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The Passionate Rebellion of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz : Octavio Paz on Latin America’s Greatest Baroque Poet

Octavio Paz is author of numerous books, including "The Labyrinth of Solitude" and "Sor Juana: or, The Traps of Faith." In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His essay for Book Review was translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

Editor’s Note: The publication by Penguin Classics of Margaret Sayers Peden’s long-awaited translation of the selected writings of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695) is a major literary event. Almost unknown in the English-speaking world, Sor Juana’s works have exercised a profound and continuing influence not only on the literature of Mexico, where she was born and where she died, but on the literature of the entire Spanish-speaking world.

Book Review asked Octavio Paz to adapt his famous essay on Sor Juana, written in 1950 in Paris, to mark the appearance in English of this bilingual collection of writings by Latin America’s finest Baroque poet, whose revealing autobiographical sonnets, reverential religious poetry, secular love poems, playful verses and lyrical tributes to New World culture are, as the publisher rightly remarks, “among the earliest writings celebrating the people and the customs of this hemisphere.”

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In 1690, Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s criticism of the Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra’s famous sermon on “Christ’s Proofs of Love for Man.” This Carta Atenagorica [“Letter Worthy of Athena”] is Sor Juana’s only theological composition. Written at a friend’s request and “with more repugnance than any other feeling, as much because it treats sacred things, for which I have reverent terror, as because it seems to wish to impugn, for which I have a natural aversion,” the Carta had immediate repercussions. It was most unusual that a Mexican nun should dare to criticize with as much rigor as intellectual boldness the celebrated confessor of Christina of Sweden. But if her criticism of Vieyra produced astonishment, her singular opinion of divine favors must have perturbed even those who admired her. Sor Juana maintained that the greatest beneficences of God are negative: “To reward is beneficence, to punish is beneficence, and to suspend beneficence is the greatest beneficence of all.” In a nun who loved poetry and science, this idea ran the risk of being judged as something more than a theological subtlety; if the greatest divine favor were indifference, did this not too greatly enlarge the sphere of free will?

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The bishop of Puebla did not conceal his disagreement. Under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz, he declared in the missive that preceded the Carta atenagorica: “Although your discretion calls them [the negative beneficences] blessings, I hold them to be punishments.” Indeed, for the Christian there is no life outside of grace, even liberty itself is a reflection of that grace. Moreover, the prelate did not content himself with demonstrating his lack of conformity with Sor Juana’s theology but manifested a still more decisive and cutting reprobation of her intellectual and literary affinities: “I do not intend that you change your nature by renouncing books, but better it by reading that of Jesus Christ. . . . It is a pity that so great an understanding lower itself in such a way by unworthy notice of the Earth that it have not desire to penetrate what transpires in Heaven and, since it be already lowered to the ground, that it not descend farther, to consider what transpires in Hell.” The bishop’s letter brought Sor Juana face to face with the problem of her vocation and, more fundamentally, with her entire life. The theological discussion passed to a second plane.

The “Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz” was the last thing Sor Juana wrote. It is a singular document, unique in the literature of her epoch. An intellectual autobiography, it is also a defense of women’s right to learning. Two years later, she sold her books and abandoned herself to the powers of silence. Ripe for death, she did not escape the epidemic of 1695. I fear that it may not be possible to understand what her work and her life tell us unless first we understand the meaning of this renunciation of the word.

Catholicism arrived in Mexico as a centuries-old religion with a subtle and complex philosophy that left no door open to the ardors of investigation or the doubts of speculation. In all the other orders of the culture, the situation was similar: There was nothing to invent, nothing to add, nothing to propose. Scarcely born, New Spain was an opulent flower condemned to a premature and static maturity. Sor Juana embodies this maturity. She never transcended the style of her epoch. It was not possible for her to break those forms that imprisoned her so subtly and within which she moved with such elegance: To have destroyed them would have been to repudiate her own being. The conflict was insoluble because her one escape would have demanded the destruction of the very foundations of the colonial world.

