In 1690, in the viceroyalty of New Spain, a place known earlier and later as Mexico, anyone who was interested could read an elegant disquisition on Christ’s courtesy, his finezas, his delicate kindnesses toward humanity. The author was a formidably clever nun called Sor Juana lnés de la Cruz, undoubtedly one of the great poets of the Spanish language—possibly of any language. She made many modest disclaimers about her theology, but plainly had a tremendous relish for disputation. Was Christ’s greatest kindness his dying for us or his consenting to absent himself from us for a while? His leaving us his sacrament or his immaterial presence in the sacrament? His washing his disciples’ feet or the motive that led him to wash them? In each case Sor Juana offered refined arguments and examples for the apparently less refined option: dying, the sacrament, washing the feet. She thereby defended the Church fathers against an ingenious Portuguese Jesuit (deviser of the refined options) and managed to look pretty orthodox herself.
But she added a subversive coda, or rather a coda whose orthodoxy was austere enough to be close to subversion. The greatest kindness of all, she said, was not Christ’s but God’s; not Christ’s wonderful gifts but God’s wonderful abstinence from giving. The God of all power and mercy could have endowed us with everything we needed, but didn’t. He held back “the sea of his infinite love,” knowing that we would be unable to respond, and that only what we earn is truly ours. He saved us from the horrors of our inevitable ingratitude, allowed us to invent human goodness; to convert what Sor Juana called his “negative benefactions” into positive practice.
This disquisition, called a Carta atenagórica, a letter such as Athena/Minerva might have written, was published by the bishop of Puebla, who himself contributed a cagey preface, praising the work fulsomely but also worrying about the possibility that a woman as smart as this couldn’t really be far from disobedience. This wasn’t what the bishop said. He said the writer was perfect in “the finer forms of obedience”; but he also thought she should read fewer secular books and devote more of her time to religious studies. Very complicated questions are in the air here. A rich and rigorous intellectual life is being lived through the intracacies of an insubstantial theology. Even in the seventeenth century Christ’s kindnesses were not grounds for violent controversy—rather the reverse: the topic allows for displays of learning and mental agility, for rhetorical performance, within the confines of an undisputed dogma. But then this same theology served as a battlefield for the tough religious politics of New Spain, personality against personality, bishop against archbishop, worldliness against asceticism, the older monastic orders against the all-pervading Jesuits. Most important for us perhaps, the Mexican Minerva is claiming, through theology, the right of women to a voice in public discourse, and the bishop is telling her to take it easy.
This was friendly advice, and received as such by Sor Juana; but it was not advice she could seriously follow. She wrote in response what Alan Trueblood calls “the most remarkable document in the whole corpus of her writings”; what Octavio Paz calls “a unique document in the history of Hispanic literature”: the Reply to Sor Philothea. Sor Philothea was the pseudonym the bishop of Puebla had adopted for his role as publisher and prefacer, and the discussion is conducted on both sides throughout as if it were taking place between two nuns. The effect is distinctly eerie since the collusion seems to spirit away, to chase from the community, the predominantly male authority that is the chief topic of discussion. Men are everywhere, but suddenly invisible. The Reply is a fragment of autobiography that is also a passionate defense of learning, and an assertion of an intellectual freedom we can scarcely imagine even now.
What Sor Juana wants is not special treatment for women but an end to special treatment for men. She indicates that she will be glad to turn her attention to holy subjects, and is happy to have made a start with her Athenagoric letter. She does not say she will give up her profane reading, or writing verse. Much of the Reply is, as Paz says, “less than sincere” in an interesting sense. She defends learning as if its only function were to aid divine studies, yet she clearly believes nothing of the kind. Logic, rhetoric, physics, arithmetic, geometry, architecture, history, law, music are all, she says, mere “steps” toward the “eminence of sacred theology”; and she even seems to invent anthropology for the sake of the scriptures:
The understanding of many passages doubtless requires much study of history, customs, ceremonies, proverbs and even the ways of speaking of the times in which they were written.
