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Nine— Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Dreaming in a Double Voice
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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Dreaming in a Double Voice

Emilie L. Bergmann

Literary Status As Obstacle to Feminist Readings

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695)[1] was already recognized during her lifetime as Colonial Latin America's greatest poet, and she has been triply canonized as an origin for Latin American literature, as the epitome of Baroque literature in Spanish, and as the first feminist writing in the New World. It is of obvious importance to study Sor Juana's work from a feminist perspective in order to examine the interrelationships between these potentially conflicting canonical categories. The picture we have of Sor Juana as woman is blurred by the self-imposed images of her as poet and scholar, eluding and parodying the gender categories of her time, by means of intricate and absorbing webs of rhetorical structure and erudite allusion that were accessible to few of her contemporaries. Since her tercentenary in 1951, her work has become the focus of increasingly serious and detailed critical attention, which forms an even more imposing edifice of authority and prestige. While Latin American women readers and writers are drawn to Sor Juana's image as precursor, the dense erudition that has been the object of recent critical attention can prove culturally alien to the female reader of the twentieth century.

The problems that need to be addressed in feminist readings of Sor Juana's works are not those of rediscovery or restoration of prestige but questions of the conditions of her prestige and the ways in which she may be read. These are questions of feminist methods of reading and uncovering the roots of gendered literary consciousness on the part of a brilliant and self-aware female writer.

Sor Juana continues to appear as the larger-than-life protagonist in the drama of readers' and critics' responses to her secular and religious writing, a


drama of which she appears to have been acutely aware. The court of the viceroys of Mexico bestowed upon her at the age of thirteen a double-edged social role as a prodigy, which meant that while she was respected for her intellectual accomplishments, she was also marginalized as a freakish phenomenon and kept on display as another treasure in the viceroys' collection. She was aware of her exceptional position in society, beginning with her illegitimate birth to a Spanish-born nobleman and a Mexican-born mother of Spanish ancestry, her studious childhood, and her reception as a prodigy at the court of Colonial Mexico, through her chosen existence as a nun who contributed to but could not participate in the elaborate cultural life of the city surrounding her Jeronymite convent, and in her eventual renunciation of the intellectual pursuits for which she had chosen convent life, to devote herself to asceticism and finally to die in her mid-forties while caring for the victims of a plague. Subsequent generations of readers have continued to redefine her anomalous role as a learned woman and productive writer in an environment that singled her out but had no place for her.

For women readers in the twentienth century, and particularly for writers in search of inspiring role models, Sor Juana has become an icon of female intellectual independence. In Mujer que sabe latín (1973), the Mexican feminist writer Rosario Castellanos lists examples of pre-twentieth-century women who broke with traditional roles and managed to "attain their authentic image and . . . choose themselves and prefer themselves over all others."[2] At the head of Castellanos's list is Sor Juana, but she is followed by a collection of fictional characters distinguished for their abandonment of everything, including sanity and life, to the cause of antisocial passion: Melibea, "Dorotea," "Amelia," Ana Ozores, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, and "La Pintada," whose nickname seems the final reduction of woman as literary character to the level of caricature. In this company of the imaginary creations of male writers, Sor Juana exists as legend, as phenomenon but not as woman in the imagination of the Mexican woman writer in search of a female tradition.[3]

As twentieth-century readers and critics reread the works of this woman canonized by her editors as the "Tenth Muse," and as critics explicate the complexity and subtlety of her classical allusions and scientific knowledge, the overwhelming impression is of her status as an exception in terms of sex and geographical distance from the European center of culture. Seen in her context by feminist readers in the twentieth century, she is an example of the necessity of special privilege in order for a talented woman to develop and exercise her talents in a culture that limits women's options, and her life is an illustration of the precariousness of that position.

What is remarkable about Sor Juana's writing is her clear awareness of her decisions to depart from the norm, and her unflinching confrontation with the consequences of those decisions. In her prose, poetry, and drama,


Sor Juana voices her protest against the injustice of women's place in her hypocritical society and of her own emblematic position of privilege at an impossible price. She defends herself and women in general in direct, first-person statements in her prose, through irony in her poetry, and through the character of Doña Leonor in her play Los empeños de una casa [The Trials of a Household ]. Leonor is extraordinarily beautiful and learned, but because she has no personal autonomy even in the choice of a husband, these attributes have been her misfortune, attracting multitudes of suitors from among whom her father will choose. Once she has voiced her obligatory lamentations, Leonor departs from the female norm for Spanish drama of the time by affirming her exceptional learning and describing the man she loves in a tone and in detail ordinarily reserved for men regarding women. Leonor's self-depiction as brilliant scholar could easily be applied to Sor Juana herself. Most important is an awareness of the price of her accomplishment and renown, with no false modesty or regret.

    Inclinéme a los estudios
desde mis primeros años
con tan ardientes desvelos,
con tan ansiosos cuidados,
que reduje a tiempo breve
fatigas de mucho espacio.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Era de mi patria toda
el objeto venerado
de aquellas adoraciones
que forma el común aplauso.
                    (2:2. 305–324)

[From my earliest years I was inclined toward study, with such burning sleeplessness and such anxious devotion that I reduced long tasks to a short space of time. . . . Throughout the country I was the venerated object of that adoration constituted by common applause.][4]

Los empeños de una casa departs from the norm of comedia plots in which intellectual women are subdued through marriage. Here, the woman is not blamed for choosing to realize her intellectual potential; instead, the vulgo , the "superstitious" throng, are blamed for simultaneously exalting their idol to the status of a deity and depriving her of her freedom. Leonor's marriage to a man she has chosen is both a concession to comic convention—the only ending possible for a work belonging to such a public genre as theater—and a symbolic resolution to the problem of female autonomy.

