An Unprotected Woman

Those, like Sor Juana, who choose to live without surrendering to orthodoxy need powerful protectors.

       SOR JUANA
       Octavio Paz, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
       Harvard University Press, 1988
       547 pp., $29.95
       Translated by Alan S. Trueblood, Foreword by Octavio Paz
       Harvard University Press, 1988
       248 pp., $29.50
        Some in the women's liberation movement would have us believe that systematic discrimination against women can be corrected by raising women in the image of men. In the wake of this goal, a linguistic orthodoxy has developed.
        What this and all other liberation movements miss is that discrimination, persecution, exploitation, war occur when our selfish instincts are channeled to fuel and serve a larger and deeper passion we humans share, particularly when we appear as a group, and this passion is the passion for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy aligns the most disparate individuals into a conspiracy to destroy anyone who does not conform to its dictates. The history of Western culture is the history of orthodoxy, a succession of orthodoxies.
        Orthodoxy operates in someone else's name; it is a mask and, under its protection, even the weakest among us become daring, passionate heroes. It makes little difference if such orthodoxy appears in the name of religion, psychotherapy, science, humanism, progress, the church or the state. Orthodoxy separates the liberated and the nonliberated, those who are in and those who are out.
        Each orthodoxy has its own rewards and punishments. Some of the punishments are highly visible (torture and jail), others less so (discrimination in jobs, training, advancement), and others totally invisible (whole ranges of human mental, spiritual, imaginative faculties are excluded from the exercise of making life).
        This is why the nonconformist, the individual who chooses to live his/her life in freedom by not surrendering to the spaces marked by orthodoxy, needs very powerful protectors. The truth is not going to liberate him/her. The unprotected will fall. Societies are not commonly aware of their own orthodoxies; only some individuals are. But in order to understand these individuals, we need to narrate their lives primarily against the background monster of orthodoxy. It is against this background that their lives gain from the silence, as if for the first time, of seeing our own lack of freedom.
        Such biographies are exemplary and rare. The writer needs to be extraordinary, for by writing from the space of no-orthodoxy, his own writing is an exercise in freedom. Such an extraordinary writer is Octavio Paz, the author of this biography on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695). Fortunately for the English-speaking reader, this biography is accompanied by another volume containing the original writings of Sor Juana, her poetry, and the two prose writings that set her above the liberated women of her time and ahead of most of those of ours.
        Who Was Sor Juana?
        Sor Juana was a seventeenth-century nun acclaimed during her life as the Phoenix of Mexico; America 's Tenth Muse. She was forgotten a generation after her death. An extraordinary poet of her period, she mastered intricate forms of versification. Her poetic sensibilities were purely manneristic and baroque, a poetic experience practically absent in English-speaking cultures, which are the offspring of a Reformation that avoided the baroque and its founders, the Jesuits. She also wrote the first "feminist" manifesto, a defense of women and their right to an education, but her feminist uprising ended in capitulation. Little of her life was simple.
        Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage; she then turned the convent not into her religious home, but a place to build a library of secular knowledge, collect artifacts of science, and write worldly poetry; she read all the secular books that chance and design brought to her hands, but none were original sources; she entered the convent a poor woman, but ran the businesses of the convent, lent and borrowed money, and died a rich woman; she was a virgin nun, and yet her poetry is passionate, with the most passionate poems dedicated to her patroness; she claimed that her love was unrequited, modeled upon loving God with unrequitable love; she claimed to love God but her God is the God of neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Egypt, earth, water, air, fire, and not God the Creator, the Christ, or Jesus; all of her life she pursued with the passion of defiance the knowledge of nature, but two years before she died, of her own free will, but under attack from her enemies, she declared in First Dream that this knowledge is just a dream, an unattainable goal; her identities are many, criollo, Mexican, Spanish; her neighbors knew her as an illegitimate child, but because of her enormous natural talents, beauty, memory, and secular and theological knowledge, she was considered a child prodigy and became a favorite of the court; she found protectors and she flourished, the protectors withdrew and she was forgotten.
