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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Octavio Paz

Mexican-born poet and essayist Octavio Paz was a titan of North American Modernist poetry and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. While Paz wrote extensively about the country of his birth, he was a world traveler as well. Paz served as a diplomat in both France and India. Read on to learn more about this accomplished man of letters. 

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Octavio Paz.  


Paz’s best-known work may be his 1950 book-length essay, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Consisting of nine sections (“The Pachuco and other Extremes,” “Mexican Masks,” “The Day of the Dead,” “The Sons of La Malinche,” “From Independence to the Revolution,” “The Mexican Intelligence,” “The Present Day,” and “The Dialect of Solitude”), The Labyrinth of Solitude is a close reading of Mexican culture and history. Paz begins his essay by exploring the character of The Pachuco, a name for Mexican-American teens in the 1930s and 40s. These Pachucos, who rejected both their Mexican and their American heritage, are described by Paz as “sheer negative impulse, a tangle of contradictions.” Paz argues that this alienation and associated hermeticism is a crucial part of Mexican culture. (For a definition of hermeticism, a decent summary can be found here on Wikipedia.)


Paz traces the origins of Mexicans’ self-protective isolation to the early days of European conquest. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz invests La Malinche, an enslaved woman who served as the conquistador Hernán Cortés’ interpreter and concubine, with a certain metaphorical significance. According to Paz, La Malinche’s dual loyalties reflect the split among Mexicans between European and indigenous traditions. Mexico’s people, Paz argues, are the product of Cortés’ assault of La Malinche. As such, they are intent on avoiding a similar violation by refusing to open themselves up. 


Seven years after The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz wrote “Sunstone,” a 584-line poem. “Sunstone” is meant to evoke the circular Aztec calendar, and it is written as a single, cyclical sentence. The poem’s beginning repeats at its conclusion, suggesting an eternal loop that “doubles back, and comes full circle / forever arriving.” Paz references other mythical traditions beyond the Aztec in the poem, addressing Melusina, Persephone, Mary, and even Petrarch’s love Laura. Although “Sunstone” is Modernist in its tone, it does not surrender to the Modernist impulse towards despair. Paz finds something redemptive in the natural world, memorably opening the poem by describing a “willow of crystal, a poplar of water.” 


In his The Bow and the Lyre, Octavio Paz examines how poetry relates to everyday life. Subtitled “The Poem, the Poetic Revelation, Poetry and History,” The Bow and the Lyre draws its title from a fragment by Heraclitus. 


While serving as an ambassador in India, Paz wrote this ambitious, hybrid novel-essay-poem. The Monkey Grammarian bounces back and forth in time, from Paz’s home in Cambridge, England to the Indian temples of Galta. The work’s subject matter is similarly wide-ranging, with Paz exploring the nature of language and even being itself, using the legends of the Hindu grammarian Hanuman as a unifying thread. 


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out: 

  • Read this article to learn more about the Aztec Calendar Stone!

  • La Malinche has been viewed as a traitor, a victim, or both since Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs.  Who was this woman?

  • Paz resigned as a diplomat in protest against the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre.  Find out more about this tragic event here.

  • For a deeper dive into the philosophy of Heraclitus, check out this video.

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