Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sor Juana's Poetry and Prose

When studying Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz—her poems, letters, autobiographical stuff, biographies written about her, the Penguin edition’s introduction to her body of work, etc.—it becomes pretty clear that while spiritual in nature, her real identity is that of a scholar.

Sor Juana’s “Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” which appears in letter form, is apparently written with the intention that Sor Filotea would not be the only person to read the work but instead is written with an awareness that it would circulate throughout the Catholic community, at least in New Spain (present day Mexico) in any case. In this regard SJ seems to be Keats-esque in that when she pens a letter to an acquaintance, here being an acquaintance whom she never meets for interesting reasons (see below), its contents become well known indeed. The entire work is predicated on an important point that cannot be overlooked which she makes clear by mentioning it numerous times throughout the text. The fact is, SJ never really intends for the original letter that prompts Sor Filotea’s letter that “Response” depends on to circulate as widely as it does since she (1) did not herself have it published and (2) not intended for a wide circulation it lacks the necessary arguments and support for those arguments and fact checking that her exposé the “Response” has in plenty.

Throughout these little revelations of fact, she reflects on the question of who would do such a thing as publish a letter without the author’s permission. This is where things get pretty interesting in a behind-the-scenes sort of way. “Response” is a letter that is a response to the Athenagoric Letter which is a response to another letter that she had written earlier. SJ’s original letter had been mysteriously published by one Don Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz y Sahagun, the Bishop of Puebla, who, as the introduction suggests, probably penned the AL himself under the Sor Filotea pseudonym.

Arguably, SJ’ s knowledge of the letter’s true author is clear in that she goes way beyond what would normally seem excessive in terms of flattery into a kind of meta-flattery which comes off as ironic if not patronizing. Opening her letter with overemphasis on the “loving letter” and her “appreciation” of that letter in which its author openly tells her that her poet pursuits are frivolous and that her time should be spent studying theology seems a bit over the top. Even in its body the constant humility (at times) descends into a holy-than-thou-turn-the-other-cheekiness yet these instances, which do admittedly develop into an effective form of deceptive mockery, point to self-protection. After awhile, the apologies and the unworthinesses start to look like hidden contempt.

At times in “Response”, SJ basically all but screams she does not want to write anymore like a John Barth Lost in the Funhouse character who would just as soon give up the task of writing down the events that transpire as, well, weave through the obstacles that impede them.[1] However, though she would like to discontinue the writing of letters, specifically this letter, the impulse to go on does not relinquish itself because it has been, she claims, placed there by God.[2]

A student at the age of three, SJ begins to experience the inequalities and inferior status that her sex requires her in New Spain and by the Catholic Church. SJ’ s status as a woman (as opposed to a man) and later as a nun (as opposed to a priest) means that obstacles and societal expectations persist throughout her lifetime. The two inequalities which most affect SJ are her inability to study at the university level which only men are privileged and the authority that the male clergy have over her as a nun. She becomes so despondent due to the former that she attempts (unsuccessfully) to convince her mother to dress her as a man with fake mustache and all and send her to Mexico City to study. Despite the inability to earn some sort of an advanced degree, this unfairness actually (in some ways) ends up being a sort of blessing in disguise depending on how one looks at it.

While denying anyone the right to attend school is pretty high up on the scale of evil and/or manipulative control units that are degrading and corrupt in every sense; surprisingly, SJ finds that the impotent situation actually has some advantages. This becomes apparent when she writes “as I was not directed by preferences, nor, forced by the need to fulfill certain scholarly requirements, constrained by time in the pursuit of any subject, I found myself free to study numerous topics at the same time.”[3] When one thinks about what everybody says about contemporary universities and liberal arts colleges, that they “teach you how to think”, her little statement here in an odd way forces you to really think about what on earth this really means. It is clear that SJ, like most of us, already knew how to think, but the thing is, what they really do is teach you what to think about. They show one what has meaning and what does not and that you can choose to place it where or on what. The fact that she does not follow a set curriculum then means she can study anything she has a passionate interest in and leave the things she does not to others. However, having not attended university, she has to find what is important by trial and error which it appears she does very well. In other words, hers really is an education of a lifetime; hers is one that no amount of diplomas can illustrate and no amount of words can express.

One of the more interesting episodes described by SJ is the time limit with specific consequences she sets for learning rules of Latin grammar which relate to gender and societal expectations. The reason this is gender related is because she cuts off her hair, of which women’s are typically longer than men’s, and if she doesn't learn such and such a rule by the time it grows back, well, it gets cut off again. Thus she writes “there seemed to me no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning.”[4] Hair today, gone tomorrow, as it were, but this statement makes an interesting point. While teaching herself Latin, she enters into the male world of scholarship because despite the fact that she makes later on in the text that she had no teacher to guide her nor can she ever become a teacher because of her female status, what she does in fact do is become a teacher: she does, after all, teach herself. In cutting off her hair she symbolically enters into the male dominated academic world while at the same time taking up a scholastic path which marks a literal entry into that world.