        Numerous documents from the life of this woman are missing, her letters, for example. These might have shed light on her decisions: Why did she become a nun? What was her true relationship with her patroness Maria Luisa ("a sweeping surf and a mysterious wind: / the seashell has the shape of a heart")? Why did she capitulate to the church?
        Earlier Biographers
        In the absence of information, Sor Juana's biographers have played with their subject at will. In 1700, her first biographer, Father Diego Calleja, started the trend of interpreting her life as a prolonged fight in which there was a final victory of good over evil, religion over worldly interests. This is the tactic followed by Catholic writers, Father Alonso Mendez Placarte, Albert C. Salceda, Roberto Ricard, Ezequiel Chavez. Genaro Fernandez McGregor dramatizes her life as a play in which we witness a battle for the soul of Sor Juana between the errant nun and her Jesuit confessor, Nunez de Miranda. All these writers view the final capitulation of Sor Juana as a victory of a saintlier soul over the soul of the woman.
        At the other end of the spectrum we find the German scholar Ludwig Pfandl, who reads Sor Juana's life as an erotic waterfall of sexual aberrations: a narcissist nun with masculine tendencies. He identifies her intellectual pursuits with masculinity, her devotion to books and writing as signs of sexual aberrations, infantile penis envy, and menopausal disorders. His biography is a comic book of psychological distortions.
        The American scholar Dorothy Schon opened a new line of inquiry by writing in 1925 a few notes on the life of this woman that placed her in the midst of her culture, her feminism against the misogyny of her time. This line of research was followed by Ermilio Abreu Gomez (the editor of the first modern editions of First Dream, the Carta atenagorica, and the Response to Sor Filotea) and others.
        Modern interest in Sor Juana did not appear in her native land before the Mexican poet Amado Nervo wrote a short book on her life, Juana de Asbaje (her family name), in 1910. We may say, however, without fear of exaggeration, that Sor Juana would have either been left out to hang in the wind or used by ideologues of all types had she not been found by Octavio Paz.
        Octavio Paz's Interest
        What would bring the half-forgotten nun and the world-famous Mexican writer, now at the peak of his creativity, together? For one thing, both share an equal passion for intellectual life. Octavio Paz would not forgive the nun if in the end she had really capitulated on her intellectual quest, rather than caving into the church's pressure. A point of contact between them is their total affirmation of individual freedom. In the case of the nun, a life dedicated to her search for secular knowledge; in the case of Paz, an occasion to show the "traps of faith," the ideologies trying to drown this freedom in ideological conformism.
        The nun Sor Juana grew in Octavio Paz from his earliest interest in literature, first as a question. One can see in the connection between Sor Juana and Paz, a connection between New Spain and contemporary Mexico . He once wrote in The Broken Jar: "We have to dream further /all the way to the fountain / we have to row centuries upstream / further than infancy, further than the beginning / further than the baptizing waters / to throw down walls between person and person, / to join anew that which is separated."
        Sor Juana is New Spain , and also the Indians, criollos, and mestizos. Paz joins her, for she is the key to recovering all the memories of the past, even the pre-Columbian past. He wrote in Sun Stone: "Show me your face that I may see / my own true face, the face of that other / our face that is always all of us /... awaken me, now I am born."
        Paz's biography of Sor Juana is a mirror. In it we see her face, but we also see that of the others against which we and she see her image. These images in turn are reflections of the orthodoxy of the times. What cannot appear in the mirror is Sor Juana herself, the way she uses her life to affirm her freedom to be different, and this is most intriguing to Paz. It is the affirmation of time-as-freedom as seen in Sor Juana that Paz tries to raise against all the constraining spaces of Sor Juana's life.
        New Spain is the key, according to Paz, to the mirror. There are those who want to see Mexico as having been born with the Aztec state, or even earlier. New Spain was only an interregnum, "a historical parenthesis, a vacuum in which nothing of importance occurred." But this image, the author says, is a myth. The other view sees New Spain as a period of gestation. Independence "signaled the nation's maturity."
