Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Contradictions in Sor Juana's La respuesta (Part 4 of 4)




While there is evidence that some of the contradictions in La respuesta can be set aside as rhetorical, other contradictions do reveal a more profoundly complex subjectivity.  Sor Juana presents the reader with the case of a woman for whom conforming, in the way society demands of her gender, is insufferable.  Sor Juana describes a “total negación que tenía al matrimonio” and this “total negación” signals a rejection of the normative aspects of being a woman in her society.  The convent provides a space that allows women to study privately, but in exchange for this space, Sor Juana accepts ecclesiastical control over her physical body and over her behavior.  The social position that Sor Juana occupies is a space fertile for the contradictions that emerge in her writing.
            
One of the most significant contradictions of La respuesta is the relationship between her faith and her inclination for learning.  Sor Juana explains that her inclination for study is her greatest enemy, something irresistible that God put in her.  Sor Juana writes that women do not need the degree of intelligence that God imparted her with, but according to her reasoning, she submits to the authority and wisdom of God who placed in her this natural impulse for learning:"…fue tan vehemente y poderosa la inclinación a las letras, que ni ajenas reprensiones-que he tenido muchas-, ni propias reflejas-que he hecho no pocas-, han bastado a que deje de seguir este natural impulso que Dios puso en mí:  Su Majestad sabe…que le he pedido que apague la luz de mi entendimiento dejando sólo lo que baste para guardar su Ley, pues lo demás sobra, según algunos, en una mujer; y aun hay quien diga que daña." (37)

Sor Juana also expresses that she does not write because she wants to, but because others have asked her to write and she denies her aptitude for writing: "Yo nunca he escrito sino violentada y forzada y sólo por dar gusto a otros; no sólo sin complacencia, sino con positiva repugnancia, porque nunca he juzgado de mí que tenga el caudal de letras e ingenio que pide la obligación de quien escribe." (36)  While Sor Juana explains that she did not freely choose her inclination for learning, she confesses to having oriented her life toward study.  

As noted earlier, Sor Juana writes that she wanted to live alone, without obligations or anything to stand in the way of her study.  Sor Juana became a nun because she wanted an alternative to marriage and the convent provides an escape from the life of married women: “…Era lo menos desproporcionado y lo más decente que podía elegir en materia de la seguridad que deseaba de mi salvación...”(38). This tension between God and her inclination to study remains throughout La respuesta.  Sometimes God seems to be the ontological point from which her inclination emanates; Sor Juana complains that God gave her the inclination to study and that is why she does so.  As I have pointed out, in other moments of her writing, she says that her inclination brought her to religious life and her vows seem to evaporate into something empty that allows her to study: "…de leer y más leer, de estudiar y más estudiar, sin más maestro que los mismos libros...todo este trabajo sufría yo muy gustosa por amor de las letras.  ¡Oh, si hubiese sido por amor de Dios, que era lo acertado, cuánto hubiera merecido!”(39)

The tension between her religiosity and her inclination create a profound inconsistency in the logic of La respuesta and it cannot be known to what extent this was merely rhetorical strategy.  Ironically, being a nun creates a space for her inconformity of Sor Juana and within the convent she defends her reading and writing by subverting the dominant discourse. Her argument that God put in her the inclination for learning quiets her critics to a certain extent because according to the same dominant discourse, no one can understand God, nor know why he does what he does and questioning God’s would be heretical.