Sor Juana herself knew that there were no such felicitous reconciliations in the lives of learned women. In her autobiographical account in defense of her scholarly pursuits, the Respuesta a Sor Filotea , she explains that she rejected


marriage and chose the convent so that she could continue to study. Since the purpose of the Respuesta was in part an apologia, her self-portrayal is both honest and calculated to show her courage and ingenuity in confronting a paucity of options in her youth.

The Autobiographical Project As Self-definition

Born Juana Ramírez de Azbaje, the illegitimate child of a Mexican-born mother, she began life on the margins of the rigidly hierarchical Counter-Reformation culture of Nueva España. In a society that was itself in a process of transition and self-definition, separated as it was from the European centers of the dominant culture, Sor Juana defined herself, and determined the course of all but the last two years of her life, within the possible modes of existence. She devoted much of her life to writing secular and religious poetry and to the study of theology, speculative philosophy, and natural science, all unusual for a woman and dangerous even for male writers in a Counter-Reformation Hispanic environment. The contradictions and silences in her writing are indications of the tensions generated by her confrontations with Counter-Reformation doctrines of humility, obedience, and ignorance as preferable to heresy. Sor Juana's self-definition extends even to the fact that most of the biographical details we have come from her own account in the Respuesta a Sor Filotea [response to Sor Filotea]. This is her view of herself, her self-portrait created in the image by which she chose to be remembered, written between the lines of an erudite letter defending her right to study and to make her work available to others.

Aware of how potentially disruptive a self-defined and articulate woman could be, Sor Juana's confessor, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, "having recognized her singular erudition together with her not inconsequential beauty . . . used to say that God could not send a greater scourge to Mexico than if he had allowed Juana Inés to remain in the public and secular world."[5] The term Father Núñez de Miranda used was "la publicidad del siglo," and the theological debate in which the nun engaged in 1690 did bring her into the public sphere, not completely by her own choice.

Ironically, the confrontation with the church hierarchy ensuing from this particular debate began with the apparent encouragement of her superiors in 1690, when she wrote a critique of a sermon by the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra on Christ's greatest gift to mankind. Where her pursuits in the enclosed convent world intersected with the politicized sphere of theological discourse outside, the nun found herself trapped in a public light that, for a woman in her context, meant scandal. Her critique came to the attention of Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Bishop of Puebla, who published it without the nun's knowledge under the title Carta Atenagórica , meaning "worthy of Athena." At the same time he criticized Sor Juana for her participation


in theological debates, in a letter signed "Sor Filotea," applying St. Paul's prescription that women should keep silent and study only for the sake of learning, not with the purpose of teaching others. He advised Sor Juana to abandon secular studies for theology.

Sor Juana's defense, the well-known Respuesta a Sor Filotea (1691), confronts the issue of women's right to study and courageously affirms her scholarly dedication. Her clarity of reasoning, eloquence, and erudition are evident in this defense. But she also renounced her scholarly pursuits soon after writing the Respuesta and dispersed her library, one of the most extensive in the Americas at the time. The reasons for this renunciation are not clear, but most probably were a combination of pressure from ecclesiastical authority and a change in the power structure that had previously supported her work. Although the Respuesta was not published, only circulated, during Sor Juana's lifetime, her confessor Father Núñez withdrew his support from Sor Juana soon afterward.

Sor Juana's self-depiction and justification in the Respuesta is itself daring and dangerous, and each representation of her choices has a purpose. For example, she says that she was willing to dress as a boy in order to go to school and learn Latin. Latin was not only the language of learning but also the language of power, and her erudition won her entrance into the court of the viceroy and his wife, who became her patrons. While she was learning Latin at home, she says, she cut off an inch of her beloved hair each time she did not progress sufficiently: her perception of the relationship between female identity and access to power is evident. She was acclaimed and welcomed in the secular world, but decided to enter the convent because, as she says, given the "total antipathy she felt for marriage," convent life seemed "the least unsuitable and the most honorable" way of life she could choose. As the title of Electa Arenal's study of Sor Juana and other nuns of the period indicates, the convent was a "catalyst for autonomy," an environment in which, at least for a time, she could engage in intellectual work.[6]

But in her self-representation, Sor Juana also depicts herself as defiant and unable to repress her intellectual curiosity. Having chosen religious life as a setting for intellectual work, she found that the church objected to her studies in natural science, the secular area of speculative philosophy that could not be controlled by theological doctrine and would eventually challenge it openly. When ordered to renounce her studies for a few months, Sor Juana says, she was unable to resist the pursuit of knowledge and made inadvertent scientific observations in the cooking of an egg or the contemplation of perspective in a convent dormitory. She jokingly speculates on how much more Aristotle would have written had he entered the kitchen.[7] Her intellectual activity, ranging from the everyday to the most esoteric areas of theology, astronomy, mathematics, and speculative philosophy, brought her into areas the church hierarchy considered dangerous and potentially


heretical. Thus, there could be no adequate rebuttal to the implicit accusations in the letter by "Sor Filotea"; the nun's obedience to the church meant renunciation of the very intellectual work that had motivated her decision to renounce the "world" and enter the convent.