        Both these images are wrong for Paz, "the history of Mexico is a history in the image of its geography; abrupt and tortuous." The Spanish conquest was a "great chasm, the dividing line that split our history in half: on the far side lies the pre-Columbian world; on the near side, the Catholic viceroyalty of New Spain and the secular and independent Republic of Mexico ." New Spain was "a historical reality that ran counter to the current of Western civilization, that is, against the flow of emerging modernity." The Republic of Mexico was "a hasty adaptation of that modernity, which has distorted our traditions without making us a truly modern nation."
        Here is biography set in New Spain that would clear the memory of all those Mexicans "who have no desire to know." Somehow Sor Juana holds the key to so many Mexican memories buried in the dust of centuries. But one suspects the author is making a much larger statement. After keeping Sor Juana protected in the monastery, the Catholic Church persecuted her for using her brains to pursue secular learning. But can contemporary poets, using their imagination, survive the modern world?
        Early Influences
        Sor Juana's mother was of criollo decent; that is, a Spanish person born in New Spain . Her husband abandoned her and left her to run their farm. Another man moved in. He was also a Spaniard, a Basque with the name of Asbaje. Juana was their child, an illegitimate child who would carry upon herself the mark of her birth.
        Juana Ramirez de Asbaje was born in a village in the foothills of Popocatepetl . Her maternal grandparents had leased two haciendas from the church, one of which remained in the hands of the family for five generations. This feat becomes more remarkable when we are informed that Juana's mother did not know how to read to write.
        Seventeenth-century morality was not our contemporary morality. "Contemporary documents reveal that the behavior of Isabel Ramirez was far from a scandalous exception. Everyone accepted the existence of natural children … for sexual orthodoxy was much less rigorous than religious orthodoxy." Paz is an expert of the baroque conceit, the reconciliation of opposites, and admonishes: "It is unwise to condemn …if machismo is a tyranny that darkens relations between man and woman, erotic freedom illumines them."
        Juana started studying at the age of three, pleading with her sisters to teach her. At six she was able to read and write. She asked her mother to send her to the university dressed as a man. When her mother refused, she closed herself in her grandfather's library and taught herself. When she did not learn grammar in the time she herself had assigned, she cut her hair. "It did not seem to her that a head should be 'adorned with hair and naked of learning.'" Is this the basis for reading in Sor Juana an embryonic masculinity?
        "The ambiguity of her feelings," Paz writes, "toward the image of her father is unquestionable. The absent father, if not dead, had disappeared. His absence provoked nostalgia and idealization: in our fantasy the absent loom large as either heroes or monsters … a mixture of resentment, nostalgia, and--why not?--secret admiration. If, as her attitude suggests, she killed him in her imagination and buried him in silence, her poetry exhumed him, transfiguring them both: she was his widow and he her dead husband." Thus the masculinization is changed to feminization. Through poetry she revives the dead and marries them. Paz sets the internal project of Juana's life as embodying through poetry the goddesses and maidens of antiquity and, like them, transforming a natural into a symbolic or spiritual maternity in which she is divinely inspired to produce poems and prophecies.
        Juana's life develops among the ghosts of her father, the presence of her stepfather, and her "enormous earthly reality of her mother." The transgression of the logical order produces a new spiritual reality, the conceit, an intellectual transgression that is no less marvelous than Juana's mother's carnal transgression. Juana found in books the answer to her mother's sexuality and also to the aggressive sexuality of men: "Sublimation through culture resolved the conflict for a time. The cost was great: letters--the sign of things--took the place of things. From then on Juana Ines lived in a world of signs, and she herself… became more and more a sign. What did the sign say?" This is the question Paz tries answer.
        To The Court
        Juana Ines' grandfather died in 1656 and soon after she was sent to Mexico to live with her maternal aunt Dona Maria Ramirez and her wealthy husband, Juan de Mata. Juana's mother had a new man in the house and a child by him. It was time for the young Juana, not much older than eight or ten, to move on. Her cleverness and beauty worked in her favor during the eight years she spent with the Matas. But the responsibility of having at home a prodigy as fragile as Juana, beautiful, virginal, and unprotected, moved the Matas to present her to the newly arrived vicereine, Dona Leonora Carreto.