Another significant contradictions of La respuesta is the inherent paradox of a woman who speaks.[1]  Given that La respuesta begins with an explanation of Sor Juana’s silence, her silence is part of, even while it precedes, the text.[2]  That Sor Juana’s silence is a space of profound anxiety for her becomes evident in her writing:  "...casi me he determinado a dejarlo al silencio; pero como éste es cosa negativa, aunque explica mucho con el énfasis de no explicar, es necesario ponerle algún breve rótulo para que se entienda lo que se pretende que el silencio diga; y si no, dirá nada el silencio, porque ése es su propio oficio: decir nada." (34)

Sor Juana does not give a simple narration of her inclination, but provides an account of herself that responds to an implicit accusation and direct criticism.  As was explained earlier, La respuesta responds to the Bishop’s letter where he accuses her of exceeding her social position by pursuing secular study. In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler describes that a subject responds by explaining him or herself when a system of power, or someone granted authority by that system, requests an explanation: “We start to give an account only because we are interpolated as beings who are rendered accountable by a system of justice and punishment” (Butler 10).  Sor Juana’s silence gets at the essence of her position as subject and she herself warns her reader not to infer that her silence indicates nothingness.  Silence in response to an accusation is a form of resistance that undermines authority or that circumscribes an autonomous space belonging to the subject and can be understood as a prologue to La respuesta.  “The refusal to narrate remains a relation to narrative and to the scene of address” (Butler 12).  The autobiographical voice of La respuesta should not be understood as an “I” that affirms itself and its experience by centralizing itself within a personal narrative.  The “I” of La respuesta is not an impenetrable and daring subject defending its excesses.  Instead, a confession or an explanation has been demanded in order to reinstate Sor Juana within the dominant discourse.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins. Beyond the Lettered City.

Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins.  Beyond the Lettered City. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.  370 pp.

Beyond the Lettered City by Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins is a book of 370 pages divided into an introduction, six chapters, a conclusion and a glossary of terms.  In Beyond the Lettered City Rappaport and Cummins take up and respond to the work of other colonial scholars, especially Ángel Rama, who have framed colonial society as two separate republics; one Spanish and “lettered” and another, indigenous and illiterate.  Instead of the model of a colonial society divided by the written word, the authors propose that literacy functioned as a core infrastructure that organized a multifaceted colonial culture.  They show that the native population participated in and were subject to literacy and its forms to the same extent as the Spanish population.  

Early on Rappaport and Cummins set out the question of how to understand the confrontation of Spanish and native cultures.  The authors dispute the notion of colonial “hybridity” which emphasizes a singular “moment of confrontation and mixing” of the Spanish and the native and argue instead for using the term “colonial culture” to highlight the wholeness of the new culture.  Additionally, they argue that the term “hybrid” builds on unrealistic notions of the confrontation of two primordial cultures when in reality “Spanish culture” is a blend of the entanglements of Iberian, Moorish and Jewish cultures.

The authors argue that literacy, particularly in its legal forms, is a tool of colonization, but also a tool that was harnessed by indios to position themselves as best as they could within colonial society.  In Chapter 2 they argue that Western arts are not a place for creative expression, but rather a critical element of the subject formation of the native population where indios learned how to see and how others saw them.  The authors present this split subjectivity as a “double-consciousness” that manifests as a persistent awareness of the hegemonic perspective.  In Chapter 3, for example, the authors argue that indigenous elites quickly realized the importance of alphabetic writing after the Spanish invasion and that a parallel lettered city developed within the República de indios (115).  At the same time, the book moves beyond a focus on the strata of literate native elites to examine how the majority of the indigenous population participated in the spaces and in the rituals that surrounded writing as a medium of power.  For example, in Chapter 5 there is a discussion of how the king’s seal on documents carried authority that did not require the ability to decode the message, but that still was based in the written word.  Chapter 6 discusses how both literate and illiterate members of society were impacted by the discursive push to impose order on colonial space and on colonial bodies.  The authors argue that daily life was organized according to standards that were transmitted through images and writing.  Indigenous towns or reducciones, for example, were organized into an orderly grid pattern based on Augustine’s City of God (222).  The audience of colonial literacy included men of letters and also the indio that made the sign of the cross over his body (258).

