I am rereading ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ for the third or forth time. I repurchased it early this month while on a trip back to the US having given away my two previous copies over the last 25 years. As I write this I realize that this is the only book in my bookshelves to have ever been replaced for the third time.

I should probably just tell you to read it. But you won’t because one glance at the back cover would tell you that it isn’t very relevant to your life. And the book wouldn’t make a very good movie either; it’s essays after all. But you should read it if you feel at all estranged from your American heritage. If you’re one of those introspective people who wakes up some mornings and wonders just who in the hell you are and questions the very roots of your identity. Being someone who asks the profoundest questions concerning your life; the most important being, just what do you believe in? Who are your heroes? And what are the myths that make up the tapestry of your identity? Bruce Lincoln defines myth as ‘ideology in narrative form’. As such myths comprise the soul of our identity.

Now having been in Mexico for almost a year I think it is more important than ever that in my re-reading I pay closer attention because the pages hold unquestionably the best exposition of Mexico and its people, character and culture. And quite frankly I have been more than just a little baffled by some of my interpersonal interactions down here.

The Labyrinth of Solitude is best seen as a decryption of the Mexican myth(s). Octavio Paz took the more psychological approach to explore the nature of his country’s individuality believing that it would be more revealing than attempting to explain his people merely through the lens of historicity.

He opens his analysis and critique of the Mexican character by stating ‘Our territory is inhabited by a number of races speaking different languages and living on different historical levels’. He goes on to speak to the Mexican’s profound sense of solitude, living ‘under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable gods’. He contrasts that with the North American, estranged from creation, who inhabits an ‘abstract world of machines, fellow citizens and moral precepts’. And that the United States was created by man in his own image and ‘it is his mirror’ and that subsequently he is forever lost, using the phrase of Jose Gorostiza, ‘in a wilderness of mirrors’. Where as the Mexican wants to return to the root of his consciousness, to the sun, to the very beginning before he was wrest from the center of creation.

And it’s here where I want to pause for a minute because I need to stop and ask myself what are my myths? What do I believe in? I am not speaking of spiritual matters here; I am speaking of those things that are external to me. I am asking what the enduring myths of my country are in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately for me, I lack Octavio Paz’s intellectual engine to pursue this in the manner that the questions – ‘who am I and who are we’? – deserves but I am conscious enough of my own existence to ask the questions.

I spent the month of June doing mostly a self-propelled tour of the north-central US with my daughter; that’s run (90 miles), bike (700 miles) and canoe (50-60 miles). That much time spent on the ground gave me a birds-eye view into what I had hoped would be the heroic lives of the ancestors of Vikings who emigrated there 150 years ago. But we saw none of that. Central Minnesota positively frightened me because we saw almost no one out doors. We saw people in cars but that was it. We saw literally no children playing outdoors; ever. We joked at some point that there must have been a massive alien abduction. We saw no bookstores, no farmers markets, no coffee shops, no running stores (except for one in St. Cloud), no bike stores (except for two in St. Cloud), no music stores, nor whole food hippie style co-ops until we got to Duluth.

We did however see Indian Casinos; more than we wanted to as a matter of fact, and all built with that same grim Soviet-bloc architectural aesthetic. We saw people pulling boats and driving RVs but we didn’t see a single touring bicycle rider until we were half-way up the north shore of Lake Superior. I guess a lot of people just stay in their houses these days plugged into cable. I don’t know what else could explain what we saw and didn’t see.

At times I feel more than just a little camaraderie with Ambrose Bierce, that bitterly sarcastic journalist who was so critical of the hypocrisy of his time that he wandered off into Mexico to vanish into their revolution without a trace. In his ‘Devil’s Dictionary he redefined congratulation as ‘The civility of envy’. Or the equally bitter treatment he gave his generations’ nonplused hard-hearted treatment of the less fortunate when he wrote that air was ‘a nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor’. Where are the true American individuals and iconoclasts today?

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