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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]


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