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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