The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Suzy Hansen on Octavio Paz

January 16, 2024 The Point Magazine Season 2 Episode 1
Selected Essays | Suzy Hansen on Octavio Paz
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Suzy Hansen on Octavio Paz
Jan 16, 2024 Season 2 Episode 1
The Point Magazine

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Suzy Hansen about her essay, “A Cold War Mind: American and the World,” a chapter from Suzy's book Notes on a Foreign Country, and Octavio Paz’s “The Pachucho and Other Extremes,”  the first part of his 1950 book The Labyrinth of Solitude.

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Suzy Hansen about her essay, “A Cold War Mind: American and the World,” a chapter from Suzy's book Notes on a Foreign Country, and Octavio Paz’s “The Pachucho and Other Extremes,”  the first part of his 1950 book The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here and use the coupon code 7POD50 at checkout for 50% off.

Jessica Swoboda  00:00

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine,


Zach Fine  00:22

Hey everyone. This week we spoke with Suzy Hansen about Octavio Paz's "The Pachucho and Other Extremes," which was collected in The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings in 1985, and "A Cold War Mind: America and the World," a chapter from Suzy's book Notes on a Foreign Country, which was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, and the winner of the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius Ryan Award for best nonfiction book on international affairs. Suzy is also a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, and her work has appeared in a host of major national magazines, including the New Republic, Vogue, and National Geographic.


Jessica Swoboda  01:00

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. And also be sure to subscribe to The Point, the magazine that brings you content like this podcast. You can find a 50% off discount code exclusive to listeners in the episode notes. Hey Suzy, thanks so much for joining us on Selected Essays.


Suzy Hansen  01:38

Thank you so much for having me.


Jessica Swoboda  01:40

So can we begin by having you tell us a little bit about Octavio Paz?


Suzy Hansen  01:46

Sure, Octavio Paz is a Mexican writer. He was a poet and also a diplomat, I think more well known for his poetry, but also for this book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, which he wrote in the year 1945 and it was published in 1950. I think he wrote it in Paris, actually. So he was kind of looking from afar at both Mexico and the United States. And I think the years that he wrote it are important, and we can discuss that later, I think. But the book is his attempt at a study of Mexican national character. And I think it's widely regarded as one of his finest works.


Zach Fine  02:24

Can you tell us why you chose "The Pachucho and Other Extremes" in particular, out of all the essays in The Labyrinth of Solitude?


Suzy Hansen  02:33

Yes, well, I'm not sure this is an essay that is read that often, I teach it every semester in a class called "Writing on International Affairs." And I teach it because one of the exercises I want the students to do is to examine their own national history, education and their own national identity as a way of understanding who they are and the way that they view the world. So it's a foreign policy class. But the first exercise we do is one is basically a coming of age essay. I came across this essay, and I think it's beautiful. When I was writing my own book Notes on a Foreign Country, I had written the whole book, the book was essentially a memoir in which I was trying to study the American character, and trying to understand why Americans feel a kind of disconnect between their own identities and the foreign policy of the United States. And the book goes from Turkey to Greece, to Iran, to Pakistan to Afghanistan. And I realized that the after I had finished the book that I needed a kind of historical essay in the middle of it that accounted for the American psychology since World War Two to understand exactly what this American identity was. And I started becoming interested in how foreign writers saw the United States at that time. And the reason I say that, I think the dates 1945 to 1950. The years in which Paz wrote this essay are important, is because this was a time obviously, when the United States was rising as this major force in this major power in the world. And it was viewed with both, I think it was seducing a lot of foreign writers to the US. But once they arrived, they were often dismayed by what they were finding. But for an American reader, I think reading these essays, especially this one, I think it will come as quite a surprise. I'm not sure that most Americans come across this kind of analysis of, of American culture in American society. And I think particularly because we are individuals we are an individualistic country, we think of ourselves as as self created and free and free thinking but what Paz is identifying both about a Mexican culture and American culture here is is how rooted we are in the history and the culture of the society and how we are formed by those things. And it's funny because he speaks about the problem of writing about national character, and I think he has this very elegant, almost manipulative way of disabusing you of your skepticism about that project. And I know this, from personal experience, I often get a lot of criticism of myself for trying to write about American national character, but I think Paz has a way of drawing you in and of disabusing you of the skepticism until you are fully, you know, on his within his orbit. And and it seems like he's coming up with some very essential truths about both Mexico and the United States.


