Sun, 30 July 2017
This is part 2 in a 2-part series on Labyrinth of Solitude.
In this episode I’m going to perform a quick medical diagnosis of one of the best books written about Mexico. And also one of the most self-indulgent and cringeworthy books ever written. First we’re gonna talk about teenagers, then we’re gonna talk about Coca-Cola, and then we’re gonna talk about the major, glaring flaw with this book, because huge parts of Octavio Paz’s masterpiece are completely unreadable, while other parts are completely perfect.
This is not an attempt to summarize the book. If you’ve ever read it, you probably understand how difficult a task that would be. If you haven’t read it, it’s an impossible task.
So rather than condensing it, I’ll instead point out some of the parts that were most interesting to me.
The Pachuco and Other Extremes
Paz writes that many of the thoughts that inspired him to write Labyrinth of Solitude came to him when he was in the United States. He wanted to understand American culture, but he kept seeing himself reflected in his questions about American customs.
He writes about a chicano subculture called Pachucos. They got their style of dress from a character called Tin Tan, played by the actor German Valdes, in the early 1950s. The guy was somewhere between The Fonz from Happy Days, Charlie Chaplin, and Robert De Niro’s take on The Godfather, as opposed to Marlon Brando. Octavio Paz says the Pachuco style came as a response to being Mexican in racist-Post War America. Pachucos were adolescents who didn’t want to go back to being Mexican, but also didn’t want to try to pass as white.
And in my own estimation the Pachuco falls into the trap every adolescent falls into: Trying to prove his/her distinctness and individuality by totally conforming to the rigid rules of whatever subculture or counterculture they gravitate towards.
Paz writes that the adolescent cannot forge himself, because when a person finally forges themselves, they are no longer an adolescent.
According to Paz, the Pachuco is the product of two irreconcilable worlds: Mexico and the United States. In my opinion the adolescent mind is tortured by that supposed dichotomy and therefore lashes out. The adolescent wants to fit in somewhere, because an adolescent is still a child and still wants someone to protect him. By taking on the outward appearance of a particular subculture, the adolescent hopes that subculture will protect him from the hardships of the world.
This is possibly why pop stars like Selena as well as academics find themselves struggling incessantly with biculturality. Selena was 23 when she died. That’s only slightly older than a college graduate. And anyone who spends their entire life in a college will probably not mature very much beyond that point. So we find people like Gloria Anzaldua who are much older than people like Selena but who still write about how tortured they are by being between two cultures.
The adolescent mind of a pop star in their early 20s and the adolescent mind of a career academic need to go through a long process before forging themselves into adulthood.
I’m reading another book about Mexico…which, duh, obviously. But I came across something by another writer that completely validates Octavio Paz’s explanation of mexicanness. It’s about Coca-Cola.
If you want to be politically fashionable in Western liberal democracies in 2017, you can never even imply that a gigantic multinational corporation could ever be right about anything in any way. Ever.
Well, since I turned 30 I’ve stopped caring about the contemporary political orthodoxy. So screw it.
Coca-Cola is right about something.
They wanted to boost sales of Diet Coke in Mexico, so they did a study. When a huge corporation has billions of dollars on the line, their studies aren’t arbitrary and they don’t play BS word games.
For some background here, in case you didn’t know, Coke is an absolute beast in Mexico. I’ve only met one person who didn’t like Coke here. No, I hvaen’t asked every single person I’ve ever met whether they like Coke. Anyway, Coke is huge in Mexico. There is not a single village that doesn’t have a store where you can buy Coke.
Okay, maybe there’s one. But you can even buy Coca-Cola from Zapatistas. Subcomandante Marcos probably has some Coke in his fridge.
Mexico is usually among the world’s top consumers of soft drinks, depending on the survey and the year.
Diet Coke was about 30% of all Coca-Cola products sold in the United States, but it was only 2% in Mexico. So Coke wanted to know why.
There are two important findings from their study.
One, Mexican men think Diet Coke is for girls, and they don’t want to be seen in public drinking it.
And that’s true. Diet Coke is for girls. Girls who like the taste of a dentist office. And guys who like the taste of a dentist office.
Now here’s the part where I have to again recognize the total brilliance of Octavio Paz. I’m getting this Coke story from Andres Oppenheimer, but Coke is totally validating Paz from a hardcore capitalist perspective. Here it goes:
The second finding is that Mexicans are quote unquote compensators. Compensators are a small category in the United States, but much bigger in Mexico.
A compensator will overeat and then repent the next day, and try to undo the damage, but revert to the old behavior shortly thereafter.
By the way, that’s what makes Mexican parties so great.
In the U.S. most people will either drink Coke OR Diet Coke almost exclusively. In Mexico Coca-Cola found that people will drink tons of Coke one day and just generally go overboard in every way, and the next day they’ll try to make up for it by drinking Diet Coke.