As it was not possible to deny the principles on which that society rested without repudiating oneself, it was also impossible to propose others. Neither the tradition nor the history of New Spain could propose alternative solutions. It is true that two centuries later other principles were adopted, but one must remember that they came from outside--from the United States and France--and would form a different society. At the end of the 17th century, the colonial world lost any possibility of renewing itself: The same principles that had engendered it were now choking it.

Denying this world and affirming another were acts that could not have the same significance for Sor Juana that they had for the great spirits of the Counter Reformation or the evangelists of New Spain. For Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius, renunciation of this world did not signify resignation or silence. Militant Catholicism, evangelical or reformist, impregnated history with meaning and the negation of the world was translated finally into an affirmation of historical action. In contrast, the truly personal portion of Sor Juana’s work does not touch upon either action or contemplation but upon knowledge. This new kind of knowledge was impossible within the tenets of her historical universe. For more than 20 years, Sor Juana adhered to her purpose. And she did not yield until all doors were definitely closed. When history awakened her from her dream at the end of her life, she ceased to speak. Her awakening closed the golden dream of the viceroyship. If we do not understand her silence, we cannot comprehend what “First I Dream” and the “Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz” really mean; Knowledge is impossible and all utterance flows into silence. Understanding her silence

transcribes glory

from letters that spell out tragedy.

Ambiguous glories. Everything in her--vocation, soul, body--was ambivalent. When she was still a child, her family sent her to Mexico City to live with relatives. At 16, she was lady-in-waiting to the Marquesa de Mancera, Vicereine of New Spain. Through the biography by Father P. Diego Calleja, we are able to hear echoes of the celebrations and competitions in which Juana, the young prodigy, shone. Beautiful and alone, she was not without suitors. But in her situation, poor and without a known father, marriage was difficult. This is why she recounts in the “Response” that she took the habit because “given the total antipathy I felt for marriage, I deemed convent life the least unsuitable and most honorable I could elect.” We know now that she was an illegitimate child. Had she been legitimate, would she have chosen married life? This possibility is, at the least, dubious. When Sor Juana speaks of her intellectual vocation, she seems sincere; neither the absence of worldly love nor the urgency of divine love led her to the cloister. The convent was an expedient, a reasonable solution, offering refuge and solitude. The cell was an asylum, not a hermit’s cave. Laboratory, library, salon--there, she received visitors and conversed with them. Poems were read; discussions were held; good music, heard. Sor Juana participated from the convent in both intellectual and court life. She was constantly writing poetry. She wrote plays, Christmas carols, prologues, a treatise on music. Between the viceregal palace and the convent flowed a constant exchange of civilities, compliments, satirical poems and petitions. Indulged child, the Tenth Muse.

Love is one of the constant themes in her poetry. Scholars say that she loved and was loved. She herself tells us this in poems in lira and sonnet form--although in the “Response” she warns us that everything she wrote, except for the “Dream,” was commissioned. It is of little importance whether these were her loves or another’s; whether they were experienced or imagined, she made them her own. Her eroticism is intellectual; by that I do not mean that it is lacking either profundity or authenticity. Like all great lovers, Sor Juana delights in the dialectic of passion. The men and women in her poems are images, shadows “fashioned by fantasy.” Her Platonism is not exempt from ardor. She feels that her body is like a sexless flame.

I know only that my body,

not to either state inclined,

is neuter, abstract, guardian

of only what my Soul consigns.

The question is a burning one. Thus, she leaves it “to let others, if they will, debate,” since one should not attempt subtleties about things that are best ignored. No less ambiguous is her attitude toward the two sexes. The men of her sonnets and liras are fleeting shadows exemplifying absence and disdain. On the other hand, her portraits of women are splendid, notably those of her friend, the Condesa de Paredes, Vicereine of Mexico. The “Romance” that “paints the beautiful proportions of the Condesa de Paredes” is one of the memorable works of 17th century eroticpoetry. This passion should not scandalize.

There is no obstacle to love

in gender or in absence,

for souls, as you are well aware,

transcend both sex and distance.

The same rationale appears in almost all her amorous poems--and also the poems that treat the friendship that she professes for Phyllis or Lysis. “Pure love, without desire for indecencies, can feel what profanest love feels.” It would be excessive to speak of homosexuality; it is not excessive to observe that she herself does not hide the ambiguity of her sentiments.