Zach Fine  05:33

Before we dive more into the essay, can you read the first passage for sure,


Suzy Hansen  05:38

all of us at some moment have had a vision of our existence as something unique and transferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. self discovery is above all the realization that we are alone. It is the opening of an impalpable transparent wall, that of our consciousness between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born. But children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being. And this astonishment leads to reflection. As he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water is his own, the singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children becomes a problem. And a question. And I actually think the next line of the second of the next paragraph is very important, because then he says, much the same thing happens to nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development. 


Jessica Swoboda  06:53

Why do you think he begins the essay in this way? I find the structure really interesting because here we the first couple of paragraphs, invoke the "we" and the "us" and talk more generally about questions about life. And then he transitions into speaking more explicitly about Mexicans, this makes you rethink what who that "we" and "us" is referring to at the beginning. And then he goes into comparing Mexicans with North Americans via the figure of the Pachucho and then transitions into discussions of solitude, and so on and so on. And I'm wondering what effect this type of structure has, who were to think those pronouns are addressing? And if he's intentionally meaning to alienate people by those pronouns?


Suzy Hansen  07:39

Yeah, no, I noticed that immediately as well. And I was going to talk about that, because he reminds me of James Baldwin, who also uses "we", in addition to "I," but I think uses "we" very effectively, I mean, my impression is that he's striving for, of course, a kind of universality. I think this essay is not just about Mexicans, and Americans. And it's certainly not just about Mexican culture, although I saw that in a lot of reviews of the book at the time. That's what American readers thought it was about. I think he is he is talking about the way in which we define ourselves against other nations the way that we all do this. I think it's also interesting that he's placing this in a moment of adolescence, right, that he's locating this idea. It primarily as happening in someone's adolescence, because I think that is also a way of attracting all readers of making everyone feel included in this in this essay, and it makes you wonder, I mean, does a Mexican writer feel like they have to do that. They can't just write an essay specifically about Mexican culture, that there has to be a way in which everyone feels like they can relate to this to this essay. But in any case, I think it does have this effect of making and this is why I also teach it in my class, because it has the effect of allowing for you to relate it to your own society. And whatever society you define yourself against. Another idea that I've always been really interested in, partially because of my love for James Baldwin is the idea that our identities are and four are formed in relationship to another identity. And that's also why I think this time period is so important, because as I lived abroad for 12 years in Turkey, and what I kept hearing from foreigners from from all over the place was that they were very cognizant of the fact that their own identities had to be formed in relationship to the United States with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, that that this was a kind of crisis and a kind of trauma in a way where you had to grapple with well, which way is the best way to be and who am I and what is my culture in, in comparison to these two enormous nations, and of course, Mexicans were always identifying, you know, themselves against North Americans, their powerful neighbor to the north, but I do think this moment of the Cold War was a different period. And he doesn't say it explicitly. But I do think this is when, in a much more powerful way people had to grapple with the rise of the United States and what this pervasive American culture was doing to their own. 


Jessica Swoboda  10:13

Now you mentioned the figure of the pachucho. And it's worth spending some time dissecting his description of this figure, it's full of contradictions. I mean, one that I noted was his clothing spotlights and isolates him, but at the same time that pays homage to the society he is attempting to deny. That was one of I think my favorites. So can you talk a bit about this figure and what were to make of him according to Paz?


Suzy Hansen  10:40

I know in a lot of ways, it's one of the most interesting dissections of fashion that I've read. And I don't think I've ever read someone go on about it at length. I also think that this portrait of the pachucho is so instructive for anyone studying immigrant communities. And it reminded me of something that an Indian friend told me this is someone born in India who had moved to London, and the sort of challenge of the immigrant and moving to especially a major city, Western city, and holding on to their identity, and how often people adopt these almost cartoonish identities in order to survive again, in order to have some sort of authority because they do not their sense of their masculinity or their femininity, of their place, maybe their class, it's suddenly thrown into such confusion by the new society that they have entered into. And so they might be building a whole new identity there. And sometimes that can go terribly wrong, you know, the person can make a womanizer, or a dandy or something, because he even uses the word dandy here, because you're just simply trying to have some kind of identity within within this. And also, as he says, it's to hold on to some semblance of your own culture, but to appropriate the one or to fit in. But of course, as you're saying, with with these contradictions, I mean, I think the interesting way that he puts it is that you are both you're making yourself the the aggressor, and also the prey, you know, you are with your adornments attracting this attention so that you can almost then react against it. I think he's he's writing about a phenomenon that maybe, you know, I haven't really seen described before. But I think my question always, about this essay is, and what I've sometimes thought about is could anyone else have perceived some of these specific details and characteristics of the pachuco? I mean, it seems like something that the American writer coming from the other side would have a very difficult time seeing themselves, and it's sort of the one of the things about this essay I love so much is that it? It reminds us of the necessity of this diversity of perspectives. It's not just diversity, it's that there are things that people from foreign cultures can see that American and Western writers and simply cannot write


