24 March 2014

Female Pioneers: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (12 November 1651 – 17 April 1694)

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Joan Agnes of the Cross) was baptized on December 2, 1651 in what was then known as New Spain (or Mexico). She was entered in the registry as a “daughter of the church.” In other words, illegitimate. Her given name was Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez. She was the off-spring of a Spanish captain whereas her mother was criolla, a descendant of peninsular Spaniards. Raised by her mother’s family, she had access to tutors and numerous books. She could read by the age of three and write by the age of six. In 1669, she entered the Hieronymite order. Sor Juana remained there until her death while tending to victims of the plague. She was forty-three.

Legend.  Sor Juana incarnates various tropes: proto-Spanish-American woman of letters, Sapphic Spanish-American, Baroque Spanish-American poet, Spanish-American feminist. Sor Juana endures because she literally embodies in her person two worlds: the Spanish Golden Age and the oppressive realities of New Spain. Educated, brilliant, and intellectually curious, she made a reputation for herself among the elite that then governed the Spanish colony. Success of this scope could scarcely have been predicted for a woman born into a rigid caste-system: one in which she was at a triple disadvantage due to her gender, bastardy, and lack of financial independence.

Legacy. Sor Juana authored sonnets, plays, and composed the masterpiece “Primero sueño" (First Dream). To understand what she accomplished in the poem requires a comprehensive knowledge of Spanish baroque poetry, as well as Scripture and mythological references.  Numerous passages astonish, delight and demonstrate considerable intelligence. The poem is an extended dream which narrates the soul’s quest for wisdom unfettered by the body. Unfortunately, the corporeal chains that bind do not offer the soul complete freedom, which would naturally result in death. The final passage, in which the subject at last awakens at daybreak, is ambiguous. The soul, having exhausted all intuition and reason, withdraws back into the body without having attained its goal. Octavio Paz, who has written extensively on sor Juana, construes this as a paradox: “Primero sueño” is a visionary poem that results in “non-vision,” a spiritual experiment that breaks with the charismatic tradition (482).    

“Primero sueño” might have earned the admiration of scholars past and present as a skillful imitation "Soledades” (Solitudes) by the great Spanish poet Luis de Gongora had sor Juana not closed “Primero sueño with the following: “…quedando a la luz más cierta/el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta.” A loose translation: “… the light becomes more lucid/the world illuminated, and I awaken.” The final line is self-referential, revealing that the speaker is female.

Hence this long poem, nine hundred and seventy-five lines, is regarded as one of her most personal. The poet not only writes of the soul but speaks from her own soul. As Paz states: “… sor Juana is ahead of her time: there is nothing comparable, in the 17th century, in women’s literature… in New Spain, a closed, peripheral society under the control of two jealous powers: the Catholic Church y the Spanish Monarchy (400).”

Scandal:  The Bishop of Puebla requests that Sor Juana write a response to a sermon attributed to the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Vierya.  She does as asked, and the work known as “La carta atenagórica” (Athenagorical Letter) is given to the bishop, who not only publishes sor Juana’s argument but publicly responds to the nun under the name sor Filotea. Three months later, sor Juana addresses sor Filotea’s criticisms in the “Respuesta” (Response), in which she defends herself against accusations of self-interest, arrogance, and ambition. “Lust for knowledge,” a phrase used by sor Filotea, must have alarmed her, as it suggests an unhealthy attachment to the humanist scholars sor Juana draws upon in her work. Sor Juana repeatedly asserts that her passion for learning, which came to her at an early age, is a God-given gift, and as such pure. She further states that she never sought to study in order to write (much less teach). Her writings were done at the request of others.  She makes a passing reference to “El sueño,” stating that she did indeed compose it for her own pleasure.  She reiterates her position that women should be taught to read, and nuns in particular, so they can have access to Scripture and theological writings. In addition, she expresses her dismay over the misunderstanding caused by the “Carta,” and that she wants no quarrel that would cause her to be brought to the attention of the Inquisition.  The “Respuesta” will not be published until after her death, by which time sor Juana will have dismantled her library—said to contain hundreds of books—and devoted herself to charitable causes.

Epiloque:  Sor Juana’s place in Latin American literature cannot be underestimated. Who could fail to admire her investigations into art, philosophy, theology, and science?  Her unflagging intellectual curiosity? Despite all efforts to silence her, it is sor Juana who has had the last word. Her trajectory through Latin American culture has not yet ended, and it will continue as long as we, her readers, engage her life and work.

All translations of cited material are mine.
Paz, Octavio, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o Las trampas de la Fe (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000).

Kathryn Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain