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

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