She must be prevaricating, if not actually joking (we need geometry, she suggests, to know how to measure the ark of the covenant and the city of Jerusalem; we need an acquaintance with architecture to understand the temple of Solomon—this could be baroque rhetoric getting carried away, but it could also be mischief, a sign of how far an intelligent woman can go in these men’s games).
Her deepest belief is that learning is a form of human grace, its own perfect justification, and her passion for it amounts to an alternative calling, scholarly rather than monastic; it would be a vice if such things could be vices. She could read before she was three, wouldn’t eat cheese because she had been told it made people stupid, and used to cut off her hair, of which she was rather proud, as an incitement to study: if she had not learned a certain thing by the time her hair grew again, she would cut it back to where it was, a sacrifice of feminine appearance to genderless intellect. Her hair grew quickly, she says, but she was a slow learner, so out came the scissors, “for I did not consider it right that a head so bare of knowledge should be dressed with hair.” Trueblood’s translation of the Reply in A Sor Juana Anthology is accurate and I can’t better it but I wonder if we quite catch the lightness of the style in this passage, the wit and the severity on display in the thought of an empty head being full of hair. The adult nun is amused at the child’s earnestness, but also admires and continues to believe in her discipline.
Having evoked her passion, Sor Juana dives into an extaordinary, self-regarding account of her persecution as an intellectual, an evocation of the prohibitions and tortures inflicted on her because she liked to learn. She was at one point forbidden to read, for example, and generally given a hard time. But she was also a protégé of the viceregal court and of powerful clergymen, and her parlor at the Convent of San Jerónimo was full of admiring visitors, a regular salon, something like Mallarmé’s apartment of a Tuesday evening. She was invited to write religious songs and masques, and Paz calculates that more than half her work is vers de circonstance, poems of welcome for new viceroys, celebrations of important birthdays and deaths and so on. She was a kind of unofficial poet laureate of New Spain; and she had published, at the time of the Reply, a substantial Collected Works and was planning another. She was well known in Old Spain too, celebrated as the “American Phoenix,” and the “Tenth Muse.” We may want to say that her complaints are made on behalf of the mind rather than on her own behalf (“Any eminence” is a target for envy, she remarks, but “most implacably subject to it is eminence of mind”), and that her vivid rhetoric attests to real sufferings, such that at times she begged God, she says, to “extinguish the light of my mind.”
Even so, the language and the analogies she uses are extreme; torture is a lurid, almost unbearable metaphor in a world where the Inquisition is still literally, corporeally, at work. Sor Juana compares herself to Christ, the divine intellectual, crucified not for his teachings but for his beauty and goodness, and she concludes that it is ever thus with genuine distinction: “In the world it is not enough for a wise mind to be scorned; it must also be bruised and hurt.” In a belated fit of modesty (or even just of proportion) Sor Juana adds. “I do not mean that I have been persecuted for being learned, only for my love of learning and letters, not because I have been successful in either.” But the modesty concerns the learning, not the persecution or the comparison.
Sor Juana has derived comfort, she says, from the example of all the women who have been famous for their knowledge. She lists them, and discusses them with admiration. Then she makes the most dazzling argumentative coup of the whole Reply, the move that undoubtedly got her into the terrible trouble of her last years, causing even the bishop of Puebla to abandon her. She quotes a Mexican cleric on the subject of women’s learning and teaching. She agrees (tactically, maybe) that women should not lecture publicly or preach in the pulpit, but that “studying, writing, and teaching privately are not only allowable but most edifying and useful.” Not for all women, of course; only for those who have a talent for such activities. But then—here is the lethal, unexpected twist—men without talent should not be allowed to perform such duties either:
So true is this that the interpretation of Holy Scripture should be forbidden not only to women, considered so very inept, but to men, who merely by virtue of being men consider themselves sages…. Failure to do so, in my view, has given rise precisely to all those sectarians and been the root cause of all the heresies. For there are many who study in order to become ignorant, especially those of an arrogant, restless, and overbearing turn of mind…. Hence, until they have uttered something heretical merely in order to say what no one else has, they will not rest…. A clever man once said that a person who does not know Latin is not a complete fool, but that one who does is well qualified to be one. And I add he is even better (if stupidity is a qualification) who has studied his bit of philosophy and theology and has a smattering of languages, for therewith he becomes a fool in many branches of learning and language, his mother tongue not offering room enough for a great fool.