Another way SJ basically gives the middle finger to the way the RCC perceives the world comes as she writes about context in literature within the play “Loa for El Divino Narciso.” In said play she raises the question of whether things change when a work of fiction changes when taken from one culture to another. Taken literally, her words say that culture has little or no relevance in interpreting the text as a whole. In the examply she uses, when a piece of fiction is taken from New Mexico to Madrid; the text does not become something else but retains the same value even though the world is vastly different for the two groups. In contemporary understanding, this way of looking at literature is totally insane. Context is everything and I suppose that SJ knew this to be unquestionably true. To say otherwise would be equivalent to one saying that on 9/11/2001, the terrorists who commandeered planes and then crashed them into the World Trade Centers were bombing the same America that my grandmother with her innocent, sixth grade education, whose only method of birth control was the rhythm/pull out method is the same America as my angsty, graduate program, Generation Y with our vaginal ring BC which makes the female’s menstrual cycle optional. In other words, in the age of the meme machine, the only thing that divides our issues is that our medias have gotten more complex.

The fact that everyone in the play “[worships] the all-powerful God of Seeds!”[5] makes the point that everyone within the play has the same God when you come down to it. The Gods, great in number, worshipped by Occident, are not without their theological problems—i.e. with the “cruelest sacrifice:/ two thousand gods are satisfied,/but human blood must be the price”—but the whole practice of Zeal and Religion of forcing their beliefs upon Occident and America is imposition of the rankest sort and reminds the contemporary reading of African colonialism (AC). Like the twentieth century phenomenon of AC, when colonization came to the Americas it started out as a force to be ignored. After all, the people who lived in these lands were many and the colonizers were few. But they came in in greater numbers and their technologies had their advantages.

Because this is an allegory, the fact that Religion actually antagonizes Zeal, asking how he can “tolerate [the]… Idolatry”[6] of the people they happen upon, it is difficult to see the Church here in a positive way. Yet at the end of the drama everyone sings and is happy in way that is pretty creepy since the manipulative practices of both Religion and Zeal destroy the culture that it imposed itself on in the first place. While constantly professing peaceful resolution and mercy, Religion lets Zeal first break these people after reason fails and then after they have been conquered, Religion goes about reasoning again. After being forced to bow down to “boom-sticks” and men on horseback that are referred to as “Centaurs”[7], I suppose Religion’s original offer doesn’t seem too bad considering the alternative: death. So when Religion says to Zeal “allowing her to live/ is witness to my clemency,”[8] she is really taking part in the same kind of systematized control that Christianity has a long enduring reputation for. However, SJ is a nun and is a part of that system, which in part explains the happy ending. The fact that she is both a colonizer and among the colonized makes her both critical of Christianity and a part of it: thus she writes about the way Christianity came to the Americas negatively but stresses that its results of it have been positive.

When reading SJ in 2008, it is almost impossible not to think of the African fiction stuff—that has been so articulate and eye opening and interesting and depressing and cool since Things Fall Apart and so many more that it is probably better to just take my word for it—since many of the same issues facing the African continent since at least British imperialism have come about , are the same things that SJ writes about several hundred years before anyone even heard the phrase “blood diamonds” or anything like that. When you think about it, isn’t it the same? When cultures clash, the results are often conformity at the price of both blood and the loss of identity. SJ knows this, the Church knows this, indigenous people figure this out, and the modern reader knows this. With such a dark history it has become increasingly harder for people to rally around the Roman Catholic Church if not the entire Christian faith which has serious complications for postmodernity.

[1] If this comparison survives the final cut, considering the issue of length here, the less said the better, maybe, except it should be known that the two writers make so many references to the process of writing as a craft and are so eerily similar in the way they say it that it is hard to decipher who specifically writes what. To be frank, while reading both at the same time it’s almost impossible for me to separate the two, which maybe you have to be studying them simultaneously to see. Ok, the heck with it, here is a particularly relevant example from SJ to illustrate the similarity from page 11 when she talks about how she, being called to write in order to defend herself, has not the desire to triumph: “If, then, I err, I suffer neither blame nor discredit: I suffer no blame, as I have no obligation; no discredit, as I have no possibility of triumphing—and no one is obliged to do the impossible.” And just one random example here from Barth on page 39 of LF in his story “Autobiography” when the narrator contemplates giving up the story (thus life) and says “May the end come quietly, then, without my knowing it. In the course of any breath. In the heart of any word. This one. This one.” The point here is that in that same tone/voice, both narrators are pushed to write not by their own hands but those of other people.
[2] “Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” p. 11.
[3] “Response…,” p. 23.
[4] “Response…, p. 15.
[5] Loa for the Auto Sacramental, p. 197.
[6] Loa…, p. 201.
[7] Loa…, p. 213.
[8] Loa…, p. 215.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Thank you :)