The Nobel Prize in Literature 1990
Presentation Speech by Professor Kjell
Espmark, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded, for the second time in succession, to a writer from the Spanish-speaking world, it is a reminder of the exceptional literary vitality and richness of this sphere in our age. However, our main focus is on one of its most brilliant representatives: the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz. The prize citation indicates what is perhaps most immediately striking in his writing: his passion and his integrity. We find them united in the energetic non serviam - the refusal to serve - that this poet addresses to various quarters. On one occasion he throws his "no" against the leftist utopia of an all-powerful society, on another his protest is directed against a capitalism lacking ethics and culture. But he also asserts his integrity vis-à-vis the heritage that is so alive to this great humanist - only by confronting tradition can the poet establish a real dialogue with the past.
Paz's most familiar "no" is his resignation from the post as the ambassador of his country in New Delhi, in protest against the massacre of demonstrating students in the Plaza de Tlatelolco in 1968. But this outrage is, in his eyes, an outburst emanating from a troublesome past that lives on in our midst. Distant times and distant regions exist in the here and now. Indian and Japanese experience has a presence as natural as the Aztec calendar. Mexico's great 17th-Century poet is in that way a contemporary: in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Paz recognizes not only the distinctive Mexican character but also the intellectuals from our century who are transformed, under the pressure of a totalitarian inquisition, into their own prosecutors.
Most remarkable is how these broad configurations in time and space are condensed in a handful of words. Paz is, in Carlos Fuentes's phrase, "the great welder." Throwing off torrents of sparks, his paradoxes link the most differing entities. A central concept is "the eternal moment" - the frequent scene of Paz's poetry. In the magnificent long poem Piedra de sol (Sunstone) from 1957 we face a present in flames where "all of the names are a single name,/all of the faces a single face,/all of the centuries a single moment." It is, we learn, "a moment/chiselled from the dream" - and thus a reminder of the early influences of surrealism, which precisely forced different times, regions, and identities to merge in one single here, now, and I, dictated by the logic of the dream. But Paz is also one of the great love poets of his language and in his central poetry it is less the dream than the sensual communion that overcomes all distinctions, as when the two, "dizzy and entwined, fall/on the grass," "the sky comes down," space "nothing but light and silence," and "we lose our names," floating adrift between "blue and green" in "total time" (Piedra de sol). Also in the latest collection of poems, Árbol adentro (A Tree Within), love can in this way erase what limits us: it opens "the forbidden door" and "takes us to the other side of time."
Of special importance is the welding together of thought and sensuousness. This is a great theme in modern poetry. T.S. Eliot thus went back to the English 17th-Century poets who could still "feel their thoughts as immediately as the odour of a rose". In a similar way, Paz draws strength from the original Indian poetry of his country in his striving for the "sensuous intelligence" indicated by the prize citation. "Reason is incarnated at last," as he says in a poem from 1948. By welding together thinking and sensuousness Paz can give an immediate palpability to his continuous reflection on poetry, both when he participates in the mission of "spelling" the world, giving it a name and thereby a visibility, and when, as a reader, he finds himself watched from the whispering "foliage of the letters" (Pasado en claro). With such a method he can depict time in all its obtrusive ominousness, and give love power to surmount it.
Dear Dr. Paz,
It has been my task to give a picture of your writing in a few minutes. It is like trying to press a continent into a walnut shell - a feat for which the language of criticism is poorly equipped. This is, however, what you have managed to do, again and again, in poems which have, quite rightly, an improbably high specific gravity. I am happy to convey the cordial congratulations of the Swedish Academy to a writer of such substance. I now ask you to receive from the hands of His Majesty the King this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture AllÚn, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1990