The types of genres of literacy that Rapapport and Cummins focus on are primarily legal documents such as petitions to the crown, wills, and land titles.  The authors show that these legal literacies provide a space for examining “colonial culture.”  The flavor of “colonial culture” is evident in the orality of legal documents.  In one public auction, for example, a pregonero repeats thirty times his announcement of a parcel of land that will be reassigned, as is legally prescribed, and the announcement is reproduced in painstaking detail in the written record each of the thirty times, word for word (119).  Testaments, in the colonial period, are tied to the Catholic cult and are a spiritual act meant to acknowledge the worldliness of material objects and to direct one’s energies toward salvation.  At the same time, many of the items that are bestowed to loved ones are both Andean and European objects showing the juxtaposition of these cultural objects in colonial culture.  Land titles are a Spanish legal norm that also preserves traditional native ways of understanding space and ownership like zanja boundary markers (121).  Rappaport and Cummins argue that while indios accepted the authority of Spanish forms and began to trust in Spanish legal documents, their use of these forms changed Western art forms, the Spanish written word, and European legal standards into colonial literacies.

In sum, Rapapport and Cummins’ Beyond the Lettered City is a helpful book with many examples that illustrate the nuances of “colonial culture.”  The authors respond to Angel Rama’s The Lettered City with the argument that colonial society cannot be thought of as two parallel societies divided by literacy.  Instead, they show that literacy was the core infrastructure that organized colonial life and that native elites participated directly in Spanish literate society.  Illiterate indios also participated in literate society even if though the fact that they could not read and write meant that they were more marginalized in colonial life.  Illiterate indios were subject to the authority of the written word and the discourses that organized daily life, but did not have the same ability as native elites to engage in dialogue and negotiate colonial power structures.    

                                    

The lettered city, Angel Rama


The map above, produced by an indigenous mapmaker in 1581 in response to the Relaciones Geográficas, depicts the town of Cholula in Mexico, an important Tolteca-Chichimeca religious and political site and one of the largest population centers in Mesoamerica at the time of Cortes’s conequest of Mexico.  (See this blog for more info)
In a nutshell (from the Duke University Press Description):
Angel Rama’s groundbreaking study—presented here in its first English translation—provides an overview of the power of written discourse in the historical formation of Latin American societies, and highlights the central role of cities in deploying and reproducing that power. To impose order on a vast New World empire, the Iberian monarchs created carefully planned cities where institutional and legal powers were administered through a specialized cadre of elite men called letrados; it is the urban nexus of lettered culture and state power that Rama calls “the lettered city.” Rama explores the place of writing and urbanization in the imperial designs of the Iberian colonialists and views the city both as a rational order of signs representative of Enlightenment progress and as the site where the Old World is transformed—according to detailed written instructions—in the New. His analysis continues by recounting the social and political challenges faced by the letrados as their roles in society widened to include those of journalist, fiction writer, essayist, and political leader, and how those roles changed through the independence movements of the nineteenth century. The coming of the twentieth century, and especially the gradual emergence of a mass reading public, brought further challenges. Through a discussion of the currents and countercurrents in turn-of-the-century literary life, Rama shows how the city of letters was finally “revolutionized.”

Chapter 1: The ordered city
Rama is concerned with how order is imposed through sign systems specifically through the imposition of the Baroque city and through the hegemony of the written word.  He says that economy developed around cities instead of cities developing around economy as they had in Europe.  Rama calls the cities in Europe ”organic” while in the Americas they are “ordered”.  The conquerors felt that the Americas were a blank slate and they wanted cities to be organized mathematically and geometrically (Descartes) because they felt  that this would create social order.