Her loves, real or imagined, were without doubt chaste. She loved the body with her soul, but who can trace the boundaries between one and the other? For us, body and soul are one, or almost so. Sor Juana lived in a world based on dualism, and for her, the problem was easier to resolve, as much in the sphere of ideas as in that of conduct. Sor Juana moved among shadows: those of untouchable bodies and fleeting souls. And divine love? Sor Juana is not a mystic poet, and in her religious poems, the divinity is an abstraction. God is idea and concept; divine love is rational love.

These were not her great love. From the time of her childhood, she was inclined toward learning. As an adolescent, she conceived the project of dressing as a man and attending the university. Resigned to being self-taught, she complained. “How difficult it is to study these soulless letters, lacking a human voice.” The knowledge she seeks is not in sacred books. If theology is “the queen of the sciences,” she lingers at her outer skirts: physics and logic, rhetoric and law. But her curiosity is not that of the specialist; she aspires to the integration of individual truths and insists upon the unity of learning. Variety does not harm general understanding, rather it exacts it, all sciences are related: “It is the chain the ancients imagined issuing from the mouth of Jupiter, from which all things were suspended, linked one with the other.”

Her interest in science is impressive. In the verses of “First I Dream,” she describes, with a pedantry that makes us smile, the alimentary functions, the phenomena of sleep and of fantasy, the curative value of certain poisons, the Egyptian pyramids, the magic lantern that throws

on a white wall

contours of delineated figures

in thrall as much to shadow as to light,

trembling reflections. . . .

Everything blends together: theology, science, baroque rhetoric and true astonishment before the universe. Her attitude is rare in the Hispanic tradition. For the great Spaniards, learning resolved either into heroic action or negation of the world (positive negation, to state it differently). For Sor Juana, the world is a problem. For her, everything stimulates questions; her whole being is one excited question. The universe is a vast labyrinth within which the soul can find no unraveling thread. Nothing is further removed from this rational puzzle than the image of the world left us by the Spanish classics. There, science and action are blended. To learn is to act, and all action, like all learning, is related to the world beyond. Within this tradition, disinterested learning is blasphemy or madness.

The church did not judge Sor Juana mad or blasphemous, but it did lament her deviation. In “Response,” she tells us that it “mortified and tormented me” by saying that “such studies are not in conformity with sacred ignorance; surely she will be lost; surely she will by cause of her very perspicacity and acuity grow heady at such exalted heights.” Double solitude: that of the conscience and that of being a woman. A “very saintly and ingenuous Abbess, who believed that study was a thing of the Inquisition,” ordered her not to study. Her confessor tightened the ring and for two years denied her spiritual assistance. It was difficult to resist so much opposing pressure, as before it had been difficult not to be disoriented by the adulation of the court. Sor Juana persisted. Using the texts of the church fathers as support, she defended her right--and that of all women--to knowledge.

Versatile, attracted by a thousand things at once, she defended herself by studying, and studying, she retreated. If her superiors took away her books, she still had her mind, which consumed more matter in a quarter of an hour than books in four years. Not even in sleep was she liberated “from this ceaseless agitation of my imagination; indeed, in dreams it is wont to work more freely, and less encumbered . . . arguing and making verses of which I could offer you an extended catalogue.” This is one of her most beautiful confessions and one that gives us the key to her major poem: Dreaming is a longer and more lucid wakefulness. Dreaming is knowing. In addition to diurnal learning, arises another, necessarily rebellious form of learning, beyond the law and subject to a punishment that stimulates the spirit more than it terrorizes it. I need not emphasize here how the concept that governs “First I Dream” coincides with some of modern poetry’s preoccupations.

We owe the best and clearest description of the subject matter of the “Dream” to Father Calleja: “It being nighttime, I slept. I dreamed that once and for all I desired to understand all the things that comprise the universe: I could not, not even as they are divided into categories, not even an individual one. The dawn came and, disillusioned, I awoke.” By its form, the poem seems to be an imitation of Luis de Gongora y Argote’s “Soledades” [Solitudes]. But the “Dream” is a poem about nocturnal astonishment, while Gongora’s poem is about daytime. There is nothing behind the images of the Spanish poet because his world is pure image, a splendor of appearances. Sor Juana’s universe--barren of color, abounding in shadows, abysses and sudden clearings--is a labyrinth of symbols, a rational delirium. “First I Dream” is a poem about knowledge. This distinguishes it from Gongoristic poetry and, more finally, from all baroque poetry. This very quality binds it, unexpectedly, to the poetry of our own time.