The interaction of the "world" and the convent in Sor Juana's life was complex and multidimensional. All her work, with the exception of the, Primero Sueño [First Dream ], as she explains in the Respuesta a Sor Filotea , was written on commission for religious or court festivities. Like most writers of her time, she was dependent upon the benevolence of her patrons, in her case patrons in the highest secular and religious positions. Unlike that of her male counterparts, her very writing—even her popular villancicos written for ecclesiastical festivities—was an act of defiance. She was a nun of the Jeronymite order, which allowed her the time and freedom to study and to receive educated and powerful visitors in her "salon," in the convent's public locutorio , where she could discuss intellectual and artistic questions. Nonetheless, her vows ultimately bound her to obedience to her superiors. When she was accused by the bishop of Puebla, disguised as a sisterly adviser, of devoting herself too much to worldly pursuits, the offense was clearly not her love poetry or her commissioned works for public ceremonies but her theological writing, her participation in an area where women as scholars were not permitted, and the accusation served as a warning that ultimately silenced her.

She refers to silence, and the dangers of misunderstanding its meaning, in her Respuesta , leaving the perceptive reader to wonder what she left unsaid:

. . . casi me he determinado a dejarlo al silencio, pero como éste es cosa negativa, aunque explica mucho con el énfasis de no explicar, es necesario ponerle algún breve rótulo para que se entienda lo que se pretende que el silencio diga; y si no, dirá nada el silencio, porque ése es su oficio: decir nada.

She then refers to St. Paul's experience of hearing words that he could not repeat:

No dice lo que vio, pero dice que no lo puede decir; de manera que aquellas cosas que no se pueden decir, es menester decir siquiera que no se pueden decir, para que se entienda que el callar no es no haber qué decir, sino no caber en las voces lo mucho que hay que decir.

[I . . . was sorely tempted to take refuge in silence. But as silence is a negative thing, though it explains a great deal through the very stress of not explaining, we must assign some meaning to it that we may understand what the silence is intended to say, for if not, silence will say nothing, as that is its very office, to say nothing . . . . [St. Paul] does not say what he heard; he says that he cannot say it. So that of things one cannot say, it is needful to say at least that they cannot be said, so that it may be understood that not speaking is not the same as having nothing to say, but rather being unable to express the many things there are to say.][8]


Sor Juana in the Gendered Imagination

Recent critics have tried to explain the renunciation and silence at the end of Sor Juana's life. Her renunciation was emblematic for Latin American women writers of the twentieth century, whose careers may not have been marked by such dramatic changes from public acclaim to confrontation with and censure by the authorities, but who still encountered social obstacles to their writing and publication. Hispanic women writers regard her as a kind of patron saint. Rosario Castellanos's significant inclusion of Sor Juana in a list of fictional characters is symptomatic of the place of women intellectuals in Hispanic society. Women writers and critics continued to be excluded from the mainstream of cultural life, and separated from a significant role model by her distortion as legend during the three centuries following her birth.

Not surprisingly, among the first major studies on Sor Juana's work were those by men like Ludwig Pfandl, who explained her unique intellectual accomplishments as resulting from a biological aberration combined with a narcissistic fixation on her father: if she could not be denied her intellectual accomplishments, she must be denied her identity as a woman, thereby depriving other women of the possibility of recognizing themselves in her writing.[9] Octavio Paz claims that women were "slow" to bring their critical talents to bear on her work, and yet it was the research of Dorothy Schons in the 1920s that revealed Sor Juana's illegitimacy and supplied essential material for Paz's rewriting of Pfandl's thesis concerning Sor Juana's relationship to her father.[10]

Since Sor Juana's tercentenary in the 1950s, studies (including Paz's) have focused on her erudition in the context of the dominant European culture that she seems to have assimilated, transformed, and in some cases perhaps anticipated—in particular, Cartesian philosophy of mind. Recent studies of Sor Juana's polemical letters, the Carta Atenagórica and the Respuesta a Sor Filotea , as well as her long epistemological poem, the Primero Sueño , illuminate the intellectual subtleties of these texts. It is necessary, however, to bring this erudition into the perspective of Sor Juana's self-identity as female writer and find the radical difference evident in each of her assumptions of the mask of seventeenth-century European culture, particularly since her Sueño addresses the question of knowledge itself. Paz admits that his subtitle, Las trampas de la fe [The Traps of Faith ], applies only to Sor Juana's self-accusation before the ecclesiastical authorities, but it emphasizes the hopelessness of her attempt at intellectual freedom within the convent and as a woman manipulating discourse in a setting where discourse could be effectively distorted or contradicted by the men in power.

Sor Juana's intellectual energy—her ability to deploy the arguments of Scholastic theology and surpass the subtle intertextual complexity of Spain's


most challenging Baroque poet, Luis de Góngora—placed her in the Hispanic literary canon, but under conditions that denied the importance of gender and her relationship to her racially and hierarchically complex society. Thus, the Chicana playwright Estela Portillo Trambley's dramatization of Sor Juana's life contributes to a feminist reading by representing her close spiritual relationships with her Jeronymite sisters and a painful separation from Juana, the mulatto slave who was reared with Sor Juana and sent with her to the convent as a servant.[11] Trambley indicates the direction for feminist reading of Sor Juana by populating the stage with human relationships. She dramatizes the loyalties, conflicts, and self-awareness that animated Sor Juana's life and have spoken to generations of women readers in search of verification of their experience.

