Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

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

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.

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

Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.