Chapter 2: The lettered city
Rama defines here the lettered city and the letrados.  The letrados are a specialized social group that produce, transmit, execute and dominate a universe of signs.  Many of the letrados were religious people like the Jesuits who attended to the needs of the Creole elites (youth).  The monarchy thought that they would need the Creole elites in order to administer the colonies, but once they didn’t believe this anymore, they expelled the Jesuits (1572-1767).  The letrados had the role of evangelizing and managing the colony.  Two main intellectuals of the era were Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Carlos Siguena y Gongora.  Rama says that they used art to talk about politics (24).  The lettered city acted upon the order of signs and had a sacred aura to it; this was the Baroque cultural dimension of the colonial power structure.  Rama argues that there was a mass communication aspect to the lettered city and that they were trying to ideologize the masses with full programmatic rigor (19).  Rama ends this chapter with an example of the imagined colonial city, gridlike and mathematical as an example of the way the letrados ordered colonial life through a sign system.  The city could often be read because street names and corners represented the important historical events and people of the city.  In contrast with prior cities whose streets were names of things that were close by and practical.  Rama argues that there were two cities; one that existed on the physical plane and the other that existed on the symbolic plane (lettered city) and that needed cultural capital in order to be deciphered. 

Chapter 3: The city of protocols
The letrados made up an exclusive and sacred colonial hierarchy that provided the colony with laws regulations, proclamations, certificates, propaganda, and ideology.  Two distinct languages existed in colonial society; diglossia-vernacular and public, formal Baroque Spanish (peninsular).  Still, despite the best attempts of the letrados, a new American Spanish emerged that was a blend of both and emerged along with a Creole elite that substituted the peninsular elite.  Bolivar says that official writing creates an “airy republic” that is out of touch with the realities of social life.  Graffiti was a written language outside of the lettered city.  I am not sure how much graffiti was an issue in the colony.  El periquillo sarniento Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi (1810) 1st Latin American novel had a new audience.  Sarmiento-Liberty was impossible without writing and so Sarmiento pushed for spelling reforms that would simplify Spanish and make it more organic instead of imported.  They tied this national language with a national literature.  Bolivar’s tutor Simón Rodríguez wrote about a parallelism between government and language, both must be native and not European imports.  He pushed for an American Organic “art of thinking” and subordinated writing to this.

Chapter 4: The modernized city (and the disappearing cultures of the “primitive people”)
As cities like Buenos Aires grew (population exploded after 1880 doubling or tripling in population from 1880-1930) the lettered city gained in importance and power.  Educational reforms were enacted so that everyone had access to being an intellectual and to break up the hegemony of power associated with the letrado figure.  The university became a way to access the lettered city.  Still, as more people tried to become letrados, they were frustrated by a lack of opportunities and an inability to penetrate the inner circles of power.  Reading and writing played a central part in helping society to imagine urban myths such as the self-made man, the messiah and the rebel.

Costumbrista writers preserved the past that seemed on the verge of extinction.  Writers like Hernandez of Martín Fierro preserved the “memory” of the customs and rural traditions in the service of a literate and urban audience.  Martín Fierro in particular since it became so famous reached an illiterate audience as well as a literate audience.  These books crystalized oral production fixing a phenomenon normally characterized by permanent transformation (63). 

19thc. costumbrista and realist novels responsible for the collection and preservation of the present and past created national literatures and histories (66).  National identities were imagined and written within the lettered city.  National identity was defined by the lettered city as a result of modernization.  It seems very ironic that urban sign system constructed the rural past.  Letrados coopted rural orality in poetry and marginalized the subalterns.  This reminds me of Juri Lotman and how the marginal displaces the core eventually, but here the content is displaced but not the people in power. 

As cities became more modernized they became non-spaces and lost all connection with organic place and identity.  No emotional attachment to places, forward oriented spaces, not for or about the past, disorienting spaces, society in search of firm footing.  (reminds me of marc augé-supermodernity).  The written word came to the rescue and reconstructed and preserved the past in writing in an often idealized way.  The dreams of identity were forged in the lettered city by letrados.  For example, Tradiciones peruanas Ricardo de la palma is a nostalgic 19th c reconstruction.  And yet this can be thought of as not a preservation of the past but a construction of a national identity.  The past was encoded in word and image.  The lettered city won the right to define past and future.  Readers were absorbed into a universe of signs.

