02 January, 2008

An intellectual homeland

Reading Octavio Paz's 1993 Itinerario (Itinerary), a memoir of sorts in which the aged poet, essayist and diplomat, who died in 1998, reflects upon his intellectual and artistic journey. One the most striking passages so far was his description of his arrival in Paris in 1945 as a young writer:

It was a very rich period, not only in terms of literature as such – poetry and novels – but also with regard to ideas and the art of the essay. I followed the political and philosophical debates with ardor. An intense atmosphere: passion for ideas, intellectual rigor, and at the same time, a marvelous accessibility. In short order I found kindred spirits who shared my intellectual and aesthetic concerns. In that cosmopolitan atmosphere – French, Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Argentineans, North Americans – I breathed freely. I was not from there, but nonetheless I felt that there I had an intellectual homeland. A homeland that did not ask me for my identification papers.

Ours is an age, as indeed it was in 1945, marked by the twin and reinforcing cruelties of dislocation and xenophobia, and Paz's description of a borderless intellectual brotherhood resonates with me still. The phrase "intellectual homeland" at once encapsulates the insufficiencies and the suffocations of the nation-state while depicting the precarious nature of the individual as situated between the poles of solitude and communion -- poetry and society -- that Paz saw as defining the movements of human existence. That creative conflict between separation -- as Paz was separated from his Mexico -- and belonging -- as he came to belong to an ill-defined and transitory circle of like-minded debasers -- also describe my periods of life abroad.

My Valparaiso was little like Paz's Paris. And even if it had been, part of Paz's point is that one's intellectual homeland may not last, as his did not. Still, I think his is the best description that I have found of what I am looking for.


Indigo said...

To whom does one become kindered when he is unable to discover the intellectual human among the multitudes? Panem et circensis!

Indigo said...

To whom does one become kindered when he is unable to discover the intellectual human among the multitudes? Panem et circensis!

Elliot said...

Indigo, that is a question I have thought much about, both in its implications and its premises (i.e. are the multitudes only interested in bread and circuses? If so, is that a fundamental state of affairs, or only the byproduct of a historically specific social order? Why do I care, anyway?)

As for me, Literature was my first, and continues to be my main answer to the alienation you seem to be describing: though I felt distant from my society, I found my family in Paz and Lorca, Ginsberg and Frost, Rumi and Hafiz. I understood these men much better than the businessmen I passed on the street. Though with a bit more age I understand their worlds muchy better, and frequently enjoy visiting them, I am still always just that -- a visitor.