        At fifteen, Juana was the "lady Vicereine's favorite." Her life at court was her induction into the life of the world. And her most intimate world was the world of the court where the galanteos de palacio, the erotic rituals of a closed society, were invented to regulate the individuals of two sexes forced to live in close intimacy. Here eroticism was transformed or sublimated into theater and poetry; battles of the passions, sexual ceremonies of strutting peacocks, a dance of male and female planets around a sun king. During this period Juana Ines wrote her first two poems. Suddenly, she decided to become a nun.
        First she tried the convent of the Carmelites, but the order was too severe. Or, perhaps, this was not her vocation. She left the convent after three moths. This experiment did not change her mind, however, and a year and a half later in 1669, when she was not yet twenty-one, she joined the convent of San Jeronimo, known for the mildness of its discipline.
        The Verses
        Sor Juana brought the court to the convent, not the other way around. Her cell was a two-story house with enough room for her privacy and for her library and collectibles. Around her the court gathered to continue not the galanteos de palacio, but the intellectual tertulia: the intellectual discussion.
        Paz suggests that Juana joined the convent simply because he intellectual life would not have been possible within a marriage. She was committed to the intellectual life. Yet her poetry and writing are a perfect conceit, an objectification of archetypes codified through tradition, rather than her personal experience. Sor Juana is not confessing through her poetry; confession and sincerity are values for the romantics and for us moderns. The baroque poetry of the seventeenth century works through archetypes that are heirs of a metaphysic, an aesthetic, and a rhetoric as old as Petrarch, Dante, and the Provencal poetry that inspired the poets of the Renaissance and the Baroque.
        More than half of Sor Juana's literary creation consists of poems for ceremonial occasions: homages, epistles, congratulations, poems to commemorate the death of an archbishop, or the birth of a magnate. The majority of these compositions were written under the patronage of the Viceroy Tomas de la Cerda and his wife, Maria Luisa, and almost all are dedicated to him, his wife, or their son. To the poems must be added brief theatrical works -- loas, saraos, bailes -- and the Allegorical Neptune, written to welcome the viceroy to Mexico . Sor Juana's mastery over the whole range of the poetic devices of the time is remarkable: romances, decimas, seguidillas, sonnets.
        There is no doubt that Sor Juana is one of the great versifiers of the Spanish language, on a par with Gongora, Lope, and Quevedo. Her meter, complexity of language, rhythmic structure; her diaphanous combinations of sound and idea; her metric artistry make her poetry appeal, "particularly in a century like our own which has degraded language through the banalities of commercial and ideological propaganda."
        These poems are not only aesthetically interesting but also historically so. They are signs of an etiquette. Etiquette is never explicit or literal. It is an emblematic language, decipherable only to those who have the key, for etiquette draws a line between those who know and those who are ignorant, the courtier and the commoner. "To speak that language is to belong to a society within a society." Etiquette is not innate; it demands an apprenticeship. To be courtly, it is not enough to be noble. Etiquette is a code and therefore a culture.
        Sor Juana's poetry is the embodiment of this culture: It is a courtly ritual impregnated with political symbolism, "and it was a means of privileged communication between the convent and the palace." But if Sor Juana's poetry were only that, her mythological dimension would not have existed. Other dimensions of her work need clarification and emphasis if we are to realize the power of this nun.
        Love And The Goddess Isis
        The relation of Sor Juana to her benefactress Maria Luisa affirms without any doubt that the nun had a vulnerable heart, that she was a woman of love, deep love. It was what Sor Juana did with this love that saved her from being an ordinary mortal. Sor Juana discovered a love of the Divine hidden in the mystery religions where love, the love of God, as its best is unrequited love. It serves the lover, even if the beloved is neither informed nor aware of such love, which becomes a divine perfection.
        Another element to be factored in is the image guiding Sor Juana's life: She considers herself as the goddess Isis. Baroque art involves finding secret relations: It is discovery and combination. Juana, the lady of letters, is Isis regathering the scattered members of her dead husband Osiris, then lying over him to give birth to their son, Horus. Thus Sor Juana becomes also a pythoness who makes predictions in her cave (cell), pregnant not with child but with metaphors and tropes: "pregnant / with divine concepts, / maiden Pythoness / of Delphi ."