Chapter 5: The politicized polis
In the 20th century letrados became more specialized; anthropologists, historians, etc.  The role of the letrados was very much tied to politics and letters and politics seemed to go hand in hand.  Think of Rodó, Vasconcelos and José Martí for example. In the late nineteenth century, specialization leads to a split between what Rama calls the letrado and the literato (the writer/poet). As the power of the church begins to wane, the literatos come to conceive of themselves, in the words of José Enrique Rodó, as the “keepers of souls” (79)

It was José Martí who developed, during his time in exile in the United States, the idea of “nuestroamericanismo” – the necessity of Latin American unification in defense against U.S. expansionism. For Rama, the application of this concept has radical consequences for Latin America during the years of revolution (from the Mexican revolution of 1910 to the military coups of the 1950s-70s). It leads to what he refers to as democratic cesarianism or democratic authoritarianism – the continuation of caudillo politics into presumably democratic systems. And it results in what he considers an inexcusable complicity between the literatos and the policies of the dictators.

Chapter 6: The city revolutionized
This chapter focuses on the 20th century and on how the relationship between the state and the letrado changed.  Even though Latin American politics were still strongly shaped by caudillismo like with the Mexican Revolution, there is an increasing democratization of society and there were mass programs to educate people and to make education free and accessible to all (early 1900s).  There was also a focus on popular culture and folk traditions become hegemonic for example the tango in Argentina.  This also goes along with an increasing sense of nationalism that was based on these popular cultures.  Rama says that this popular culture was not romanticized as much as it was the gritty urban culture.  There are more self educated letrados.  There seems to be a break between the state power and the letrado.  The chapter ends with the example of Los de abajo de Mariano Azuela and shows the conflict between letrados and the underclasses in the Mexican revolution. The letrado now writes sometimes in opposition to the state. 

The Rhetorics of La respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Part 3 of 4)



La respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz is Sor Juan’s response to a letter from the Bishop of Puebla, which he signed with the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz.  The Bishop of Puebla had published a private letter sent to him by Sor Juana that came to be called La Carta Atenagórica in which she criticizes the sermon of Antonio de Vieyra, a well-respected Portuguese Jesuit priest.  Then, he sends Sor Juana a letter in which he reprimands her for her intellectualism.  In La respuesta Sor Juana expresses her gratitude for the publication of her letter, and then she explains her initial silence upon finding out about its publication.[1]  In La respuesta Sor Juana defends her inclination for learning and petitions for women to be allowed to study privately and to teach other women.  She concludes with a re-interpretation of Paul’s discourse in which he dictates the silence of women in church.      
            One of the most impressive aspects of Sor Juana’s La respuesta is the way in which she confronts masculine social domination and ecclesiastical authority.  In her writing, Sor Juana gives examples of learned women of antiquity as evidence that women have the same capacity to learn as men.  She questions the binary of gender and argues that one should not permit or prohibit learning based on gender alone without taking into account the capacity of the individual.  She follows with a criticism of men like Martin Luther who, she evaluates, read without intellectual capacity and have poorly interpreted the Bible to the detriment of Christianity.
            The structure of La respuesta reveals a strong Baroque influence.  In the 17th century the Spanish Peninsula is at the peak of its Baroque period and has closed itself off from the rest of Europe.  The Baroque period coincides with a plethora of scientific discoveries such as the confirmation of Copernicus’s Heliocentric Theory (1543), Galileo’s invention of the first telescope (1608), William Harvey’s demonstration of the circulation of blood (1628), and Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravity (1687) that begin to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church.  In the Baroque period, Catholicism, Medieval thought, and Renaissance ideals collide in a way that threatens the basic pillars of Christianity (Leonard 29).  Spain insulates itself from change opting to view itself as an instrument of divine providence and insisting that its extensive colonial territory proves that God had chosen Spain to re-establish Christianity in its purest form: “The large populations threatened by heresy in Europe and awaiting the illumination of Christian doctrine in America were clearly a trust which providence had bestowed exclusively on the peoples of the Spanish Peninsula” (Leonard 24).  So while the rest of Europe opens to new ideas and ways of thinking, Spain guards itself from these.  Scholasticism, the predominant system of critical thought, incorporated logic with the basic premise that all truth emanates from God.  Those that have knowledge of this truth are the people chosen by God to “know” and transmit wisdom.  Given that God disseminates wisdom to particular people and not to others, knowledge in the Baroque period is based on memorizing material from accepted sources and not on being able to reason.  In La respuesta, Sor Juana demonstrates her ability with the extensive use of citations from accepted sources such as Quintilian, Saint Geronimo, Saint Augustine, and Aristotle.  The structure of La respuesta also manifests a classic juridical order that shows Sor Juana’s knowledge of the classis Greek and Roman models (Arenal 22).
            The numerous contradictions in Sor Juana’s letter can be explained as conventional rhetorical forms of the era that don’t reveal more about Sor Juana than a knowledge of the rules of the discourse.  For example, in the beginning and at the end of La respuesta, Sor Juana’s tone seems self-deprecating and excessively humble.  Sor Juana says that she doesn’t study in order to know, but only to be less ignorant. She emphasizes her insignificance as a poor nun, “la más mínima criatura del mundo y la más indigna de ocupar vuestra atención” (33) [the most insignificant creature in the World and the least worthy of your attention.]  In the conclusion of her letter she undermines her own authority over her letter when she acknowledges the Bishop’s authority to rip it up or to erase her writing.  While some critics have argued that Sor Juana’s excessive humility is a parody of the norms, Electra Arenal explains that the hyperbolic humility and false modesty that Sor Juana shows are part of the conventions of the epistolary form of the Baroque period:  
In Sor Juana’s day, formal letter writing was governed by strict rhetorical rules, including Renaissance adaptations of Greek and Latin models.  Vestiges of such rules are quite apparent today in French forms of address in letter writing; early in the twentieth century, formal English language letters were still ended with the metaphorical ‘Your humble servant’...Writing by nuns and clerics, especially when addressed to their superiors, followed established modes that included such metaphors of humility as ‘I lowlier than a worm’ and, as Sor Juana wrote in a document on the Immaculate Conception of Mary: ‘I...the most insignificant of the slaves of Our Lady the Most Holy Mary.’ (23)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sor Juana’s Era ( Part 2 of 4)


Las meninas Diego Velázquez
Sor Juana was the last great writer of the Spanish Golden Age, but at the same time, she prescribed to another non-peninsular reality, a separate colonial space.  Electra Arenal explains how in her writing there is a notable influence of Spanish writers such as Cervantes, Quevedo, Góngora, Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca and the Rennaissance and Barroque literary traditions.  
In one of Sor Juana’s poems the Virgin appears as Don Quijote, saving people in distress. Some of her sonnets have been compared to those of Góngora: the title and style of Primero Sueño [First Dream] are inspired by that poet. Lope de Vega’s conceptual games, his tender lyrics, and incorporation of music and dance into theater all find their counterparts in Sor Juana’s works. The enormous influence of Calderón de la Barca can de summarized in her variations of two of his titles: he wrote ‘Los empeños de un ocaso,’ she ‘Los empeños de una casa’: he ‘El divino Orfeo,’ [Divine Orpheus] she ‘El divino Narciso [Divine Narcissus]. (15)
In spite of the fact that her inspiration comes in large part from Spanish literature, Sor Juana becomes a symbol of the New World.  Her “exemplary” life, her rejection of reading and writing, and her death lend themselves to a calming narrative used by the Church to illustrate the religious conversion of a controversial nun.  In the secular sphere, Sor Juana represents the abundance and potential of the New World (Franco 24).
           In Sor Juana’s day it was thought that a woman’s mental capacity was inferior to that of men.  In Examen de ingenios para las ciencias [An Examination of Characters for the Sciences], Doctor Juan Huarte of San Juan writes a treatise in which he proposes the adequate instruction for each of various types of people according to the physical and intellectual aptitudes of each type.  It is published for the first time in Baeza in 1575 and was reprinted multiple times in Spain and translated into Italian and French during the 16th century.  In this text, the predominant notion of women’s limited scholastic capacity is clear.  Women were not thought to be able to understand complex topics, to be able to learn languages or to learn anything that required more than basic memorization:      

