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The Roots of Transformation: Octavio Paz and the Radical Americanist Awakening of Pablo Neruda

  • Author(s): Cooper, Daniel
  • Advisor(s): van Delden, Maarten H.
  • et al.

In this dissertation I examine the roots of one of twentieth-century Latin America’s most crucial literary exchanges, namely, that between the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and his Mexican counterpart Octavio Paz. Specifically, I focus on their initial point of contact in 1937, when the much younger Paz sent his recently published poem Ra�z del hombre to his idol Neruda, then living in Paris where he was organizing the Congress of Antifascist Writers in the context of the Spanish Civil War. While Neruda never elaborated on his appreciation for Ra�z del hombre beyond the cryptic detail in his memoir of having identified in it “un germen verdadero,” it is understood that he invited Paz to the Congress based on his positive reading. Therefore, and in light of the gaping hole in the Neruda-Paz scholarship whereby no systematic examination of this first point of contact exists, I offer a speculative “Nerudian reading” of Ra�z del hombre to understand why such an ostensibly apolitical erotic poem appealed to a poet who, at the time, was undergoing a dramatic transformation toward an aesthetic of revolutionary commitment.

Arguing for a generous conception of poetic influence based on Harold Bloom’s paradigm whereby a successor might exert power over his predecessor, I suggest that Neruda registers the influence of Ra�z del hombre—and betrays a certain anxiety toward that influence—in “Oda de invierno al R�o Mapocho” (1938), his first socially engaged poem in a Latin American setting. In that poem, Neruda returns to the aesthetic of natural eroticism that he had cultivated in Residencia en la tierra in order to locate the potential for revolutionary salvation in the topography of Latin America. At the poem’s conclusion, the speaker exhorts Chile’s Mapocho River: “que una gota de tu espuma negra / salte del l�gamo a la flor del fuego / y precipite la semilla del hombre!” With the slight change from “ra�z del hombre” to “semilla del hombre,” in my opinion, Neruda offers at once a tacit confirmation of his positive reading of Paz’s work, and a rhetorical exercise of power to reclaim for himself the residenciario poetics that his successor had made his own in his emergence as a formidable newcomer to the world of Hispanic poetry.

In Chapter I, I offer an extended introduction to the dynamics surrounding Neruda and Paz’s initial encounter, primarily in the form of an analysis of Paz’s importance in the early years of Neruda’s transformation from trench warfare poet in the Spanish Civil War to committed Latin Americanist poet par excellence. To strengthen my argument regarding Paz’s contributions in Neruda’s trajectory, I introduce a reading of Harold Bloom’s theory of poetic influence. I also discuss how Paz’s emergence as a strong poet in the context of Neruda’s ascendant celebrity in the Spanish-speaking world likely induced a certain anxiety in the Chilean. The chapter concludes with a comparative analysis of Paz’s �No pasar�n! and Neruda’s “Galope muerto.”

In Chapter II, I offer a Nerudian reading of Ra�z del hombre in order to identify the implicit radicalism of Paz’s poem, the raison d’�tre of which critics tend to elevate as an eroticism stripped of political meaning. To do so I read the poem’s celebration of love as the root of man in a context of ruins as a metaphor for the revolutionary solidarity required in the struggle against fascism.

In Chapter III, I explore the centrality of “Oda de invierno al R�o Mapocho” within both Neruda’s late-1930s transformation and his broader poetic trajectory. Arguing that the poem offers a commentary on the debate du jour regarding pure versus committed poetry, I discuss how the poet engages not only with Paz, but also with the voices of Francisco de Quevedo and Rainer Maria Rilke. In this way I demonstrate how Paz’s treatment in Ra�z del hombre of those poets’ respective and optimistic understandings of death inspired Neruda’s hopeful vision for a revolutionary future in Latin America as well as his commitment to an aesthetic of engagement.

Following a brief Conclusion, I end my dissertation with an English translation of Ra�z del hombre as it appears in its entirety in Paz’s 1999 Obras completas.

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