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Taking a pause for Octavio Paz: “The poem is a model of what human society might be”

On the importance of listening to the voice of the arts
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Paz's poetry helps us reflect on the value that arts can bring. COURTESY OF JOHN LEFFMANN
Paz's poetry helps us reflect on the value that arts can bring. COURTESY OF JOHN LEFFMANN

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the minister of Canadian Heritage announced the Emergency Support Fund for Cultural, Heritage and Sport Organizations. What ensued was backlash questioning the importance of the arts.

This was just one symptom of a larger, deeply pervasive issue in our society — the trivialization of the arts, and, in particular, education centred around the arts.

I spent my entire high school career trying to convince students, teachers, and parents that the arts are important. I recall conducting countless hours of research about how the study of music can help students do better in other — ‘more academic’ — fields in order to prove the importance of my school’s music program.

Little did I know that I’d find myself defending the value of an arts education in university as well.

Despite snide comments from my peers and relatives, I enrolled at U of T to study literature. I was met with questions about what good an arts degree would be for my future, and I honestly didn’t know how to answer them.

By a stroke of luck — also known as Professor Al Moritz — I stumbled across an answer during my first year. It was in his course that I encountered the writing of the great poet and essayist Octavio Paz.

The first of his works that we read was an essay entitled “The Other Voice,” in which Paz argues that the voice of poetry is the “other” voice: “Its voice is other because it is the voice of passions and visions.

“It is otherworldly and this-worldly, of days long gone and of this very day, an antiquity beyond dates,” Paz writes.

I found myself coming back to the essay this summer after having seen that surge in the belittlement of the arts. Paz outlines the various ways in which the arts are useful to us as human beings, and he does so without completely reducing the arts to mere tools. He seems to separate poetry — the writing — from “Poetry” — the larger ideas that poetry stands for.

I believe that his sentiments apply to all artistic disciplines.

In this essay, Paz puts forth the argument that poetry is more than just words on a page, that those words — spoken by the “other” voice, “the voice from beyond… the one of the beginning” — offer a new perspective from which to look at our surroundings and even ourselves.

I don’t think that a person necessarily needs to read actual poetry to think ‘poetically.’ Rather, poetry is one tool that can make this way of thinking easier — that is, thinking about acting for the communal good rather than selfishly, and thinking not just about what new technologies we can create to make our lives easier, but also about how they will impact our surrounding environments.

In the introduction to his essay collection, also entitled The Other Voice, Paz writes, “[There are] two extremes of poetic and human experience: solitude, communion.”

Near the beginning of the pandemic, in March, I’m sure that many people saw the touching videos of community members in Italy singing with each other from their respective balconies. It was a true testament to how ‘social isolation’ was not truly antisocial. We were not at the extreme of solitude, in part, due to art.

This is not the only example of people turning to the arts while stuck inside their homes. Just think about the sheer number of people who played Animal Crossing: New Horizons this summer. It is clear that when the world is in isolation, we find communion in the arts.

So why is it that studying and creating art is still so devalued in our society? Why is it that people like the product but do not respect the process? These are difficult questions that I’ve grappled with for quite some time, and while I can’t provide answers to them, I think it is still important to think about them.

Threats to the arts aren’t a new phenomenon either. Paz wrote about the struggles of artists he witnessed during his youth — their battles against state-sanctioned art and the restrictions imposed upon art that wasn’t. He posited that contemporary challenges to the arts are posed by capitalism:

“Today literature and the arts are exposed to a different danger: they are threatened not by a doctrine or a political party but by a faceless, soilless, and directionless economic process. The market is circular, impersonal, impartial, inflexible… But the market, blind and deaf, is not fond of literature or of risk, and it does not know how to choose. Its censorship is not ideological: it has no ideas. It knows all about prices but nothing about values.”

While I agree that capitalism poses a significant danger to the arts, I do believe that it is as much of an ideology as it is an economic process. As Karl Marx posited, capitalism creates an environment in which workers are alienated from their work. Even though artwork is being commodified, the artist must still be connected to their work in order to create art, making artists inherently problematic for the system.

However, workers still need something to connect to if they are alienated from their work, and this connection is usually to art — whether it be watching television after a long day of work to distract oneself from reality or listening to music on one’s commute to work. This could be why people like the product but do not respect the process.

I came across a tweet shortly after I re-read “The Other Voice,” and I still find myself thinking about it: “I didn’t get why we were required [to study] humanities in undergrad. I was a science student! But now, when the world’s attention is on a virus—a topic I’ve spent my whole adult life studying—what I think about most are social structures, inequality, and sacrifice. I think about people.”

I think that this is what Paz is getting at when he writes about poetry and Poetry. The voice of the modern era is too limited in scope; the “other” voice speaks from beyond our immediate contexts and asks us to look beyond them as well.

One of the reasons why U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science appealed to me was because of its supposed interdisciplinarity. Though, aside from begrudgingly completing breadth requirements, I’m not sure that many students actually get to combine the arts and the sciences in their education.

I think that part of it may just be that the two disciplines have been kept separate for so long that many of us don’t know what integrating arts within the sciences would look like. I’m not sure either, but the first step is recognizing, as Paz suggests, that it would be in our collective interests to do so:

“The operative mode of poetic thought is imagining, and imagination consists, essentially, of the ability to place contrary or divergent realities in relationship. All poetic forms and all linguistic figures have one thing in common: they seek, and often find, hidden resemblances. In the most extreme cases, they unite opposites.”

Returning to the question I sought to answer: why are the arts important? Well, Paz puts it simply: “The poem is a model of what human society might be.”