Zach Fine  13:09

How do you think Paz's focus on Los Angeles in particular informs his kind of broader conception of America? Because it seems like that's his primary interest in terms of locale or geography. That's where he's kind of based?


Suzy Hansen  13:24

Well, it's interesting to me, I'm from New Jersey, I am not from California. I think that when I have myself gone to California, it is always a surprise to me how Spanish it is, you know, it's, it's so funny. The those of us on the East Coast grew up in such a much more homogenous culture in society than people in Miami or New Orleans or California, we've had such different American experiences. And I did like the way he described it in the beginning. "You know, when I arrived in the United States, I lived for a while in Los Angeles, a city inhabited by over a million persons of Mexican origin. At first sight, the visitors surprised not only by the purity of the sky, and the ugliness of the dispersed and ostentatious buildings, but also by the city's vaguely Mexican atmosphere, which cannot be captured in words or concepts." What's also really interesting about this paragraph and he goes on, and he is having a very hard time grasping what exactly this atmosphere is. It floats without offering any opposition. It hovers, blown here and there by the wind, sometimes breaking up like the clouds sometimes standing erect like a rising rocket. You know, he's he's trying to understand almost for the first time how a Mexican culture has seeped in to this very American place, or, of course, was always there to some degree. I do think that it's particular to Los Angeles, but I don't necessarily think that the rest of the essay is rooted only in California or in the western part of the United States. I think he broadens it. This essay becomes quite generalized, but lacerating portrait of of American society as a whole. So he's brilliant at moving between the specific and the broad, I think, in a way that doesn't didn't tend to troubled me as I was reading it. 


Jessica Swoboda  15:14

Well, why don't we turn to that second passage now as another way, another entry point into this essay? 



Yeah, I sort of feel like this is kind of the crescendo of, of the essay when, you know, again, this is ostensibly a study of Mexican character, but it almost seems like there's another essay within the essay, which is that he is, he has had a lot he wants to say about American culture and North American life, and maybe even the dangers it poses. And that is coming out also, in this piece. So he says, "When I arrived in the United States, I was surprised above all by the self assurance and confidence of the people by their apparent happiness and apparent adjustment to the world around them. The satisfaction does not stifle criticism, however, and the criticism is valuable and forthright of a sort not often heard in the country to the south, where long periods of dictatorship have made us more cautious about expressing our points of view. But it is a criticism that respects the existing systems and never touches the roots. I thought of Ortega EGUs sets, distinction between uses and abuses in his definition of the revolutionary spirit. The revolutionary is always a radical. That is he's trying to correct the uses themselves rather than the mere abuses of them. Almost all the criticisms I heard from the lips of North Americans were of the reformist variety, they left the social or cultural structures intact, and were only intended to limit or improve this or that procedure. It seemed to me then, and it still does, that the United States is a society that wants to realize its ideals, has no wish to exchange them for others, and is confident of surviving, no matter how dark the future may appear. I am not interested in discussing whether this attitude is justified by reason and reality. I simply want to point out that it exists, I can finish there. But I'll finish this it is true that this faith in the natural goodness of life or in its infinite wealth of possibilities cannot be found in recent North American literature, which prefers to depict a much more somber world by but I found it in the actions, the words and even the faces of almost everyone I met. On the other hand, I heard a good deal of talk about American realism, and also about American and genuineness, qualities that would seem to be mutually exclusive. To us, a realist is always a pessimist. And an genuis person would not remain so for very long if he truly contemplated life. Realistically, would it not be more accurate to say that the North American wants to use reality than to know it? In some matters death for example, he not only has no desire to understand it, he obviously avoids the very idea. I met some elderly ladies who still had illusions, and were making plans for the future, as if it were inexhaustible." And I will cut to the end where he says, "American realism then is of a very special kind, an American and genuineness does not exclude the simulation and even hypocrisy, when hypocrisy is a character trait, it also affects one's thinking, because it consists in the negation of all the aspects of reality that one finds disagreeable, irrational or repugnant." I found these lines, so tough, but I have to say, you know, as I, as I explained, I was researching essays that wrote about these foreign writers discovery of what it meant to be an American or of the American character. And one thing that was coming up again and again, was how Americans had no sense of tragedy, and how they had an entirely different view on death than most cultures and societies in the rest of the world. But I'm curious if that was something that you had heard of before, if you recognized American culture and society and that yourself.