Painted portraits of Sor Juana show her wearing a large oval medallion depicting the Annunciation, sometimes nearly covering her chest—an image appropriate to her Jeronymite order but also symbolic of the poet's paradoxical status. Through the process of her literary canonization, the image of her as exceptional—chosen like the Virgin for special honors and trials, singled out first by her gifts and then by the viceroys—obscures her multidimensional being as a woman, and her being in the world. She herself alluded to the sufferings of Christ in her Respuesta , choosing an even more daring symbol for her unique status.

As an illegitimate and unmarried female outsider, Sor Juana exposes contradictions in contemporary Hispanic culture, particularly and obviously in the popular redondilla "Hombres necios" [foolish men], mocking men's condemnation of prostitution as immoral when they are themselves the eager beneficiaries and the essential mechanism for its perpetuation:

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
¿ O cuál es más de culpar,
aunque cualquiera mal haga:
la que peca por la paga
o el que paga por pecar?

[You foolish men, who accuse
Women without good reason,
You are the cause of what you blame,
Yours the guilt you deny.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When each is guilty of sin,
Which is the most to blame:
She who sins for payment,
Or he who pays for the sin?][12]


Double-Voiced Dreaming in the Discourse of the Baroque

Sor Juana exposes the contradictions more subtly in the last line of her philosophical reflection on knowledge, the Sueño , whose last line, "y yo despierta" [and I, awake], introduces for the first time in this 975-line poem the identity of the speaker as female. The gendered "despierta" appearing at the end invites a rereading of the encyclopedic and apparently universalizing exploration of macrocosm and microcosm. The dream of comprehensive knowledge from which she awakens is a dream of intellectual freedom in which she can represent her subjectivity as consciousness. The representation of mental exploration is her clearest, most universalized, and thus most ambitious self-portrait.

The criticism of the 1970s and 1980s has placed the Primero Sueño in the tradition of dream and visionary literature. A typical example is Cicero's Somnium Scipionis , in which the structure of the universe as concentric spheres moving in harmony is revealed to the dreaming narrator by an ancestor. What is unique about the Sueño is the absence of a guiding spirit upon whose authority the dreamer can depend, and the failure of the dream to reveal a cosmic system by which all things can be understood.[13] The Olympian gods wander throughout the poem, but the Christian God is mentioned only indirectly in a reference to the Eucharist. This particular absence is not so surprising, given Sor Juana's professed fear of heresy in a misinterpretation of doctrine, voiced specifically in the Respuesta . The dreamer's autonomy and the pagan cosmology are radical departures from tradition and evasions of Inquisitorial objections. In light of these absences, Sor Juana's audacity can be appreciated.

Sor Juana's constituting herself as subject challenges the gender system. She undermines the self-justifying intellectual theory of the gender system in her defense of her right to study theology in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea . She exposes the social practice of objectifying women as prostitutes (in "Hombres necios") and as objects of desire in her poems on her own portrait and in verbal portraits of other women. The Sueño , with its implicit and explicit valorization and universalization of her mental activity and, not incidentally, of her unconscious physical processes, refutes both the theory and the practice of objectifying women.

Sor Juana transforms many of the traditions in which she participates, thus surpassing her models. This emulation is not mere stylistic bravura or aesthetic virtuosity, but rather an active engagement with the texts and the ideology they embody. An awareness of this engagement as an exceptionally brilliant and marginalized subject can lead to a useful approach to the Sueño . Sor Juana's stylistic complexity is clearly inspired by Góngora's dynamic interrelationships of the conceptual and mythological, with imagery inter-woven so densely that his contemporaries often complained of deliberate


obscurity and, worse, that in his Soledades there was no meaning, only a chaos of words and seductive images. The "Homero español" replied that there was embedded in the complexity of the text a philosophical meaning, but it has only been in recent criticism that an underlying structure has been explained in terms of the networks of mythological allusions.[14] One of the submerged themes of these systems of mythological allusion is the transgression of human and divine law through violence, incest, homoerotic lust of deities for mortals, and attempts by mortals to surpass the gods: the Soledad primera opens with an allusion to Zeus's rape of Europa and his abduction of Ganymede, and the Polifemo describes Sicily as tomb of the Titans, destroyed in their attempt to scale the heavens. Implicit is the image of the poet, surpassing his models to push his linguistic play beyond the known limits of poetic creation. Sor Juana employs this theme of transgression for her own purposes.

One of the rare seventeenth-century readers able to appreciate the significance of Góngora's allusions, Sor Juana uses similarly transgressive and sacrilegious figures from classical mythology in the Sueño . More important than the sensory or emotional impact of imagery is the metarepresentation of the poet's attempt to transgress the limits of everyday reality. She begins with allusion to arcane knowledge, the "pyramid" that is more than a simple geometrical figure or a reference to astronomical models. She intensifies the sense of mystery with an allusion to Nictymene, whose incest was punished by her transformation into an owl, here depicted as blasphemously drinking the oil from the sacred lamps of day.[15] Scattered throughout the poem are mythological figures who were destroyed in their vain attempts to cross the boundaries between human and divine—Icarus, Phaeton, Actaeon—and imagery of shipwrecks, all metaphors for the failure of the envisioned modes of knowledge, whether intuitive, visionary, or logical. The suggestively arcane pyramid and the owl (with her triple identity as the incestuous Nictymene, Ascalaphos the underworld betrayer of Persephone, and the bird of Minerva) are grouped with the main light-source of the night, the triform moon-goddess Hecate, who has no dependable and authoritative shape and is a traditional symbol of the mysterious changes in women's bodies, never stable or law-abiding.