In some passages, the baroque verse resists the unusual exercise of transcribing concepts and abstract formulas into images. The language becomes abrupt and pedantic. In other lines, the best and most intense expression becomes dizzying in its lucidity. Sor Juana creates an abstract and hallucinatory landscape of cones, obelisks, pyramids, geometric precipices and aggressive peaks. Her world partakes of mechanics and of myth. The sphere and the triangle rule its empty sky. Poetry of science, but also of nocturnal terror. The poem begins when night reigns over the world. Everything sleeps, overcome by dream. The king and the thief sleep, the lovers and the solitary. The body lies delivered unto itself. Diminished life of the body, disproportionate life of the spirit, freed from its corporeal weight. Nourishment, transformed into heat, engenders sensations that fantasy converts into images. On the heights of her mental pyramid--formed by all the powers of the spirit, memory, and imagination, judgment and fantasy--the soul contemplates the forms of the world and, especially, those figures of the mind, of her internal sky, “those stars we know as concepts of the intellect.” In them, the soul re-creates itself in itself. Later, the soul dissociates itself from this contemplation and spreads its gaze over all creation; the world’s diversity dazzles it and finally blinds it. The soul hurls itself from the precipice but the fall does not annihilate it. Incapable of flight, it climbs. Painfully, step by step, it ascends the pyramid. It divides the world into categories, grades of knowledge, for method must repair the “defect of the inability to comprehend through intuition all creation.”

The poem describes the progress of thought, a spiral that ascends from the inanimate toward man and his symbol: the triangle, a figure in which animal and divine converge. Man is the site of creation’s rendezvous, life’s highest point of tension, always between two abysses: “elevated baseness . . . through loving Union joined with the Divine.” But method does not remedy the limitations of the spirit. Understanding cannot discern the ties that unite the inanimate to the animate, vegetable to animal, animal to man. Nor is it even feasible to penetrate the most simple phenomena. Darkly it realizes that the immense variety of creation is resolved in one law but that law is ineffable. The soul vacillates. Perhaps it would be better to retreat. Examples of other defeats rise up as a warning to the imprudent. The warning becomes a challenge; the spirit becomes inflamed as it sees that others did not hesitate to “seek his doom in order to immortalize his name.” The poem is peopled with Promethean images; the act of knowing, not knowledge itself, is the battle prize. The fallen soul affirms itself and, making cajolery of its terror, hastens to elect new courses. In that instant, the fasting body reclaims its own dominion. The sun bursts forth. Images dissolve. Knowing is a dream.

Sor Juana’s night is not the carnal night of lovers. Neither is it the night of the mystics. It is an intellectual night, constructed above the void, rigorous geometry, taciturn obelisk, all of its fixed tension directed toward the heavens. This vertical impulse is the only thing that recalls other nights of Spanish mysticism. But the mystics seem to be drawn up to heaven by rays of celestial forces. In “First I Dream,” the heavens are closed; the heights are hostile to flight. Silence confronting man: The desire for knowledge is illicit and the soul that dreams of knowledge is rebellious. Nocturnal solitude of the consciousness. Drought, vertigo, palpitation. But, nevertheless, all is not adversity. In his solitude and his fall from the heights, man affirms himself in himself: To know is to dream, but that dream is everything we know of ourselves, and in that dream resides our greatness. It is a game of mirrors in which the soul loses each time it wins and wins each time it loses, and the poem’s emotion springs from the awareness of this ambiguity. And Sor Juana’s vertiginous night suddenly reveals its fixed center. “First I Dream” is a poem not of knowledge but of the act of knowing. Thus, Sor Juana transmutes her historical and personal ill fortunes, makes victory of her defeat, song of her silence, liberty of her submission.


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