Jessica Swoboda  19:07

Right, I did find this a really powerful and exciting description. In some ways. I was like, oh, it's really Yeah, it's kind of taken by it and wrapped up in it. And I'm just, can you say a bit more about how you describe Paz's view of America? And what motivates the view that he's kind of putting out here and in the paragraphs that you read?


Suzy Hansen  19:30

Well, again, if you're thinking about this as like, this is a man looking at a country that has the power to have influence over much of the world and if it is not able, if there is this kind of essence of American psychology that does not allow it to criticize the roots have its own system. You know, this is so interesting to me. And it always these kinds of essays always gave me this feeling that my own mind had been limited by, you know, American culture and by American education that we, you know, he also says later we we built the world and we are living in it as opposed to people who you know, are living between hell, and Heaven, and a world that God created. We feel we have control over it. But the fact that that also means that we are not that we believe that we can sort of fix and perfect and and also stave off death, the most universal truth. It fills you with foreboding about this, this civilization that now has so much power in the world. This is not obviously an optimistic view of the United States. He even though he's very critical of the Mexican he is, in a way, saying, We also have something to teach you. There is something that can be learned from our much, much older societies. And I think, you know, it's he's talking about the very difference in the perception of reality itself. And I think, you know, for me, again, it's not only that, it clued me into things I might not have understood about myself, but it's the idea that we, as American individuals have been formed by the history of our nation in a way that is very much essential. I think it was pretty surprising to me.


Zach Fine  21:24

I'm wondering what you think is the mark of kind of good writing about a national spirit, or nations more generally? Because oftentimes, you read something and it feels almost too hazy, or vague or, you know, too, simply reductive, and I'm wondering what Paz does so well here? What how does he really capture something that feels actually true to being American? What what's what's his kind of tactic?


Suzy Hansen  21:47

Well, let's see. You know, I think that he has this ability to look outward, and that an analyze, so he has an ability to describe. So I think the reason he needed the pachucho is because he had to describe a kind of mode of behavior that he was observing that was outside, it's this is not obviously all just coming out of his mind. And at the very least, it is giving us faith that he is almost reporting on a phenomenon that he is observing. I think he's also you know, he uses these, these sort of simple examples, his encounters with the with the old ladies on the street, who are planning for their lives, as if the future will will is inexhaustible, how they don't seem to contemplate death. You know, he's using actually specific examples, encounters and experiences that I think he kind of brings alive. And I think we trust him more, because he has gone to the United States, he has traveled through it. But I do think that let's see, I mean, he's also doing the same with Mexican culture, because his examples are so strikingly different to the way that Americans live. In contrast, one of the most notable traits of the Mexicans character is his willingness to contemplate horror. He is even familiar and complacent in his dealings with it, the bloody Christ's, in our village churches, the macabre humor, and some of our newspaper headlines, our wakes, the custom of eating skull shaped cakes and candies on the Day of the Dead, are habits inherited from the Indians and the Spaniards and are now an inseparable part of our being. I think the reason why it's so convinced his take on American culture is so convincing is because he has done so much work and understanding his own Mexican culture, you know, it's it's that he, he gives you the sense that he has thought about this much more deeply than than you have, I think, again, and this is why I teach the, my to my students is, is that you have to do so much work in understanding your own culture and society, before you will ever have the right to describe another or to understand another, you know, you have to show that you have excavated all of your own beliefs and your received wisdom and your education. To give us the feeling that then when you go to a country like the United States for the first time in the 1940s, that you're seeing something with fresh eyes, and it does feel like he has done the work to understand where he's coming from. So then he can understand America from a fresh place.


Jessica Swoboda  24:20

How would you characterize this essay? Is it a work of cultural criticism, historical criticism? Yeah. What's the genre?