The soul's partial liberation from the body in sleep makes this dream vision possible, but the body's processes in sleep are described in scientific detail: the furnace of digestion, the bellows of the lungs, and the mechanism of hunger that awakens the sleeper. It has been suggested that the description of landscape in lines 97–100 represents the hidden darkness and concavities of the female body:

En los del monte senos escondidos,
cóncavos de peñascos mal formados


—de su aspereza menos defendidos
que de su obscuridad asegurados—,

[In forest lap and hidden mound
and hollow less by bristling thicket
than by dark defended—somber lairs
where even noon seems night—][16]

The lyric voice, however, until line 975, conveys a conviction that its "digo yo" carries the weight of the patriarchal texts it echoes, and the representation of sleeping microcosm and macrocosm seems gendered only on the level of mythology rather than physiology or metaphorical geography. More significant than the landscape in lines 97–100 are the references to female sexuality, among the deities later in the poem. The sea-goddess Thetis, with her "fértiles pechos maternales" [fertile maternal breasts], figures in a cosmogony: "los dules, apoyó manantïales / de humor terrestre" (lines 628–632) [from which all earthly life in bounty flows]. Her role as a source of vital energy is linked directly with the poem's search for a method of knowing the universe, proceeding along the Great Chain of Being. Ironically, this maternal image of the unity of the world with its source is articulated just after the dreamer has accepted the painful method of separating each element of the cosmos from the others in order to study, classify, and categorize it. The dream enacts the tensions and contradictions surfacing in seventeenth-century philosophy, and it demonstrates the close interaction between philosophical and poetic method.

Knowledge and female sexuality are again conceptually linked through mythology and with the recognition of the futility of trying to know one of nature's most basic secrets, beauty and reproductive powers. These powers are embodied in an elaborate image in the Sueño , an exploration of plant reproduction in a flower that is a clear metaphor for the female body in cycles of virginity, sexual blossoming, and motherhood:

quien de la breve flor aun no sabía
por qué ebúrnea figura
circunscribe su frágil hermosura:
mixtos, por qué, colores
—confundiendo la grana en los albores—
fragrante le son gala:
ámbares por qué exhala,
y el leve, si más bello
ropaje al viento explica,
que en una y otra fresca multiplica
hija, formando pompa escarolada
de dorados perfiles cairelada,
que—roto del capillo el blanco sello—
de dulce herida de la Cipria Diosa


los despojos ostenta jactanciosa,
si ya el que la colora,
candor al alba, púrpura al aurora
no le usurpó, y, mezclado,
purpúreo es ampo, rosicler nevado:
tornasol que concita
los que del prado aplausos solicita:
preceptor quizá vano
—si no ejemplo profano—
de industria femenil que el más activo
veneno, hace dos veces ser nocivo
en el velo aparente
de la que finge tez resplandeciente.

[nor yet, how the brief flower
blooms, frail chalice, in
ivory beauty circumscribed;
nor how, assorting colors—
scarlet tones with pale—
its fragrance it displays;
nor how, when lightest clad,
in flimsiest garment,
sweetest ambers it exhales,
and by the wind, ethereal,
multiplied, time and again,
produces offspring laced
with its same golden tints,
as delicately fringed,
from close protected bud,
unsealed—Venus's sweet wound—
blossoming forth in full array,
dawn's blush and pallor
borrowing to combine
the snowflake and the rose,
with rainbow hues soliciting
and glorying in Nature's applause;
mistress of vanity, perhaps,
profane example of feminine art,
which mixing sublimates and leads
to dress appearances,
deceitful, in bright veils,
turns deadliest poison
to even deadlier effect.][17]

The mingling of white and red in the description of female beauty was a commonplace of Renaissance poetry, and the terms "purpúreo" and "rosicler nevado" were typical of Góngora, but the delicate eroticism combined


with scientific investigation and its failure before such miracles transforms poetic cliché and redirects the tradition. The transition to a condemnation of the use of cosmetics is not simply a distraction from the sensual impact of the preceding verses, but serves rather to confirm the suspicion that the reference has been to human, rather than floral, sexuality throughout the passage.

Poetic Portrait, Epistemological Self-portrait

The Primero Sueño explores the available modes of human knowledge from the geometrical movements of celestial bodies to the intricate workings of the human body, using induction, logic, and intuition, all revealed as inadequate in the waking world. The poem is shaped by the limits of human knowledge. Sor Juana's poetic portraits and self-portraits confront and are shaped by the limits of female identity. They are also shaped by and confront the literary conventions of the time.

Although the terms "verbal portrait" and "self-portrait" suggest analogies with the visual arts, it is only the verbal portrait, as in the medieval blason or the Petrarchist representation of the lady's attributes, that enumerates physical attributes. Literary self-portraiture, a mode distinct from verbal portraiture as well as from autobiography, is a representation of the subject's consciousness—not how the writer appears to others, nor the events in her life, but what she knows and how she explains her knowing it. The exploration of human knowledge, ranging from the relationships of the stars and the shadow of the earth on the moon to the internal processes of the body in sleep, in the Sueño , exemplifies self-portraiture as an epistemological and encyclopedic mode.[18] This is a mode distinct from Sor Juana's autobiographical narrative in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea , although her self-representation in the letter goes beyond the narration of experience.

