Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

West Turns East at the End of History

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, Octavio Paz was Latin America’s great poet, essayist and critic whose most enduring work was The Labyrinth of Solitude. We would often meet in the late afternoon over scotch on ice at his apartment on Reforma in Mexico City, the warm afternoon rain pounding against the windows of his book-lined study, gazing out toward the Angel of Independence column in the center of that daunting megalopolis. 

Over the years, we collaborated on several issues of Vuelta, a small but influential journal like NPQ. Paz believed that “the most important things can be said at the margins beyond the entertainment and commercial imperatives of the mass media.”

Though petty literary politics sometimes intruded, Paz was a truly magnanimous soul whose entire life was an exploration. Everything interested him, from Surrealism to the Indian caste system (he was the Mexican ambassador to India before resigning in 1968 to protest the student massacre at Tlatelolco). He liked to quote Baudelaire, saying that poets were universal translators because they translate the language of the universe—stars, water, trees—into the language of man.

Paz died in 1998. We held this conversation in 1992. It also appeared in Vuelta as “La Transformacion del Tiempo: El Encuentro de Oriente y Occidente.”

Nathan Gardels | In your essay “Breach and Convergence,” you argue that rational skepticism, or the critical spirit that is the hallmark of modernism, has undermined faith in a unitary truth and led to the acceptance of plural truths. This spirit has led not only to other ways of seeing but also to the discovery of other cultures. And, in a final negation, perhaps, it has demolished its own clock, the modern clock of progress, or linear time—History with a capital “H.”

The “hours which have lost their clock,” in the lament of the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, have now been liberated to march at their own tempo. As the world view of modernism recedes, the extraordinary diversity of times and cultures that had been hidden beneath the shadow of universality is reemerging.

Some have called this condition “postmodern.” You reject that name. You call it “time without measure,” or “pure time.” Why?

Octavio Paz | Western civilization is experiencing a fundamental change in its temporal imagination. We have to reset our clocks. To call the present condition “postmodern” is still to refer to modernity; it is to fall into the trap of linear time, the narrative from which we have departed altogether.

Modernism, with its notion of progress, was really a kind of exaggeration of the linear time of Judeo-Christian civilization, moving forward from a moment of Creation and the Fall into sin toward Redemption and Paradise. It has always meant leaving the past behind in the name of something different or better in the time ahead.

Modernism started in the eighteenth century with criticism as a philosophical method. Then modernism emerged as a political method—revolution—that was critical of what existed in the name of the utopia that could be...Finally, modernism became an artistic method—that avant-garde, which made a radical break with cultural tradition.

Modernism produced many good things. Above all, as you mentioned, the recognition of “other” civilizations. This opened the possibility of assimilating foreign traditions into Western culture, from Oriental poetry to the African masks and sculpture that stimulated cubism. Poets adopted the Japanese haiku, and Ezra Pound translated Chinese poetry. The Noh theater influenced Yeats and other playwrights.

Indeed, the first third of the 20th century was the culmination of a long process of the discovery of other civilizations and their visions of reality. This process, begun in the 16th century with the exploration of the American continent, resulted in our time in the adoption of artistic forms that were not only different from, but contrary to, the mainstream tradition of the West.

The assimilation of the “other” into the Eurocentric imagination was the consequence of the aesthetic revolution that began with Romanticism. It also finally ended a tradition that had begun with the Renaissance, drawing its inspiration from Greco-Roman antiquity. By denying this tradition in the search for other forms of beauty, modern art ruptured the continuity of the West.

In the present moment we have a different vision of tradition, a way of assimilating the past but not breaking with it. An example of this today can be seen in architecture, which quotes both modern and neoclassical styles. This new vision is also a way of simultaneously assimilating other cultures with which we live in juxtaposition. And, as never before at the end of this century, there exist simultaneous forms of art. One moment neoexpressionism, minimalism the next.

The other important organizing principle of modern society has been the idea of the “future.” Each civilization has a different idea of time. For medieval societies, the important thing was eternity—time outside time—and the past. They didn’t believe in the future. They knew very well that the world would soon be condemned to extinction. The point was to save one’s soul and not to try to save the world.

But modernity had a different conception: it was not the individual soul that could be saved, but the human race itself through “progress.” The future on earth was the modern paradise that could be realized by all in the same march of “History.” Under modernity, we sought collective, secular redemption—redemption inside time.

Now, we have lost our faith in “progress” and discovered the present, which, unlike the future, we know we can touch. The totalitarian attempt to reach the future has utterly collapsed. And even the great land of the open future, the United States, has become the land of “now.” Some years ago this sensibility was simplistically formulated in the slogan “paradise now.” Even crudely stated, this slogan nonetheless offers some idea of the temper of our societies.

In short, temporal succession no longer rules our imagination, which has retreated from the future to the present. We live instead in that conjunction of times and spaces, of synchronicity and confluence, which converge in the “pure time” of the instant.

One sees this, too, in the scientific developments of our day—with the new stress on chance and the random convergence of forces instead of logical causality. Coherence and equilibrium are the momentary exception, disequilibrium the rule. Linguistics has also discovered synchronicity.

This time without measure is not optimistic. It doesn’t propose paradise now. It recognizes death, which the modern cult of the future denies, but also embraces the intensity of life. In the moment, the dark and the luminous side of human nature are reconciled.

The paradox of the instant is that it is simultaneously all time and no time. It is here, and it is gone. It is the point of equilibrium between being and becoming.

Gardels | Here you sound like Ilya Prigogine, the theoretical physicist known for his work in chaos theory, who looks to art to find a new model of nature in science. Prigogine says that our role is not to lament the past. “What we have in mind,” he says, “may be expressed best by a reference to sculpture—be it the dancing Shiva or in the miniature churches of Guerrero—in which there appears very clearly the search for a junction between stillness and motion, time arrested and time passing. It is this confrontation that will give our era its uniqueness.”

Paz | I think Prigogine is right. The instant is a window to the other side of time — eternity. The other world can be glimpsed in the flash of its existence. It this sense, poets – muses of the moment—have always had something to show modern man.

The haiku of the Oriental tradition show this. In the West, our great poets, such as Czeslaw Milosz, have shared this perception of the instant, or the moment, as the reconciliation between three times – the past, the present, and eternity.

Gardels | The poetics of the instant you call “time without measure,” Czeslaw Milosz calls “the eternal moment”:

Whoever finds order
Peace, and an eternal moment in what is
Passes without trace. Do you agree then
To abolish what is, and take from movement
The eternal moment as a gleam
On the current of a black river? Yes.

Milosz describes in verse his pursuit of the Truth but his discovery of the moment:

I was running through room after room without
Stopping....for I believed in a last door.
But the shape of lips and an apple and a flower
Pinned to a dress were all I was permitted to
Know and to take away.

You mentioned the haiku. In the poet’s embrace of the moment, one finds the same sensibility as in a typical Japanese haiku:

Penetrating the rocks
The sounds of cicada

Paz | These lines express very well what we have been talking about. Other poets and mystics in the Western tradition, such as William Blake and, although he was a Christian, St. John of the Cross, express the same sensibility. Wordsworth was the poet of great moments. What is the “prelude” of Wordsworth, after all? It is the history of a man who has a few moments of illumination. And that, for him, was enough. It is not that all these poets or mystics East and West believe in the same thing. No. But at the same time they are saying something that is universal and touches the experience of all mankind.

Gardels | How is this aesthetic of the moment any different, really, than Nietzsche’s idea of “art, and nothing but art” in the absence of any transcendent meaning? Because God was fiction, and there were thus no ethics, his idea was that aesthetics, the fiction of man, was the highest expression of existence, “the great ennobler of life.”