Suzy Hansen  24:28

I think? Well, the thing is, I teach it as a coming of age essay. But, of course, I mean, that kind of tongue in cheek, which is that the coming of age essay is about, apprehend the you know, kind of coming to terms with your national identity, because I think that Americans do not think of the coming of age that way, right? We think of it as understanding our personal experience and something that is really much more interior. He's talking about understanding a coming of age essay that is also an understanding your nation and the thing that has formed you and your national identity and to show that he does not think that these two things can be, can be, are separate from one another. So I think that that is very instructive to the American psychology in and of itself and for the American for the American reader, not that it is only for them. But I do think it's probably more surprising and shocking for them. And I also think, again, when he says that much the same thing happens in nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development again, I do and I don't know this for sure. But I do think this has to do with this poll, post World War Two, cold war epic. I mean, this was a new, almost a new time in history. And everyone was scrambling to to pick a side and to place themselves in a new world order. And that suddenly called their their national identity into question in a different way. So is this a study a study of, of national care? I mean, maybe a study is the best, but it's my favorite kind of essay in the sense that it's essayistic. Its historical, there's a bit of reportage, but it's also first person, you know, it has this emotional, intimate aspect to it, where, you know, we're getting a lot of paths out of this. 


Jessica Swoboda  26:13

Do your students end up liking it as much as you? How do they respond to it, when you teach it? 


Suzy Hansen  26:18

Well, they, it might be boring to keep bringing up my students. But I do think that they're more interesting because they are foreign, a lot of them are some of them are American, and a lot of them come from universities around the world. So I have Afghan students, I have Palestinian students, I have German students, I have Russian students. And so it's always so fascinating to see how they talk about, about these sorts of essays. And these sorts of ideas. They are usually almost taken aback by the language and the way that the essays written, I don't know if essays are quite written this way anymore. Where there's also this kind of forgiveness, I mean, he can sort of hem and haw and say, Okay, now I will stop, and I will do something else, these kind of old school formal essays, and where he gets to have five, six pages to just describing the power to go in his clothes. I mean, we, you know, we don't get to have this, I mean, maybe in The Point, but very few publications. So they're, they're enthralled. They are enthralled. It's as if they're hungry for these kinds of essays, even though you know, at the same time, often my students ask, you know, what is the point of a magazine story, you know, but this kind of essay, I think, this kind of personal essay, in which they also feel like the writer is working very hard for them, to tell them something new. I mean, there is a breaking news element to this essay still, and it was written in 1950. Right?


Jessica Swoboda  27:44

Yeah, I can see how this would teach really well, both in terms of content, but also in terms of how it's written. So it can help in terms like be instructional, in the sense of writing well, and doing a lot of work for your readers, but also in terms of Yeah, imbibing the content



And also the way of writing about yourself, so that it also is a way of writing about the world. To to, to push a way of thinking that is outside of the domestic, you know, that is that is kind of situated in a moment in time and in a you know, in in the scope of international politics and culture. I think I think that also, I mean, there is a way in which this essay resonates with us right now, right? Because it does feel like another moment where there might have been one of these moments right after September 11. And, and when the world kind of reorganize itself, according to, you know, the West and the Islamic world. But we also seem to, we feel like we're in this moment, I think sometimes where the world is realigning according to certain values, and we have to define ourselves all over again. And there are certainly nations that are doing this right now like Turkey, like India, where a whole new identity is being formed. And so I think I'd like to read more of these essays from those places.


Jessica Swoboda  29:05

Now, you mentioned your own work at the start, and specifically, the the chapter from your book, "A Cold War Mind: American and the World," which is from Notes on a Foreign Country: an American Abroad in a Post-American World. And you've already said a bit about how the essay we've been discussing has influenced this one, but um, can you say a bit more? And also tell us a bit about the chapter from your book that we're focusing on right now?


