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Ideograms of the East and the West: Octavio Paz, Blanco, and the traditions of modern poetry

This essay engages two questions: first, it is a response to current attempts to make sense of various literary traditions in an era associated with postmodernity and globalization. I argue for a global but period-specific approach to the study of literary history. Secondly, this essay applies the period-specific theoretical model to the study of one poem: Octavio Paz’s Blanco (1967), known for its global reach and complex structure, but often read as solely focused on India’s ancient past, thus antiquarian and with no relation to our present era. On the contrary, I argue that Blanco can only make sense in the history of conflicts between the East and the West, better known to Paz as the Cold War, a global conflict that involved the former U.S.S.R. and the United States. The multiple and therefore confusing meanings of “East” and “West” best define, I would argue, the need to understand the history of its various connotations from Herodotus and the Crusades, to the Cold War and the current conflicts between the West and the (Islamic) East. Thus, any attempt to define globalization and postmodernity as an age in which all cultural differences and Otherness find their happy resolution can only be read as part of the marketing system of globalization itself, and not as a serious attempt to make sense of literary history at a transnational or global level.

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