They study in order to become ignorant, estudian para ignorar. Sor Juana has identified her enemies, the whole (male) clerisy of the Counter-Reformation, in which learning itself is used to close the door to curiosity, and where heresies are bred from ingrown pride and sheer intellectual poverty. We now see the under-current of the disquisition on Christ’s kindnesses: a genuine cleverness (Sor Juana’s) returns us to serious Christian thoughts, which have been obscured by the false cleverness of a preacher desperately trying to find something new to say. We see too how brave and how threatening her idea of God’s negative benefactions could be, since they implied a freedom of the will verging on free thought—in New Spain the notion must have looked like Protestantism or worse.
Sor Juana was born in Mexico, in the shadow of the volcano Popocatépetl, in 1648 (probably), a “daughter of the Church,” meaning she was illegitimate. She was sent to live with well-connected relatives in Mexico City when she was about ten, became a maid-in-waiting at the Viceregal court when she was a little over sixteen. She entered a Carmelite convent as a novice in 1667, but found the rule too strict and returned to court life. In 1669, she became a nun of the milder Hieronymite order, and remained in the Convent of San Jerónimo in Mexico City for the rest of her life. She died in 1695, attending to the sick in a general epidemic.
Octavio Paz’s book on Sor Juana displays an extraordinary sweep of imagination and intelligence, and it is many things: a biography, a critical study, a re-creation of an era, a meditation on Mexican history, a dialogue of poet with poet, a reflection on the role of the intellectual in the modern world—the world on whose threshold Sor Juana lived and died, and which she often seems to predict. He calls the modern Mexicans “a people without a memory,” and in this he joins forces with many contemporary Latin American writers who are trying to recover (to reinvent if necessary) the buried or blurred experiences of a smoky past.
Mexicans have been particularly tempted by a myth of origins—no better way to lose history than in a myth of this kind. On this reading of events, the Spanish Conquest was a violent interlude between early Indian civilizations and independence, the Colonial period only a long, forgettable hiatus. If we recall that the legacy of this hiatus included a language, a religion, countless habits and assumptions, and some of the country’s most vivid art and architecture, we can see the violence the myth is enacting, the onslaught on memory. I suppose a number of contemporary Mexicans may feel that Paz’s reconstruction of the culture and politics of New Spain is a little too tender, too much a praise of the hierarchical past; and it is true that a dislike of the modern creeps into the writing now and again. But I don’t feel there is any serious imbalance here. On the contrary: my impression is of a brilliant anthropological understanding of an entire world, as befits a man who has written so well on Lévi-Strauss.
Paz discusses court and clergy, the politics of the Conquest, the ethics of bribery, convent life, mannerism and the baroque, neo-Platonism, music theory, astrology, the long and winding hermetic traditions leading to the dark pyramids that loom in Sor Juana’s poems, much else. And the poems themselves are closely considered, with subtlety and sympathy, and with judgment—Paz knows which poems carry the case for Sor Juana, and which are merely the skillful exercises a poet of the time would need to be able to perform. There is an interesting difficulty though, “what may be an insuperable historical limitation,” which the book names, faces, and more than half circumvents:
On the one hand, the society in which Sor Juana lived…helps us to understand her; on the other, it conceals her from us…. Her most intimate and personal tendencies were indissolubly and secretly bound to the morality and customs of her era. There is a point at which the social is indistinguishable from the individual. Sor Juana, like each of us, is the expression and the negation of her time, its hero and its victim.
