Día de los Muertos : Photos & Octavio Paz’s Insight

In honor of Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico City, I reread Octavio Paz’s classic El laberinto de soledad. Below, I include excerpts from the chapter “Day of the Dead” in the English volume of the text.


From Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1961), “Chapter Three: Day of the Dead”:

On fiestas, more generally: 

“We are a ritual people, and this characteristic enriches both our imaginations and our sensibilities, which are equally sharp and alert. The art of the fiesta has been debased almost everywhere else, but not in Mexico. There are few places in the world where it is possible to take part in a spectacle like our great religious fiestas with their violent primary colors, their bizarre costumes and dancers, their fireworks and ceremonies, and their inexhaustible welter of surprises…”

“Our poverty can be measured by the frequency and luxuriousness of our holidays. Wealth countries have very few: there is neither the time nor the desire for them, and they are not necessary…On great occasions in Paris or New York, when the populace gathers in the squares or stadiums, the absence of people, in the sense of people, is remarkable: there are couples and small groups, but they never form a living community in which the individual is at once dissolved and redeemed. But how could a poor Mexican live without the two of three annual fiestas that make up for his poverty and misery? Fiestas are our only luxury.”

“…the Mexican does not seek amusement: he seeks to escape from himself, to leap over the wall of solitude that confines him during the rest of the year.”

“The fiesta is by nature sacred, literally or figuratively, and above all it is the advent of the unusual. It is governed by its own special rules, that it is apart from other days, and it has a logic, an ethic and even an economy that are often in conflict with everyday norms…Anything is permitted: the customary hierarchies vanish, along with all social, sex, caste, and trade distinctions.”

“Therefore the fiesta is not only an excess, a ritual squandering of the goods painfully accumulated during the rest of the year; it is also a revolt, a sudden immersion in the formless, in pure being. By means of the fiesta society frees itself from the norms it has established. It ridicules its gods, its principles, and its laws: it denies its on self. The fiesta is a revolution in the most literal sense of the word. In the confusion that it generates, society is dissolved, is drowned, insofar as it is an organism ruled according to certain laws and principles.”

“Society communes with itself during the fiesta. Its members return to original chaos and freedom. Social structures break down and new relationships, unexpected rules, capricious hierarchies are created. In the general disorder, everybody forgets himself and enters into otherwise forbidden situations and places. The bounds between audience and actors, officials and servants, are erased. Everybody takes part in the fiesta. everybody is caught up in its whirlwind. Whatever its mood, its character, its meaning, the fiesta is participation, and this trait distinguishes it from all other ceremonies and social phenomena. Lay or religious, orgy or saturnalia, the fiesta is a social act based on the full participation of all its celebrants.”

On how Mexicans understand death, since Aztec religious beliefs dominated to the advent of Catholicism: 

Death is a mirror which reflects the vain gesticulations of the living…Death defines life; a death depicts a life in immutable forms; we do not change except to disappear. Our deaths illuminate our lives. If our deaths lack meaning, our lives also lacked it…If we do not die as we lived, it is because the life we lived was not really ours: it did not belong to us, just as the bad death that kills us does not belong to us. Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.”

“The opposition between life and death was not so absolute to the ancient Mexicans as it is to us. Life extended into death, and vice versa. Death was not the natural endure of life but one phase of an infinite cycle. Life, death and resurrection were stages of a  cosmic process which repeated itself continuously. Life had no higher function that to flow into death, its opposite and complement; and death, in turn, was not an end in itself: man fed the insatiable hunger of life with his death.”

“The advent of Catholicism radically modified this situation. Sacrifice and the idea of salvation, formerly collective, became personal. Freedom was humanized, embodied in man. To the ancient Aztecs the essential thing was to assure the continuity of creation; sacrifice did not bring about salvation in another world, but cosmic health; the universe, and not the individual, was given life by the blood and death of human beings. For Christians it is the individual who counts…Redemption is a personal task.”

“The Mexican’s indifference toward death is fostered by his indifference toward life…Mexican death is the mirror of Mexican life. And the Mexican shuts himself away and ignored both of them.”

“Our contempt for death is not at odds with the cult we have made of it. Death is present in our fiestas, our games, our loves and our thoughts…We are seduced by death. The fascination it exerts over us is the result, perhaps, of our hermit-like solitude and of the fury with which we break out of it.”

“Sugar-candy skulls, and tissue-paper skulls and skeletons strung with fireworks…our popular images always poke fun at life, affirming the nothingness and insignificance of human existence. We decor our houses with death’s heads, we eat bread in the shape of bones on the Day of the Dead, we love the songs and stores in which death laughs and cracks jokes, but all this boastful familiarity does not rid us of the question we all ask: What is death?”

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