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.