        Through Sor Juana's poetry of concept, the hidden tradition of Hermeticism, the eclecticism of Father Athanasius Kircher, S.J., Vitoria, Cartari, the occult sciences of the pyramids, oracles, numbers, music, and hieroglyphs, Pythagorean asceticism, the Gyptomania of the century, and classical paganism all join hands in one of the most complex, rigorous, and intellectually rich texts of the Spanish-language poetry of any period, First Dream.
        Sor Juana's God comes in the wings of knowledge but with the pagan names of the Greeks and the Romans, and intellectual posture possible only as long as she deals with poetry and theater and stays away from theology. Quevedo, Lope, Gongora got away with as much writing plays and verses, and Teresa de Avila got away with much more, but she had the protection of Philip II up to the time of her death and after.
        The Traps Of Faith
        Three events conspired to cause Sor Juana's fall from her intellectual quest. The first was the loss of her protectors. Leonora Carreto died and Maria Luisa returned to Spain . It made little difference that Maria Luisa had Sor Juana's works published in Spain and spread her great name. The die was cast. The second was the weakening of the power of the court. A national riot in 1692 made the unfair system of grain distribution and government inefficiency evident to the power of the misogynist Archbishop of Mexico Aguiar y Seijas, a rival of the bishop of Puebla , Fernandez de Santa Cruz . As Don Quijote said to Sancho: "Con la Iglesia hemos topado, Sancho" (We have stumbled upon the church).
        Sor Juana became a nun under the protection and with the financial help of the Jesuit Nunez de Miranda. The ascetic Jesuit followed Sor Juana's life from a very intimate position, that of her confessor. The man was obviously disappointed with Sor Juana's career as the semi-official poet of the court and cathedral. But he had the patience to wait for her ultimate conversion.
        The bishop of Puebla , Fernandez de Santa Cruz , was an old admirer of Sor Juana's who kept in touch with her from a prudent but admiring distance. Sor Juana trusted him. At his request, she became involved in theology. At the end of November 1690, the bishop published in Puebla the Carta atenagorica de la Madre Juana Ines.
        This letter was written at the request of Fernandez de Santa Cruz . Its text is a critique of a sermon about the love of God by the Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra delivered forty years earlier. In her poetry, Sor Juana had already affirmed that we must love God without desiring that the love be returned, and that such love is the supreme love. She had affirmed the same in her poems about secular love. But suddenly she was dealing with God and Christ in his two natures, human and divine. For Sor Juana, "the greatest signs of divine love are the gifts He does not grant us." This is a formula that attempts to reconcile God's love and our human freedom: "God's love consists in releasing us from his hand, for in this way He increases our liberty."
        It was imprudent for the nun to accept the invitation or command of the bishop and write this letter. The bishop had it published.
        Both Sor Juana and Fernandez de Santa Cruz must have been amazed and a little alarmed at the number and violence of the replies to the Carta. But the bishop had already covered himself by writing his own reply to the letter in the introduction. There he professes his admiration for the nun but voices also his own reservation: What a pity that Sor Juana had devoted herself to secular and not sacred writing. The nun would have to write her own defense. Sor Juana wrote the Response on March 1, 1691 .
        The Response is a unique document. It is many things simultaneously: a response to the bishop of Puebla; a defense of secular learning; a dairy of the mind that wrote First Dream; an answer to all her adversaries and critics; a defense of women (the first feminist manifesto); and a confrontation with herself. More than twenty years after taking her vows, she was convinced there was no incompatibility between her two vocations, nun and secular scholar.
        The apparent incompatibility, she argues, is one of discipline, not of substance. Secular studies have always been steps toward higher and more difficult sacred studies. For this reason she should be encouraged, and so all other women, to pursue an education in secular as well as sacred literature and science. She does not see in any of this, as in the practice of writing poetry, anything contrary to the laws of the church. The Response is more than a confession: It is a defense of her intellectual vocation. There is nothing in it that would have encouraged her critics or the bishop of Puebla to read in it a retraction of her pursuits.