Suzy Hansen  29:30

Yeah, I mean, I saw the book takes place during the years 2007 to 2013, I had been living in Turkey. I wanted to write a book about Turkey and ended up feeling as though what I had to write about was this disconnect between American identity and American foreign policy when for so much of the rest of the world, the two are inextricably connected. And the book is a bit of a travelogue. It is there is reportage there History, there's more. But what I felt was that, you know, I was going to interview a lot of foreigners about how they saw the United States and how they saw Americans and how they saw American foreign policy affecting their, their lives. And I realized at some point that all of these writers, all of these people had been telling us this for a very long time, because there were works like "The Pachucho and Other Extremes" and many others that I use for my book. But the real question was what was up with the American psychology. And so I felt at some point, being someone who was born in 1977, and grew up in at least part of the Cold War era, that I had to describe and understand what the Cold War mind had been. And how many of us had been sort of trained to view the world in a certain way, according to America's power mirror, America's existential fight with the Soviet Union, the way that we had to find ourselves against an enemy. And also to look more deeply at how actually American policymakers academics, the media had worked to create a new American identity that would function in this new international world order that it was it was creating. So that essay uses foreign writers in particular as a way of understanding the development of the American and I mean, it was a very difficult thing to do in an essay, but you know, I start with, obviously, the conquest of the United States. And I, you know, the founding of the United States, and then the conquest of the Native Americans and slavery, and I take through all through the 20th century. And there are certain moments that I identify, and particularly this moment around the 40s and 50s, when a lot of exiles, European exiles were moving to the United States, seduced by and and grateful for, you know, American freedom and liberty, but then getting there and being quite troubled by what they were seeing in the society. And Khumbu was another one. And Baldwin is an American writer, but he was outside of white American society enough to be able to identify some of these characteristics. I think Alfred Stieglitz was also DH Lawrence writing earlier, and I use a lot of the work of Klaus off, a German writer. When you see our national story, told through a foreign lens, it looks very different. You know, because we are, we are at this point, so used to our common sense of the United States and everything that it means, but the way that is viewed through foreigners and through their language is really quite different. And so I was trying to provoke the reader into recognizing that maybe you don't know as much about yourself, as you realize, maybe none of us do. And maybe we were prevented from acquiring some of that knowledge for a reason. So that is, that is that chapter in the book. And there are a lot of surprising things in there that that have ended up being the passages that most people bring up with me when they read it, you know, for example, the way that even our MFA programs have were designed with a kind of Cold War bent, the way Hilton Hotels were constructed as part of Cold War, nation building, in a sense, as a way of of projecting a certain American way of life to the rest of the world, the way that the hotels were actually built to as part of the fight against communism, some of these things that I think Americans aren't quite aware of, because they don't necessarily recognize their own country as being one that was particularly propagandistic. And, and, but more important to me was just the way that this the effect that all of this had on my own psychology and who I and the way that that was making me see the rest of the world


Zach Fine  33:59

And can I ask about that? So because there's a moment in the chapter where you say, "to see a foreign country, clearly, I would have to excavate my mind, I would have to take apart the myths about America, as I had with Turkey, one by one." And so this turn back towards yourself as a way of kind of tunneling through, back out again, what did that kind of allow you to do that you wouldn't have been able to do with a more kind of conventional history? And did you find the constraints of that to be freeing or to be kind of just a more liberating way to approach?


Suzy Hansen  34:29

I couldn't figure out how I think once I realized that there had to be a memory stick aspect to this book that there was no way I couldn't include myself in the critique that I was, was was offering of Americans that I had to understand my own. Because what was happening to me when I moved abroad as a foreign correspondent is that I kept trying to understand this foreign cold country and I kept coming up against my own weird prejudices and blind spots, things that I didn't even know about myself. If that were basically, you know, inhibiting me from becoming an actual code reporter in that country. And so I realized that it was my American education that was almost preventing me, even if it was a good education, even if I went to an Ivy League school, even if, you know, I was very well read that it was preventing me from really seeing a country on its own terms, and therefore understanding the complexity of it. So it felt to me that I had to first show what was happening in Turkey, and the way that I was trying to understand Turkey, because it was through trying to understand Turkey, and particularly Turkish nationalism, that made me first understand the nature of American nationalism. And I will say that at the time that I wrote this, we were not it was before Trump. So we weren't talking about American nationalism, we talked about patriotism, and all of that. But it was actually through understanding Turkey and my issues with that, that then made me turn on to the US and onto myself. And so yeah, I felt that I had to first start with Turkey show it was happening when I was 29 years old, and then go back in time. And because only in our history are we going to find how a lot of our ideas were unconsciously formed. And I talked about this, in particular, in Greece, because I was sent to write about the financial crisis in 2010. And when I got there, I was informed by my Greek subjects, the people I was interviewing that, you know, the Americans had occupied Athens in the 40s. And that we had a lot a lot to do with setting grease on the economic and political course that that they were sent on. And of course, I didn't know any of this. And from what I've heard, most people don't. So it's, it really was a reckoning with, you know, how was I using this power as a journalist for a major American publication, when I was so ignorant of the actual history of these places, and also how that history had had formed me.