It reminds me of when I worked in a Mexican restaurant. In this example it was actually an American who would order the biggest, greasiest thing we had…and actually this happened all the time. I worked at three fast food joints and a couple restaurants, and it happened in all those places. People would get the unhealthiest thing on the menu and then “GIVE ME A DIET COKE.” I guess the only difference here is the on-the-spot repentance or compensation. Or maybe they drink it for the taste… I’m not sure which is worse.
Moving away from mass market sugar water…
Paz writes that Mexicans like to work slowly and carefully, paying attention to all the small details, and that Mexicans have an innate good taste that is an ancient heritage.
There are certainly a lot of great products made by serious artisans who are dedicated to their craft, but there’s an even greater amount of crap. That’s normal. That’s the same in any country.
There’s a huge amount of slowly and lovingly crafted stuff in Mexico. The craft beer scene is still emerging and it still belongs to people who love beer. Mexico’s big beer conglomerates haven’t caught on to the profit they could make yet, and especially in Oaxaca where I live, there are only a few brands and a few micro or nano-breweries. They use Mexican ingredients, too. There’s beer infused with mezcal, Jamaica, tejate, and I’m sure a dedicated beer connosiuer could find American or European companies making those flavors, there’s some really cool stuff happening with Mexican beer.
Then there are the mezcal and tequila artisans. Some of them stick rigidly to tradition and some of them experiment. Both avenues are wonderful. Since mezcal is getting its extended 15 minutes of fame, you can find upscale mezcal bars as well as the seedier joints, and if you know what to look for you can get great stuff in both kinds of places.
There’s not a huge variety of Mexican cheese, at least not that I’ve found, but it’s all great pretty much anywhere you find it.
I’m not gonna bother getting into what is and is not artisanry, but by any definition there is great artisanry as well as complete crap.
As I mentioned before, Vast portions of Labyrinth of Solitude are completely unreadable, and I blame that on Octavio Paz’s career as a poet. He thinks so deeply about some things that his thoughts lose all meaning. And again it’s the echo chamber that academics fall into. And then not only is he writing things that mean nothing, but he puts them into overly poetic nonsense prose. Take this passage for instance:
“Man is alone everywhere, but the solitude of the Mexican, under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable gods, is very different from that of the North American, who wanders in an abstract world of machines, fellow citizens, and moral precepts. In the Valley of Mexico man feels himself suspended between heaven and earth, and he oscillates between contrary powers and forces, and petrified eyes and devouring mouths. Reality – that is the world that surrounds us – exists by itself here, has a life of its own and was not invented by man as it was in the United States. The Mexican feels himself to have been torn from the womb of this reality, which is both creative and destructive, both Mother and Tomb. He has forgotten the word that ties him to all those forces through which life manifests itself. Therefore he shouts or keeps silent, stabs or prays, or falls asleep for 100 years.”
If that passage made any sense, or if Paz was actually trying to say something real, then there would be too much wrong with it to even know where to begin. But ultimately they’re just pretty words that mean nothing, because the author is a poet who has spent too much time being terrified at his own solitude and now often forgets that he’s writing a thing that’s going to be read by other people who are also alone and therefore not inside of Octavio Paz’s mind, which would be the reason to publish something, so that you can explain your oh-so-poetic solitude to someone else who’s also alone in a cold/harsh/painful/oppressive world that only poetry can sweeten or illuminate.
There simply aren’t enough drugs on Earth to make that paragraph comprehensible. It’s sort of like reading dense theological justifications of things like transubstantiation or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Also, most of his writing has some really haunting similarities to critical theory, which is the academic language of Marxism. And since Paz was a Marxist at this particular point in his life, it makes sense that his writing contains those scary, mechanical, dehumanizing thoughts and fixations that most Marxist writing has.
But I do agree with his assertion that the differences between Mexico and the U.S. are not merely economic. In other words, if everyone in Mexico and the U.S. had the same income and the same access to the same products and services, the two countries would still be very different.
The major flaw with Labyrinth of Solitude is Paz’s career as a poet. The word lacerate appears on almost every page. Mexican traditions are constantly compared to a firecracker exploding in the air and disappearing, or a bullet fired into the air.
The only thing Paz likes more than the word lacerate are commas. In many, many sentences, nearly every single word will have a comma after it. Here’s an example: “Spanish Catholicism has always expressed the same will; [semicolon] hence, [comma] perhaps, [comma] its belligerent, [comma] authoritarian, [comma] inquisitorial tone.” Maybe that’s just a problem with the translation, but I doubt it. That’s what happens when writers try too hard to sound like what they imagine writers sound like, trying to impress other writers who also try too hard to sound like writers. And I think that’s why poetry never gets taken as seriously as poets want, because they make no effort to write something that non-poets can understand or would ever care about.
Thank you for listening to my absurd opinions on one of Mexico’s greatest literary treasures. I promise I will be back in one week to continue defiling this sacred cultural artefact.