This means we can never fully understand her—but what would “fully” mean, even for a contemporary, even without the barrier of historical distance? It also means we can understand her and her time substantially, if we are prepared to take them together and invest our care and imagination in the project, as Paz has done. There are flights of generality in this book that I can’t follow, intellectual acrobatics without a net, and maybe without a rope or a circus; and Paz’s insistence on treating our lack of knowledge of Sor Juana’s father as if it were a significant absence in her life is perverse. In this chapter the biographer’s fatal “must haves” abound. “Her parents’ separation and the appearance of the new lover…must have affected her deeply.” “Juana Inés must have known that [her father’s] absence was permanent.” “Her mother’s new lover must have been seen by Juana Inés as an interloper and usurper.” “Her relationship with her mother…must have been determined by the opposition of the two masculine images, the ghost and the intruder.” If these propositions are true at all, they must be true of all stepchildren.
I don’t mean to suggest that all “must haves” are unreliable. Paz says Sor Juana “must have read and reread” Baltasar de Vitoria’s Teatro de los dioses de la gentilidad, and he is right. But there is ample textual evidence for this assertion: Sor Juana’s writing are full of references to texts and myths cited by Vitoria, which she is unlikely to have found anywhere else. In fact Paz is usually careful with the evidence, offering us guesses, speculations clearly identified as such and based on lots of homework. There are splendid throwaway remarks, too, which remind us not to take the grander purposes too solemnly. “I do not mean that she was ‘normal,”‘ Paz says, discussing Sor Juana’s poise, her avoidance both of license and of excessive zeal, “no one is.”
Paz’s discussion of Sor Juana’s (worldly) reasons for renouncing the world is exemplary, clears the scene entirely of pious cobwebs. Sor Juana herself in any case is explicit in the Reply. What was needed was someone who would read her without answering for her in advance:
I became a nun because although I knew that that way of life involved much that was repellent to my nature—I refer to its incidental, not its central aspects—nevertheless, given my total disinclination to marriage (la total negación que tenía al matrimonio) it was the least unreasonable and most becoming choice I could make to assure my ardently desired salvation.
The least unreasonable, the most becoming. This is a long way from a saintly vocation. The desired salvation is the salvation desired by all Christians, and she is writing to a bishop. But her meaning is quite clear and unhypocritical. She didn’t want to marry and she didn’t want to be dependent on ephemeral courtly protectors. She wanted time to write, and she wanted to be respectable. She became a nun in much the way that modern women become lawyers.
Similarly Paz’s discussion of Sor Juana’s love poems addressed to women is sensitive and open. He doesn’t exclude a lesbian passion—although he does correctly say you would have to be a horrible cynic to enter a convent if you knew that was where your tastes lay, an act “more appropriate to a Diderot heroine than to a girl of Juana Inés’ age and social class in New Spain”—but shows that nothing forces this conclusion upon us. We don’t have to jump to it or be frightened of it: a genuine liberation of interpretation.
In all, Paz manages to unfold the complexity of Sor Juana’s life and time for us without unduly simplifying; and also simplifies now and again to give us a signpost. Thus: “The life and work of Juana Inés can be summed up in a single sentence: knowledge is a transgression committed by a solitary hero who then is punished.” This is the meaning Sor Juana herself chose for her life, within the narrow limits of choice afforded by her culture. Paz’s epigraph comes from the First Dream:
…al ánimo arrogante
que, el vivir despreciando, determina
su nombre eternizar en su rüina.
…to the undaunted spirit
that, disdaining life, determines
to immortalize itself in ruin.
He must however be speaking for himself as well as for Sor Juana, and indeed for many of us too, when he says, “we are the critics as well as the accomplices of our fate.”
Sor Juana owed a significant and often-mentioned debt to Góngora, but Paz also connects her to Calderón, Quevedo, and Lope de Vega. She learned metrical method from Calderon, ornament and complication from Góngora. She lacks Quevedo’s fury, Lope’s variety, but she knows silence and absence as they do not (more negative benefactions). “Sor Juana perceived with astounding insight.” Paz says, “the paradoxical nature of pleasure: we merely touch a body and it disappears; it has only to disappear to recover its reality.” The matter could not be better put. Lucidity, awareness, irony: these are the words Paz offers for the impossible job of saying quickly what Sor Juana’s writerly qualities are. Comparisons help. “As a poem of knowledge, there is nothing like [Sor Juana’s] First Dream until Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice [Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard].”