The vast epistemological vision of the Sueño is given the greatest latitude within contemporary poetic conventions through the metrical form of the silva , irregularly rhymed, having no fixed stanzaic form, and through the generic classification of "dream vision." But if this kind of dream need not be gendered until the moment of waking, in which the dreamer's voice is identified, the poet cannot so easily suppress her female perspective in verbal portraits describing other women, for example her patroness the Condesa de Paredes in the romance decasílabo "Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato" [may heaven serve as the plate for the engraving]. The traditional medieval blason and, later, the Petrarchan portrait objectify the woman in terms of her physical attributes from head to toe, attaching metaphysical attributes through metaphor to each detail of her body but explicitly rejecting any inherent value in the object chosen for contemplation. Sor Juana's verbal portraits of her patronesses expose the contradictions of neoplatonic love poetry. If it is only the soul's correspondence to spiritual values that is represented in the metaphorical representation of physical beauty, and the poetic portrait is


truly devoid of the erotic intent that physical description seems to imply, then it should not matter whether the subject contemplating and describing a woman's physical beauty is male or female. But desire is the central issue of Renaissance secular poetry, and it was a bold aesthetic departure for a female subject to enter the closed system of male observers and speakers, each outdoing the other's verbal representations of female objects.

There are cultural barriers to the female poet's inscribing her gaze on the female body as well as barriers to her inscribing her own body, and those cultural barriers are products of the prohibition of female desire. Courtly love conventions position the beloved as dominant and denying her favors to the devoted male lover, whose description of her beauty has the literary function of substituting for his control of her body. The women Sor Juana describes and to whom she dedicates much of her secular poetry were in fact in positions of real power; they were her patrons. The poems cast an ironic light on the claims of Renaissance poetry, a kind of irony possible only in a poem signed by a woman.

The potential for mockery of the spiritual intentions of the lyric voice in Renaissance poetry had been exploited by some of Sor Juana's male predecessors. Petrarchist poetry, abounding in lexicalized metaphors of hair as gold, eyes as suns, lips of coral, complexion of marble or crystal, teeth as pearls, inspired Francisco de Quevedo to explode the conventions and ironically consider how much the metaphorical jewels and gold would fetch on the market. The terms of the metaphor—the corporeal beauty and the precious metals and stones to which it is compared—are equally physical and lacking in transcendent value. The function of the precious objects, to elevate physical beauty to a metaphysical realm, is debased as the poet converts them into market value and calls attention to the objectification of the beloved.

In her romance decasílabo "Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato," Sor Juana uses a more subtle approach to the exploitation and parody of conventional poetic portraiture. Her female identity creates a witty tension between eroticism and intellectualization. She asserts that only the heavens can serve as a surface on which to inscribe this portrait ("lámina," in Trueblood's translation, a plate for engraving rather than canvas) and requests that the stars compose "syllables" to represent her. By textualizing the female body, Sor Juana challenges the objectification of women in Renaissance portraiture and affirms herself as writer.

She chooses erudite images from a wide range of classical and contemporary contexts: the Condesa de Paredes's face is compared to that of "Hécate," her waist to the Bosporus, her legs to Doric or Ionian columns, her grace to a banana tree. Sor Juana restores some value to the endeavor of representing her patroness by transferring the imagery of the complexion from the realm of pure sensory delight to that of intellect, in a personification reminiscent of Góngora's image of straw in Polyphemus's overflowing shepherd's pouch, as


"pálida tutora" [pale governess] dutifully carrying out the responsibility of ripening fruit. In Sor Juana's poem,

Cátedras de abril, tus mejillas,
clásicas dan a mayo, estudiosas:
métodos a jazmines nevados,
fórmula rubicunda a las rosas.[19

[Your cheeks are April's lecture halls, / with classic lessons to impart to May: / recipes for making jasmine snowy, / formulas for redness in the rose.][20]

Thus, Sor Juana's wit is based on a metaphorical and authoritative structure of pedagogy and of plays on the classical etymologies of words themselves. As ingenio , wit itself represents the processes of consciousness and of poetic creation.

Sor Juana renews the old metaphors of feminine beauty, even in a poem that purports to participate in a traditional mode of depicting women as passive and as metaphorical possessions through contemplation in terms of objects of value. This project is not without ambivalences and contradictions. The poet constitutes the female as a culturally created object while she defiantly affirms her own legitimacy as female subject, participating in that culture and inscribing the female body into culture rather than nature as poetic symbol of transcendent value and theological symbol of inherent female sinfulness. Thus, by textualizing the female body in the romance decasílabo Sor Juana rejects the division of nature from culture and the corresponding gender categories.