Females, due the frigidity and humidity of their sex cannot reach a great depth of talent [ingenio].  We see them talking with some appearance of ability on easy and light subjects, with well-studied and common terminology.  But, if they go further into letters, they cannot learn more than a little Latin, and this being the work of memory.  It is not they who are to be blamed for this lack of intelligence [rudeza], but the coldness and humidity that made them women; those qualities, as we have already proved, contradict talent and ability. (Huerga 360)
It is in this context, in which very little was expected of women in intellectual terms, in which Sor Juana emerges.  From her own narration of her life in La respuesta [The Answer] we know that her Grandfather had an extensive library and that she learned to read just after learning to walk.  She taught herself Classic Rhetorical forms, Law, Theology, and Literature.  At fourteen she had a friendship with the Viceroyal couple of Toledo and through them Sor Juana wins the admiration of the Viceroyal court of New Spain for her erudition and poetic ability.  In 1667 she enters the convent of the Discalced Carmelites of México and two years later she enters the convent of the Order of Saint Geronimo.  Sor Juana explains in La respuesta [The Answer] that she did not have a religious calling, but that she preferred the convent to marriage because she did not want to have to give up her intellectual pursuits: “Vivir sola... no tener ocupación alguna obligatoria que embarazase la libertad de mi estudio, ni rumor de comunidad que impidiese el sosegado silencio de mis libros” [Living alone…not having any obligatory chores to hinder my freedom and my study, or the murmur of a community to impede the peaceful silence of my books] (38).     

Contradictions in La respuesta

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sor Juana's La respuesta (Part I of 4)