In English literatue I find myself thinking most often of Marvell, the “tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace,” as Eliot said; although there are moments when she sounds like Herbert, or the Shakespeare of the sonnets. “To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit” actually seems to have been written by Sor Juana. But she is more speculative than any of those English writers, more given to thoughts of the hollowness of life, so that her often glittering wit and her unmistakable good humor are suspended over a philosophical darkness. The following sonnet brings her closer to certain monologues in Webster or Tourneur, with a weirdly entertained and defeated coquetry all her own—as if the baroque skeleton could still retain a little vanity. The poem refers to a portrait of the writer:
Este, que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores
es cauteloso engaño del sentido; éste, en quien la lisonja ha pre- tendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido, es en vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado: es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.
These lying pigments facing you,
with every charm brush can supply
set up false premises of color
to lead astray the unwary eye. Here, against ghastly tolls of time,
bland flattery has staked a claim,
defying the power of passing years
to wipe out memory and name. And here, in this hollow artifice—
frail blossom hanging on the wind,
vain pleading in a foolish cause, poor shield against what fate has wrought—
all efforts fail and in the end
a body goes to dust, to shade, to nought.
The translation, as you can see, reads very smoothly. Aware of the perils of rhyme, as he says, Alan Trueblood felt he needed it all the same, and it certainly doesn’t do the damage it might have done. The question perhaps is less one of judging translations—Trueblood’s versions are accurate and inventive throughout, so we need have no worries on that score—than one of which theory of translation we espouse. I’m inclined to line up with Nabokov in favor of literal renderings—only occasionally leaping entirely the other way and choosing Robert Lowell’s concept of imitation (but then you have to be Lowell to pull that off).
I have two main reasons for my preference. One is that I think grammar is a part of poetry, and we need to see the poet’s own grammar at work. Thus in Spanish this poem insists on what the portrait is—a cautious cheating of the senses, cauteloso engaño del sentido—and the is, picked up from the end of the first quatrain, then opens every line of the sestet and appears four times in the final line. The effect is to set up a sort of rhetorical wager, a tournament of nomination—what else can we call this picture? But then what looks like a list, an exercise in variation, turns out to be an argument: it was heading for nada all along. “A body goes to dust” has a quite different feeling from “is a corpse, is dust,” and indeed misses the metaphysical wit of the claim that a painting is, when you look closely, the copse the painted person will become.
My other reason is that rhyming, or sometimes even just readable translation, requires a supply of words and concepts that aren’t in the original at all. Thus there are in Sor Juana’s Spanish no pigments, no brush no unwary eye, no ghastly tolls, no blossom, no foolish cause. These seem to me entirely acceptable, even imaginative additions, but they add to readability rather than to our impression of the poet, and they make Sor Juana sound Edwardian rather than baroque. Samuel Beckett translated some Mexican poetry for an anthology Octavio Paz edited in 1958. His version of this poem keeps more of the grammar and diction of the Spanish, although certainly at the expense of sounding a good deal more stilted than Trueblood’s:
This coloured counterfeit that thou beholdest,
vainglorious with the excellencies of art,
is, in fallacious syllogisms of colour,
nought but a cunning dupery of sense:
this in which flattery has undertaken
to extenuate the hideousness of years,
and, vanquishing the outrages of time,
to triumph o’er oblivion and old age,
is an empty artifice of care,
is a fragile flower in the wind,
is a paltry sanctuary from fate,
is a foolish sorry labour lost,
is conquest doomed to perish and, well taken,
is corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.
Even Beckett doesn’t manage to keep the insistent, unmodulated assertions of the last line, and needs to turn Sor Juana’s mournful progression into an elegant balance of pairs. And Trueblood’s “in the end” is better than Beckett’s “well taken”: the phrase bien mirado is very casual, almost feels like a line-filler; it seems to prepare us for a solemn but comforting conclusion about the vanity of human wishes (of human vanity)—for anything rather than this extraordinary vanishing act, person into painting, painting into corpse, corpse into dust, dust into darkness, and darkness into the void. This is not the poem that makes Paz think of Mallarmé, but the thought would not be inappropriate.