Jessica Swoboda  37:09

Right, and then the introduction to your book, you even say, Oh, I had initially thought this would be a scientific excavation. And it actually turned into this, this historical excavation. And so in what ways? And is the chapter that we read is the book as a whole a historical excavation? 


Suzy Hansen  37:28

Well it's, I think that there are two, the book is operating on a couple of levels. But I think that addressing a certain kind of ignorance is one, right. So that's where the history and I also didn't want to write a book that didn't have actual substance and entities and have, you know, I found learning about some of these past points in history, very fascinating and illuminating, and simply fun to read about. So. So that was addressing the ignorance part of it, it was also addressing understanding what sort of ideas one would have drawn from those historical experiences, understanding the way that they affected the people in Egypt, in Turkey, in Greece, in Iran, who were on the receiving end, but also the way that it affected us. I mean, I use James Baldwin throughout as my God because he wrote about this dehumanizing experience of being the the racist aggressor, the way that it dehumanizes white people to be engaged in, in this black white relationship, as well, of course, as oppress black Americans. And I began to see a parallel between America's role in the world often as an aggressor, and an oppressor and, and our own American psychology, what that had done to our own ways of thinking, and even our ability to think ethically about some of these things. The book was also, you know, an attempt to figure out who exactly the American is in the 21st century. But that was also quite hard. But I did run up against the same problem about trying to write about national character. I mean, when do you write them about Americans? Which Americans are you talking about? And, of course, I'm not talking about the 50 million Americans in poverty, I'm talking about the people in power. But you know, you you're using, it's very difficult with language to manage that. And I will just tell you, I wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books in the last couple of weeks. It was published in the last couple of weeks. And I was again generalizing about Americans. And I got an angry letter that I thought was very interesting, from a reader who said, What about all of us who protested the Iraq War and the invasion of Iraq of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, and who did our best with the means we had to stop our government from? And he said, I really take issue with the generalizations you're making about Americans. And that, again, reminded me of how difficult it is to do this to make these these generalizations but I would suggest that pause is the master because I don't know how you felt. But again, the way that he says, Well, I'm not quite sure if it's possible to do this, but let me hold for all my brilliant ideas about it, it kind of works for him. Or did you? Did you? Did you resist it at all? Did you?


Jessica Swoboda  40:08

Well, there was a moment where he said, Oh, well, I'm speaking to my own personal history right now. And I'm speaking to my own personal experience, which I think avoided the essentialist kind of strand that helped to particularize it in a way that could then help you extrapolate a bit more and to look beyond his own experience. I think that helps me kind of not fall into a critical gaze. His at him he was, yeah, yeah at him.


Suzy Hansen  40:40

He also says this was also really important. "My thoughts are not concerned with the total population of our country, but rather with a specific group made up of those who are conscious of themselves, for one reason or another as Mexicans.  Despite general need to the contrary, this group is quite small." So I mean, he is saying that he's addressing a certain group. But I thought that that was also quite effective. So we have lower expectations. Right, I guess it's the lower expectations, and then his kind of really incredible, grand, authoritative declaration statements that that ends up working so well for him. 


Jessica Swoboda  41:19

Well Suzy, thank you so much for joining us for this episode. It's been great to talk to you and to learn too about your teaching as well. That's always like an added bonus of these episodes is learning about how these essays don't just influence your own life, but how they find their way into the classroom or into other spheres as well. So thank you so much.


Suzy Hansen  41:38

Thank you so much. It was really fun. Thank you. 


Zach Fine  41:40

Thanks, Suzy.


Jessica Swoboda  41:41

Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of Selected Essays. We'd like to thank John Trevaskis for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits for contributing the original music. As always, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please subscribe to The Point. There's a discount code for listeners in the show notes. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.

Who is Octavio Paz?
Why “The Pachuco and Other Extremes”?
The first passage
Why Paz begins the essay this way
The pachuco
Paz’s conception of America
Another passage
What motivate’s Paz’s view of America
Mark of good writing about national spirit
Characterizing the essay
Suzy’s “A Cold War Mind: America and the World”
“Excavate my mind”
Essay as historical excavation