        A flood of opinion surged against the nun under the animosity of Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas. The issue became the question of obedience, respect for authority, devotion to religious duty. "All wanted to convert her; some into a student of theology, others into a plaster saint, everyone wanted to humble her, silence her." In her absolute loneliness, the nun lost faith in herself and turned to her old confessor, Father Nunez de Miranda.
        This was the beginning of the end. The sudden conversion finally took place. The self-confident and defiant woman of 1691 and 1692 turned into a raving penitent in 1694. It was claimed that on March 5, Sor Juana signed a document renouncing her humane studies. Paz is quick to notice that such a document has never surfaced, and he is convinced that Sor Juana defend herself to the last and refused to sign any document that would nullify her entire life.
        However, she did surrender all her books and musical and scientific documents to the archbishop to sell and give the proceeds to the poor. The archbishop also confiscated some of her funds, and those she hid the archbishop took away upon her death. Only two year after Sor Juana's abjuration an epidemic broke out in the convent. Sor Juana contracted the illness while caring for her sisters, and at four in the morning of April 17, 1695 , she died. She was forty-six years old.
        Extraordinary Plight
        Sor Juana and the Traps of Faith is an extraordinary meditation written by an extraordinary writer on the plight of modern societies and the individuals within. It is not only a reflection but an agonic self-presentation of a contemporary man in view of his whole past.
        The translations of poetry in the accompanying volume, a Sor Juana Anthology, by Alan S. Trueblood, are not as good as one might have wished. This translator is dealing with a poetic form almost absent in English, and certainly very distant from contemporary styles, a difficult task. He has chosen to be accurate without being literal. In this he has succeeded, but in striving for the finished English poem he has sacrificed the original sound and with it, some of the original poetry. The poems, however, remain readable, even if the translations sound at times convoluted, and at times childish. This volume, except for First Dream, is bilingual, which helps those who can read Spanish. Still, Sor Juana's voice, though distant, is heard in this English version.
        It is not my intention to try to improve on Paz's conclusions. But I, like any other reader who ventures into this biography, am left in a hall of mirrors. Many of them shine with clarity, but others, particularly those closer to us, leave us half disoriented, half comprehending. Our modern situation is full of ambiguity.
        Paz makes clear that his choice for the future, his solution to himself and to his culture, is to keep alive the First Dream of Sor Juana, her dedication to intellectual life, particularly in cultures where self-criticism has been absent. Did Sor Juana herself find this ephemeral, impossible, or both? Paz will insist that Sor Juana only pretended to. I am not sure. The intellectual culture of modernity attempts to be a totally rational, empirical culture. Would Isis, Sor Juana, find a place for herself here?
        With masterful strokes, Paz makes us aware that the culture of modernity is a culture of self-criticism, self-destruction, and self-renewal. Rejecting orthodoxy, he claims that human freedom stirs deeper than any orthodoxy. We are left not knowing how to proceed. And yet we have an inkling that perhaps Sor Juana suggested a different solution, a woman's solution, not easily detectable to masculine faculties.
        Orthodoxy, even in the form of no-orthodoxy, is a manipulation of abstractions. Paz traces the moves of ideology with a mastery that makes ideology almost a commonplace. Sor Juana, as Isis , knew the power of giving birth to a new god or goddess, the power of myth.
        The Jesuits, through their founder Ignatius de Loyola, extolled a faculty that Kant thought had disappeared with Plato: imagining. When practiced as they taught it, the exercise could not be detected, controlled, or influenced by any Inquisition. It was the center of individual freedom and the link to revelation. The Reformation replaced imagining with a universal habit of thinking, conceptualizing, theorizing, external operations all, controllable from the outside, and the opposite of the freedom they claim to impart.
        What Sor Juana points out vividly is that women are gifted with the power to gather the dismembered parts of the body of man, and give it a new unity, a new life. The creation is not just a rearrangement, but a whole new creature, new life, new myth. Perhaps this is what Octavio Paz is pointing out in his biography of Sor Juana. Are there any provisions in our culture, our education, our homes, monasteries, or convents for such a possibility?