Sor Juana was famous in her lifetime, but forgotten soon after. There was he new edition of her works between 1725 and 1910, and no major modern edition until 1940. Paz came to her, he says, through the enthusiasm of older poets, and was “especially taken by the sonnets.” They are, as I hope the above discussion may suggest, a very good place to start. In one she asks her beloved to delay departure—“Semblance of my elusive love, hold still,” Deténte, sombra de mi bien esquivo—knowing that the beloved is a mirage, a dulce ficción, and consoling herself finally with the thought that fantasies can’t escape, that prisons of the mind don’t lose their prisoners. In another she diagnoses hope as a great deceiver, a murderer even (“Who was it claimed you never killed a man?,” quien te ha quitado el nombre de homicida?), whose business is not to prolong life but gloatingly to delay death. In yet another, perhaps the most deep and delicate of all these poems, Sor Juana addresses a “divine rose,” a rosa divina—the usage is entirely secular, and, given the traditional and mystical meanings of the rose, almost blasphemous—whose beauty is described as a crimson mastery, imparting snowy lessons to all other forms of fairness. But then the rose—and more important, all men and women who are at all like this rose—has only scorn for the fact of its future death, and therefore commits the great sin in Sor Juana’s humanist catechism: ignorance, the avoidance of knowing.
Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura. Amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo ser unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura. ¡Cuán altiva en tu pompa, pre- sumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida de tu caduco ser das mustias señas,
con que con docta muerte y necia vida
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas!
Rose, celestial flower finely bred,
you offer in your scented subtlety
crimson instruction in everything that’s fair,
snow-white sermons to all beauty. Semblance of our human shapeli- ness,
portent of proud breeding’s doom,
in whose being Nature chose to link
a joyous cradle and a joyless tomb. How haughtily you broadcast in your prime
your scorn of all suggestion you must die!
Yet how soon as you wilt and waste away, your withering brings mortality’s reply.
Wherefore with thoughtless life and thoughtful death,
in dying you speak true, in life you lie.
Divine rose, that in a pleasant garden,
persuasive with sweet-smelling sub- tlety,
in crimson mastery impartest beauty
and snowy disciplines of loveliness.
Intimation of the human frame,
epitome of unavailing grace,
in whose being nature did unite
the joyful cradle and the fearsome tomb.
How haughty in thy pomp, pre- sumptuous
and proud, thou dost disdain the threat of death,
and then, dismayed and humbled, showest forth
thy perishable being’s withered marks!
Thus with learned death and ignorant life
living thou dost deceive and dying teach.
I think again of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with their handsome, threatened, self-sufficient flowers, and their elegant store of unheard advice. This poem, like the one I discussed at length above, uses in a crucial place one of Sor Juana’s favorite words, necia: here, con docta muerte y necia vida; there, necia diligencia errada. The word means both stupid and stubborn, stubbornly stupid, and must come from the Latin nescio, “I don’t know.” It is in common use even now, and often applied to people who don’t know when to let go, or how to take a hint. This kind of ignorance is a mere dogged parody of independence of mind, and the men who study in order to be ignorant are the ultimate necios. They really work at their dimness, quite unaware of God’s subtler benefactions, not even recognizing the freedom they have and the wit they lack.
The bilingual selection in the Sor Juana Anthology, made by Trueblood along with Octavio Paz, also contains some very beautiful romances, lilting short-lined poems, well translated; some religious songs that don’t cross very convincingly into English; and a wonderfully funny satire on men with double standards (“Hombres necios,” it begins, and ends with a mock horror of the world, the flesh, and the devil, all found together in men), for which Trueblood has devised a spendidly light and amusing diction and rhythm:
So where does the greater guilt lie
for a passion that should not be:
with the man who pleads out of baseness
or the woman debased by his plea? Or which is more to be blamed—
though both will have cause for chagrin:
the woman who sins for money
or the man who pays money to sin?
There are also fragments from an auto sacramental, a form of pastoral religious masque, in which Sor Juana ingeniously and melodiously converts Narcissus into Christ, and Echo into Lucifer; and there are complete texts (although in English only) of the Reply and the First Dream.