Paz | Nietzsche was attractive in his belief that “art desires life.” He wanted to dance in the abyss. But he also had a tragic vision of mankind without the possibility of redemption.

What we need to build now is not only an aesthetics and a poetics of the convergent moment, but an ethics and a politics that follow from this perception of time and reality. In such a new civilization, the present would not be sacrificed for the future or for eternity. Now would the present be lived, as consumer societies do, in the denial of death. Rather, we would live in the full freedom of our diversity and sensuality in the certain knowledge of death.

The ethical foundations of the new civilization would extol this freedom and creativity without illusion; it would seek to preserve the plurality of the present—the plurality of different times and the presence of the “other.” Its politics would be a dialogue of cultures.

But plurality alone, as Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky understood, leads to nihilism. If there is no God, everything is permitted. Without such a higher unity, we only tolerate difference because we are equally indifferent to everything and everyone.

Relativism helped us discover different cultures and different moralities. It helped us discover that atheists as well as Buddhists or Christians can be saints. Each culture has a validity by itself. But how do we compare them and choose? In the case of Mexico, for example, how can we say that capitalism is better than human sacrifice? According to relativism, they are equal.

That is why we must seek to discover the unifying thread amid our extraordinary diversity. In the absence of a general perspective of mankind, and universal ethics, on what basis do we claim that one is morally superior to the other?

We must resist modern relativism and the deconstruction of reality into nothingness and moral indifference. Reason must be our guide in this resistance. Not the absolute, totalizing reason of Plato, but the limited reason of Immanuel Kant, reason that is able to criticize itself.

The instant, I believe, can be a point of departure for this new unity. In the moment, plurality can meet unity; the particular can be the universal. Out of the debris of the great narratives of our civilization—Christianity, Marxism, liberalism —this new morality will be born.

Gardels | There is much talk these post-Cold War days about the “end of history” in the Hegelian sense—history that advanced through the temporal contradictions and conflicts of the unfolding world spirit, but that now reposes in the relative peace of the present. But aren’t we really talking about something more profound? With the repeal of the future and the end of linear time, the end of the avant-garde...

Paz | ...and the end of Hegel...

Gardels | ...isn’t the civilizational development we are witnessing really the end of the Judeo-Christian conception of time?

Paz | In a sense, we are undergoing a shift no less profound than the transition from the Greek idea of cyclical time to the Judeo-Christian idea of temporal succession.

The monotheistic Judeo-Christian idea was that each civilization had the same conception of time. With the relativism of modernity, however, we discovered that each civilization has its own clock. We found that the Greeks and the Romans, for instance, didn’t believe in historical progress. And neither did the Chinese, the Hindus, or other polytheistic civilizations.  Since we now accept the plurality of civilizations, and thus of conceptions of time, the idea of one direction of time for all mankind has been demolished.

Yet, I don’t know if we can “end” a tradition as powerful and deep as Christianity. Christianity didn’t abolish the pagan traditions; it assimilated them. After all, without Greek philosophy the church could not have built Christian philosophy. In our time it will be the same.

Gardels | Having discarded one truth in favor of plural truths, and having demolished the Western clock to trust only the moment, the critical tradition of modernism seems to have led us in the last decade of the twentieth century to where the East has long been.

Listen to Japanese literary critic Shuichi Kato:

In the  Japanese tradition, time has no beginning and no end. The whole continuous thread of existence is not broken into parts or periods. Consequently, the “here and now” has an autonomous importance without reference to the past or the future. No master story has been authored by a transcendent being, or traced in a grand comprehensive theory.

There is also no conception that “history” is made by the human decision to move from the past to the promised land.

The Japanese emphasis on the concrete here and now explains the paucity of utopian ideas in Japanese tradition. Japanese perceptions of time and space are clearly reflected in the arts. The haiku, which catches the impression of a single fleeting instant, illustrates the aesthetic of the moment.