Sor Juana portrays herself as literary creator and mocks the conventions of verbal portraiture in her "Ovillejos," a conscious imitation of Jacinto Polo de Medina's "Fábula burlesca de Apolo y Dafne" in its skeptical attitude toward the possibility of portraying "Lisarda" in words.[21] Polo began with the feet instead of the head in his description of purely literary beings; Sor Juana does not even begin her description of Lisarda until line 229, and she does not in fact portray anything but the endeavor of verbal portraiture itself. To emphasize the burlesque nature of this portrait, Sor Juana refers to an anecdote cited twice by Cervantes in part 2 of Don Quijote , concerning the bad painter Orbaneja, whose anarchic aesthetic motto was "Dé donde diere" (2.3 and 71). Sor Juana claims to paint

dé donde diere,
salga como saliere,
aunque saque un retrato,
tal que, después, le ponga:  Aquéste es gato .

[haphazardly; let the picture come out as it will, even if it produces a portrait on which afterwards a label will have to be attached: "This is a cat."]


While the medium of forms and colors should be sufficient for the painter to convey his meaning without the assistance of another art, the poet who is already working with words playfully suggests the need for a clarifying label borrowed from writing, a medium that is in fact not outside her activity but already inscribed within it.

Amid descriptions of the difficulties of poetic creation, the lyric speaker makes a pointed observation about the vanity of traditional love poetry:

¿ Pues qué es ver las metáforas cansadas
en que han dado las Musas alcanzadas?
No hay ciencia, arte, ni oficio
que con extraño vicio
los poetas, con vana sutileza,
no anden acomodando a la belleza;
y pensando que pintan de los cielos,
hacen los retablos de sus duelos.

[What are all the tired metaphors with which poets have overtaken the Muses? There is no science, art, or profession the poets have not, with strange malice and vain subtlety, accommodated to beauty, and thinking that they paint the heavens, they paint altarpieces to their sufferings.]

The conventions of courtly love, she points out, verge on masochistic idolatry.

The creative voice and a critical one engage in a dialogue that culminates in the attempted affirmation, "Es, pues, Lisarda; es, pues . . ." [Lisarda is, well, she is . . . ]. In response, the internal "critic" complains that this poem is a painting and not a definition. Considerable energy is spent on the attempt to rhyme with "Lisarda"; the poet struggling with the unwieldy medium of language in poetic form is the true object of representation in this verbal portrait. The closing line of the poem affirms that the "Ovillejos" represent poetic process and do not create a static visual image: "Juana Inés de la Cruz la retrataba" [Juana Inés de la Cruz was portraying her].

It is not only Sor Juana's verbal portraits of other women that challenge the objectification of women. The Sueño and her defense of female intellectual activity in the Respuesta establish the validity of the female subject. In Sor Juana's poems, this female subject is inseparable from her self-contemplation and contemplation of other women. Her sonnet "Este, que yes, engaño colorido," a meditation on her painted portrait as a deception, confronts and demystifies the enigmas of time and desire in the tradition of carpe diem poetry, traditionally urging the lady to enjoy her transitory beauty by yielding to her suitor's desires. The clarity of the lyric voice deflects the possessive gaze from her own image and instead turns a mirror toward the male observer, as Diego Velázquez's Venus challenges the expected view of herself and, if the


visual logic of the painting is followed, contemplates the voyeur in her mirror.

While Velázquez's mirror shows only an enigmatic face and reveals nothing of what is seen by the woman, Sor Juana's poetic voice interprets the image of feminine beauty as a symbol of mortality, the ostensible theme of all seductive carpe diem poetry. But it is the profound and almost violent irony with which she exposes the irrationality of the traditional appeal to yield to fleshly temptation because of one's mortality that is striking in the sonnet. Although Sor Juana echoes Luis de Góngora's sonnet "Mientras por competir con tu cabello," in her poem the female speaker, whose face is the object portrayed in the painted representation of beauty, reveals the irrationality of the genre. Her representation of the true nature of mortal beauty is shocking: "es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada" [it is a cadaver, it is dust, it is shadow, it is nothing]. She dramatically transforms her poetic models and renders Góngora's "en sombra, en polvo, en tierra, en humo, en nada" [into shadow, dust, earth, smoke, nothing] a euphemistic evasion.

Sor Juana's female perspective illuminates the contradictions of time and desire inherent in the topos of carpe diem in its Counter-Reformation theological context. The speaking subject explores the questions of being in the world, being for oneself, being in relation to God—questions that require a valuing of the subject and not her painted representation. The terms are reversed, as in any mirror, by the gender difference in the speaking subject, from temporal pleasure to eternal salvation.

Sor Juana confronted questions of female perspective that cannot be isolated from the aesthetic and philosophical questions implicit in each literary work. When one addresses the specific problems of literary portraiture in Sor Juana's work, the paradoxes and contradictions apparent in the polemical letters and the daring Sueño are necessary points of reference. The audacity of a woman poet's usurpation of the male role of observer of women is the first obvious confrontation of the poet with the limitations imposed by gender as defined by her society. But this is only a single image in the mirror she holds up to gender (as in her sonnet on her portrait, "Este, que ves . . ."), to the codes of behavior for nuns, and to the definitions of theological and secular knowledge in her time. Her female identity combined with her erudition made it possible for her to equal and often exceed the expertise of her hierarchical superiors in terms of the systems of knowledge of the times. She manipulated these codes in the defense of women's learning, seeming to reproduce them, but with a baffling difference that astounded by its ingenuity but could not, ultimately, protect her from those in power. In her polemical letters, she cites Scripture and interprets it historically to defend women's right to study, if not to preach or take a public role in the religious hierarchy, but ultimately Scripture belonged to the bishop of Puebla, and to more powerful enemies of an autonomous female subject. While the Respuesta


was written in a mode of scholarly discourse the bishop would recognize as his own—a mask donned by the female writer to gain entrance into male realms of theological debate—the bishop had condescendingly or ironically affirmed Sor Juana's female identity as the writer of her Carta Atenagórica , by signing his reply "Sor Filotea," as if it were undignified for a male superior to engage in intellectual debate with a female inferior.

