie Smith’s poignant observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

It is especially in times of uncertainty, in tremulous times of fear and loss, that the curtain rises and the minstrel show resumes — a show of hate that can be as vicious and pointed as the murderous violence human beings are capable of directing at one another, or as ambient and slow-seething as the deadly disregard for the universe of non-human lives with which we share this fragile, irreplaceable planet. “We don’t know where we belong,” Annie Dillard wrote in her gorgeous meditation on our search for meaning, “but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery.”

How to end the mockery and the minstrel show is what poet Jane Hirshfield — one of the most unboastfully courageous voices of our time, an ordained Buddhist, a more-than-humanitarian: a planetarian — explores in “Spell to Be Said against Hatred,” a miniature masterwork of quiet, surefooted insistence and persistence. Included in the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (public library) alongside contributions by Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, it is inhaled into life here by musician, activist, fellow more-than-humanitarian, and my darling friend Amanda Palmer.

by Jane Hirshfield

Until each breath refuses they, those, them.
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says, “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another. Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly: I.
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves bending. Until fear bows to its object as a bird’s shadow bows to its bird. Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles. Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat. Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing know themselves mirrors.
Until by we we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by I we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and
sounding and vanishing completely.
Until by until we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the
hunger, the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.

“Spell to Be Said against Hatred” was originally published in Hirshfield’s altogether soul-resuscitating collection Ledger (public library), which also gave us the wonderful “Today, Another Universe.” Complement it with Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity” and a soulful reading of Hirshfield’s splendid succor for resilience, “The Weighing,” then revisit Amanda’s enchanting readings of “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.


The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

A subversive Victorian-tinted infusion of romantic realism.

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Great loves, like great works of art, live at the crossing point of the improbable and the inevitable. That, at least, has been my experience, both as a scholar of history and as a private participant in the lives of the heart. Such loves come unbidden, without warning or presentiment, and that is their supreme insurance against the projectionist fantasy that so frequently disguises not-love — infatuation, obsession, jealousy, longing — as love. But when they do come, with all the delirium of the improbable, they enter the house of the heart as if they have always lived there, instantly at home; they enter like light bending at a certain angle to reveal, without fuss or fanfare, some corner of the universe for the very first time — but the corner has always been there, dusty and dim, and the light has always been ambient, unlensed and unbent into illumination. For great love, as the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her splendid meditation on its mystery, is “never justified” but is rather “like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”

That improbable and inexplicable miracle is what Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925–April 15, 2000) celebrates with his signature faux-terse tenderness and soulful oddness in the vintage gem The Osbick Bird (public library).

Written in 1969 — several years after Gorey created his now-iconic Gashlycrumb Tinies, but well before his work for PBS and his fantastical reimagining of Dracula made him a household name — it was originally published under Gorey’s own Fantod Press, whose author list included such venerated names as Ogdred Weary, Madame Groeda Weyrd, O. Müde, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Garrod Weedy, and the Oprah-like first-name-only Om — Gorey’s delightful menagerie of pseudonyms.

Edward Gorey by Richard Avedon (Richard Avedon Foundation)

This tiny treasure of a book, itself improbable and inevitable given its subject and its creator’s nature, lay dormant and forgotten for decades, until Pomegranate Press, heroic stewards of Gorey’s legacy, resurrected it twelve years after he became the posthumous author he had always lived as.

In spare lines and spare verses, Gorey tells the singsong story of the osbick bird — a creature of his wild and wondrous imagination — who alights one day to lonely, dignified Emblus Figby’s bowler hat, out of the blue, or rather, out of the sky-implying negative space of Gorey’s minimalist, consummately cross-hatched black-and-white worldscapes.

And then, just like that, Emblus Figby and the osbick bird commence a life together — as if life was always meant to be lived in this particular tandem; as if each of the two was written into being just to complete the other’s rhyme.

This charmingly eccentric shared life unspools in Gorey’s playful verses, evocative of Victorian nursery rhymes, and when the spool runs out, Gorey’s romantic realism takes over — the osbick bird flits out of the frame just like it had flitted into it, by that miraculous consonance of the improbable and the inevitable.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written a century earlier in the final passage of On the Origin of Species — in the view that death is the very mechanism ensuring the unstoppable ongoingness of life, the fulcrum by which ever shifts into after. There is grandeur, too, in Gorey’s subversive ending. There is beauty and bravery in its counterpoint to our incomplete happily-ever-after cultural mythos and its deep-seated denial of death as an integral part of life, and therefore of love; beauty and bravery in the reminder that the measure of a great love — as of a great life — is not in the happy ending, for all endings followed to the ultimate finality are the same, but in all the happy durings.

Complement The Osbick Bird with Shell Silverstein’s tender line-drawn allegory for the simple secret of true love, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of its loss and W.H. Auden on what it means to be the more loving one.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust courtesy of Pomegranate Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.


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