Similarly, Kabuki theater, which is composed of acts with independent meanings that are weakly related to each other, relies on immediate sensitivities to decipher the meaning. Japanese music is not constructed as a single, continuous work, but arises from each separate note and the relationship between tones and pauses.

Other Japanese thinkers, such as Takeshi Umehara, stress the polytheistic religious imagination dating back to the ancient forest civilization of Japan; and, of course, there is the “ying-yang” simultaneous presence of, as you put it, the dark and the luminous.

Plural paths, not one Way. In the religious imagination, polytheism, not monotheism. The convergence of times, not linear causality. Synchronicity. The absence of utopias. The aesthetic of the moment. These are the new conditions of the West we have been discussing. It seems that, at the “end of history,” East meets West.

Paz | This is very true. I have believed this now for many years. I am the son of Western civilization, not Oriental or pre-Columbian civilization. But I think we in the West are only now discovering what the East discovered millennia ago. But they too are discovering things the West first discovered—democracy, for example, and science.

In the Chinese classic I Ching, we can see the premonition of what we are now realizing. The I Ching depends on the simultaneous presence of a number of causes, on the confluence of influences, not singular causality.

When I was ambassador to India, I came to learn that all the great thinkers of the Oriental tradition came from India. The Chinese and Japanese took many of the metaphysical ideas of India and adapted them into Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and so on. What the Indians tried to do many centuries ago was to construct a critique of reality. They believed that reality was nothingness. The real—Brahma, nirvana—was beyond apparent reality.

I have long felt that the West needed to make a similar critique of time. We have believed too much in time.

In a way, we are more prepared than others to make this critique of time because Christianity—even if it affirms the process of time as “history,” as a sacred tragedy from the Creation to the Fall of Adam to the Redemption—knows that this reality we touch is not the real one. The true reality is outside time.

Modernity made a criticism of the time beyond, proposing that paradise was not there but here, in History and the future. Now we have learned that History and the future are illusions.

That is why we in the West are now prepared to accept a critique of time that leads us to a very similar perception as those civilizations that long ago undertook the critique of reality.

Gardels | Because the aesthetic of the moment in Japan cannot find its creative impulse in forward historical movement and conflict the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki argues that it tends to exhaust itself over time in the endless refinement of ultimately empty forms, periodically requiring foreign influence to jump-start the creative process. How will the “aesthetic of the moment” avoid stasis in the West?

Paz | The avant-garde was driven by its escape from the past into the future. That new art will be built from the debris of the avant-garde. The new impulse will arise from the conflicts of confluence, from the frictions of diversity and plurality—and their reconciliation.

Japan itself is relatively homogeneous, which is why, standing alone, it tends toward paralysis and precisely requires the “Other” for stimulus. In the West, as a result of modernist criticism, we have assimilated the “other” into our own imagination.

Gardels | East may be meeting West at the end of History, but Islam, in its confirmed monotheism and belief in the Absolute, seems the odd civilization out.

Paz | Islam today is the most obstinate form of monotheism. We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals to mosques. But we also owe to monotheism hatred and oppression. The roots of the worst signs of Western civilization – crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism, even ecological destruction—can be traced to monotheism.

For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith could monopolize the truth. Outside Islam, the world again sees it that way. Islam stands alone. It is the most reactionary force in the world today.

The marvelous thing about Western civilization is that we could criticize religion with the weapon of philosophy and reason. And then we could criticize philosophy, or rationality, with the weapon of philosophy.

Even though Islam knew the Greek tradition before us—Islam translated Aristotle before us—it never rejected the belief that fate, the coherence of incoherence, was superior to reason. Thanks to Islam, whose scholars passed on to us knowledge of the Greeks, we have Thomist philosophy. But Islam doesn’t have it. And without the reconciliation of faith with science in Islam, there will be great conflict with the vast relativist civilization that now stretches through most of Asia, across the Americas, to Europe.