Female Subject, Female Gaze

Despite his professed disagreement with Ludwig Pfandl's thesis concerning Sor Juana as psychological aberration, Octavio Paz's puzzlement at the phenomenon of the female gaze in Sor Juana's portraits causes him to devote a disproportionate part of his study to determining the nature of Sor Juana's sexuality. He vacillates between the ideology of courtly, neoplatonic, intellectual, and spiritual friendship and the anachronism of "lesbian" or "sapphic" overtones of the relationship between the nun and her patroness, the Condesa de Paredes.[22]

A more productive question than the nature of the poet's unknowable "sentimientos" would be the significance of her act of writing the transgressive female gaze. Her writing is a direct confrontation with the cultural constitution of the female as the passive object of contemplation. She constructs a trap of her own for the patriarchal reader, accustomed to the bad faith of Renaissance poetics of desire, taken for granted in its gendered standard of discourse. The female object of desire, treated as a passive statue in male poetic discourse, is revealed in Sor Juana's poetry to have been listening all along, and to be capable of mimicking the same discourse in a disconcerting way. Paz constructs a labyrinthine history of Western love leading occasionally through strictly male-defined Greek homosexuality, but he does not address the disruption caused by Sor Juana's writing about the female body from the point of view of the female gaze. Hardly another woman poet would write again so consciously of a named female body until the twentieth century, when the significance of such inscription would be inextricable from personal confession.

To Paz the central purpose of Sor Juana's life was knowledge, but in her cultural context knowledge was not neutral or merely acquired with no relationship to the structures of power. Learning Latin was a preliminary to the inscription of herself as subject in the structure of power. The search for knowledge was inextricably bound up with the mechanisms of power, and the modes of operation of these mechanisms in Sor Juana's life were linked directly to the act of writing. She represents herself as a questing mind, and in her portraits there are books, but there is also the hand holding the pen, a means of participation in theological debate and courtly ceremonies. In her Respuesta , Sor Juana argues that well-educated older women should teach


girls on a level higher than the "Amiga," and it seems clear that Sor Juana would have taught, had the conditions existed for her to do so.[23]

In her villancico "Víctor, víctor Catarina," Sor Juana praises the erudite St. Catherine not only for her knowledge but also for her use of it to confound the patriarchs and convince them that "el sexo / no es esencia en lo entendido" [to be female does not mean to lack wisdom]. Catherine, like Sor Juana, served the Church by defying the command to keep silent:

Estudia, arguye y enseña,
y es de la Iglesia servicio,
que no la quiere ignorante
El que racional la hizo.

[She studied, taught, and argued,
and thereby served the Church,
for He who created her a rational being
did not want her ignorant.]

Her writings in ink have been lost ("¡ oh dolor!"), but her example has been inscribed in blood.[24] Sor Juana's praise of St. Catherine is another self-portrait, conscious of its significance.

Rewriting the Female Script

In the dangerous project of constituting a female subject in the context of Counter-Reformation Hispanic discourse, who are Sor Juana's precursors? Her point of view as the illegitimate child of a Mexican-born mother and her position outside the institution of marriage, chosen to enable her to pursue her intellectual interests, place her on the margins of the culture whose discourse she so expertly manipulated, and this point of view makes her in some senses unique. In her Respuesta she cites biblical heroines in the defense of women's right to intellectual development, but a key precursor is St. Teresa of Ávila, who never claimed the right to study and who sought anonymity as a solution to her problems with the religious authorities of the late sixteenth century. Teresa did not write until her fifties, when she could no longer be accused, like so many other women mystics who were discredited, of being a hysterical female. When she did write about her mystical experiences, Teresa attributed them to "una persona que conozco," someone she happened to know. She constitutes herself invisibly as the "persona," a valid subject whose experience is an example of the relationship of the soul to God or of spiritual methods others can imitate. And yet, the presence of the nun speaking from experience to her religious sisters is unmistakable in Teresa's oral style.

In her Sueño , Juana's solution was androgyny rather than anonymity. It is the only poem she claims to have written for her own pleasure. The Sueño 's


development is ultimately toward an exaltation of the range and power of human knowledge, followed by the simultaneous recognition of the limits of possible modes of that knowledge and the reawakening to the dreamer's female identity. Androgynous and freely exploring the microcosm and macrocosm, the self can only temporarily transcend the limits of knowledge, just as Sor Juana's transcendence of gender in the poem, as well as in life, was only temporary. Juana refers to her own futile attempts at anonymity, "veiling the light of her name," in her Respuesta , but the continuation of her intellectual life depended in part upon the recognition and protection of important public figures. She had chosen to reflect on the very problems of self-depiction that were a major philosophical preoccupation of her male contemporaries. Her poetry defies the traditional objectification of women by constituting herself as subject, and as subject and object of a dream that fuses a poetic voice with a philosophical vision. Her affirmation of the validity of her life and thought inspired generations of Hispanic women to look for innovative depictions of woman as subject, to depict the conflict between her vision of herself and the appealing portraits painted to silence the expression of that vision.

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