In the First Dream, a remarkable meditative poem, the mind, in sleep, seeks to grasp the whole universe in a single thought, and failing in the attempt, begins to build knowledge piece by piece, up the ancient hierarchy from inanimate matter to man. Even this is hard though, a burden too heavy even for Atlas; the climb is too long and too dangerous. But Sor Juana takes Phaëthon as her example, the boy who drove the chariot of Apollo and crashed. This is not a cautionary tale for her, but a model of daring:
del ánimo ambicioso
que—del mismo terror haciendo halago
que al valor lisonjea—
las glorias deletrea
entre los caracteres del estrago.
of that ambitious mettle,
which, finding in terror itself a spur
to prick up courage,
pieces together the name of glory
from letters spelling endless havoc.
The mind spells out glories using the letters of ruin: it is a vision of art worthy of Flaubert, and we recall Paz’s epigraph. Failure is necessary in such ventures, perhaps, not the price of knowledge but the cause of knowledge. In the poem the mind is still at its difficult work when the body begins to wake, and day returns, leaving the world full of light, in the work’s last words, and the poet awake, el Mundo iluminado, y yo despierta. The final line is something of an explosion, since it indicates, as Trueblood points out, the writer’s sex for the first time: despierta. But it also confuses all our categories. This light is an end to the night’s quest for knowledge; being awake is a separation from the quest. And yet light and waking cannot be simple negatives in Sor Juana’s world: the poem ends on a loss that is also an ambiguous clarity. Yo despierta means I am desolate and awake, empty-handed; and I am awake and lucid, there is work for the mind in the daytime too.
“We are our enemies’ accomplices,” Paz says, echoing and amplifying the thought I have already quoted, and this is the meaning of his book’s subtitle: “The traps [or the tricks] of faith,” las trampas de la fe. After the Athenagoric Letter and the Reply, other, political events intervened to withdraw from Sor Juana the support of the viceroy and her friends in Spain. She was hounded by her confessor, and by the zealous archbishop of Mexico, not only to give up her writing and profane studies, but to deny them, to abjure all human learning, the passion of her life. And she did. Or at least she gave away her books, keeping in her cell only three small devotional works and a number of hair shirts and scourges; and she signed three dismal documents, one with her blood, admitting that she had “lived in religion without religion, if not worse than a pagan might live.”
It is possible, even probable, that Sor Juana was sincere in her contrition, that she repented of her pride and vanity, and that she came to see her learning and her writing as aspects of those sins. But it was not an unforced contrition, and as Paz says, “It is difficult to believe that the self-confident and defiant person of 1691 and 1692 had turned into the raving penitent of 1694.” Raving penitents weren’t rare—the men who were driving Sor Juana to her abjuration were holy, self-flagellating priests the walls of whose rooms were spattered with their own blood—but it is hard to see how the lucid, amused, skeptical author of the poems and the Reply could become one. Paz’s answer is that she didn’t; or became one only in the sense that the victims of the Moscow trials became self-confessed criminals. Paz is fond of this analogy; his anticlericalism and his anticommunism link hands here, because
orthodoxies are not satisfied with punishing dissent: they demand confessions, repentance, and retraction from the guilty. In those ceremonies of expiation, the faith of the accused is the surest ally of the prosecutors and inquisitors.
The point is not quite as strong as it looks, since Paz himself has shown that Sor Juana, however casual or worldly her faith, could not at any time or under any circumstances have been without it. One can only be an accomplice or an ally if one could have been something else, and she was in the wrong time and the wrong culture to be Voltaire. But the general drift of Paz’s analogy is of course very powerful. We are looking at varieties of what Auden called intellectual disgrace, the mind driven to the wall and humiliated, and we need to look hard and long if these times are not to come again. One extra oddity we may wish to note. Sor Juana was persecuted by men who hated and feared women, saw them as daughters of Eve and friends of the serpent, permanent dangers to the soul. Women in our day are oppressed, on the whole, by men who like them; like them in their place.
October 13, 1988