Sins of Sor Juana Karen Zacarías, Goodman Theatre Chicago (2010)
In her play about the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sins of Sor Juana, Karen Zacarías hyperbolizes Sor Juana’s intellectual death.  At the end of the play Sor Juana scrawls in her own blood, “I will never write again.”[1]  Representations like Zacarías’ of the last years of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s life are unsettling because her intellectual death precedes her physical death by two years.  Why did this brilliant 17th century woman who petitioned for the education of women and questioned the persecution she experienced as a female intellectual and writer finally give up her books and renounce writing?
Similar contradictions come into play in Sor Juana’s writing.  In one of her most well known works, La respuesta, Sor Juana at times presents herself as a humble nun who accepts the feminine convention of silence as appropriate for women, but at the same time, she speaks her mind through her writing.[2]  She begins her letter by explaining the period of silence preceding her correspondence and says that she decided to write because of what she was afraid her silence might otherwise say.[3]  In another example of contradiction in La respuesta, Sor Juana defends her passion for secular learning by appealing to her religious faith; she contends that it is God that gave her such an intense inclination for study.  Finally, throughout La respuesta [The Answer], Sor Juana emphasizes her unassuming nature, but at one point compares her struggle against religious authority with the struggle of Christ against the Devil.
       Many critics have engaged with the contradictions in Sor Juana’s life and works in an attempt to resolve her eventual withdrawal from reading and writing. There are various determinations about Sor Juana’s life, some critics claim her as the first feminist and others classify her as a monster of the Baroque era.  Jean Franco and David Solodkow are among those who have analyzed the ambiguous space that Sor Juana occupies.  In Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico, Jean Franco stresses that interpretations of La respuesta tend to smooth over inconsistencies, making Sor Juana’s life and work into a cohesive, but false, narrative: “these contemporary stories have tended to represent Sor Juana as a heroine pitted against a villainous Church, depicting her as a woman fighting a male institution, an artist forced into conformity by official ideology, a woman whose talents were held in check by sexual repression” (Franco 25).  Jean Franco concludes that Sor Juana’s back and forth play is motivated by opportunism: “In fact, in one respect, she followed no consistent path at all but rather, opportunistically, took advantage of the moves that were open to her within the patronage of court and Church” (27 Franco).  Franco explains Sor Juana’s contradictions as opportunism that is taking advantage of opportunities without regard to principles. In The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler theorizes the process of subject formation and explains that the conscious self becomes a subject while the unconscious psyche remains resistant to its subjection: “It is important to distinguish between the notion of the psyche, which includes the notion of the unconscious, and that of the subject, whose formation is conditioned by the exclusion of the unconscious” (206).  Butler’s theory of subject formation is useful here because it provides a way of understanding contradictions without needing to resolve them; her contradictions demonstrate a divided conscious and unconscious self.  In contrast, the opportunism that Jean Franco suggests, that Sor Juana disregards principles and manages opportunities for her own ends, imposes a cohesive intent in Sor Juana that is not supported by the text.      
Another critic, David Solodkow analyses the contradiction of saying and silence in Sor Juana’s La respuesta.  He resolves the contradiction of a woman who “speaks” by characterizing Sor Juana primarily as a woman of privilege, and not a silent subaltern.  According to Solodkow, Sor Juana is a privileged woman because she has the opportunity and possibility of “speaking.”  Solodkow questions the subjection of Sor Juana by applying Gayatri Spivak’s concept of the subaltern in which Spivak characterizes the subaltern as not having the ability to speak.[4]  According to Solodkow, critics err in positioning Sor Juana as a subaltern given that she has the agency with which to read, write, and disseminate her writing.
In Sor Juana, Solodkow sees a case “radically” different from that of a true colonial subaltern: “Si hay una acción a través de la cual se puede definir su existencia-a diferencia de la del subalterno concreto de la ciudad letrada colonial-ella sería, justamente, la de no parar de decir”(Sodolkow 141).  [“If there is an action from which one can define her existence-in comparison with the actual subaltern of the colonial lettered city-it would be, precisely, that of always speaking” (Sodolkow 141).]  While Sor Juana does speak, her speech is not free. First, because La respuesta a Sor Filotea de La Cruz was a private letter published without Sor Juana’s permission and its publication created an enormous backlash against her.  But also, In the same way that we cannot say that an accused person on trial offers a “free” autobiographical account, we cannot classify La respuesta [The Answer] as autobiographical free speech simply because in it she provides an account of herself.       
Sor Juana’s La respuesta provides evidence of the melancholy ambiguity and complexity of a subject that resists without agency and that submits incompletely.  Still, one must not give in to the impulse of pinning down the enigmatic with narratives that only attempt to calm the anxieties of the reader.  While critics impose congruency on her life it is important to avoid re-interpreting Sor Juana in ways that simply mold her to calm the anxieties of today: “In highlighting her ‘female’ emotions and motivations, this external line of criticism domesticates Sor Juana, conforming her life story to a more conventional feminine mode”(Merrim 17).  It is necessary to contemplate Sor Juana’s complexity and engage with the possibility of seeing without understanding and of experiencing the relationship between resistance and complicity in the inconsistencies of Sor Juana’s La respuesta.

Sor Juana’s Era (Part II)



[1] The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías was a featured show at the Goodman Theatre’s 2010 Chicago Latino Theatre Festival.
[2] In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 Paul says “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
[3] In the first line of La respuesta [The Answer] Sor Juana emphasizes that it has taken her so many days to respond because she didn’t know what to say that would be worthy of Sor Filotea de la Cruz.  Without asking for Sor Juana’s permission, Sor FIlotea de la Cruz publishes La Carta Atenagórica in which Sor Juana criticizes a Portuguese Jesuit priest.
[4] Gayatri C. Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana & Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271-313.

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