Difference and Indifference:
The Poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

 Lecture for Part I SP2: Introduction to Hispanic Texts
Plate from facsimile edition of Fama y Obras Posthumas
(See the rest of this edition on-line)
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1. Introduction

The seventeenth-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz may not for many of you be the most well-known writer on the Introduction to Hispanic Texts course, and perhaps only a few of you will have thought of choosing her as as a writer to work on in supervisions. So, in this lecture, I hope to show you:

The title I have given this lecture is DIFFERENCE and INDIFFERENCE. Some of the initial ideas I'd like to gather around these two poles are:
DIFFERENCE in the sense of
- sexual difference (she forces us to change the way in which we read the canon of male writers)
- linguistic difference (her work is not, as some have claimed, a mere copy of contemporary Spanish styles)
- socio-cultural difference (her work is not reducible to European literature and themes)
INDIFFERENCE in the sense of
- a feminine strategy of resistance to male appropriation
- denial of fixed sexual roles
- a telling silence in her work on questions of theology and religion.
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2. Context

Before going any further, however, it is necessary to give some sense of a context for Sor Juana's poetry. You can gain a sense of this by watching the film, Yo la peor de todas, made by the feminist Argentine director María Luisa Bemberg (available in the language laboratory; see also the video clip included on this website). This is a fairly accurate dramatization of Octavio Paz's major study Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o, las trampas de la fe, which remains the fullest account of her life and work to date, and which you should dip into. I can only outline some of the major points here:
One of the major themes of Sor Juana's work is knowledge, and in particular the right of women to have access to learning. In the context of seventeenth-century New Spain, however, knowledge is a dangerous commodity and one that is carefully controlled by the religious hierarchy, rigorously policed by the Holy Inquisition. Scientific knowledge poses a threat to the basis of religious power, as does any interpretation of Scripture that runs counter to the prevailing orthodoxy. In the hands of a woman, any claim to knowledge is triply suspect because access to knowledge of the "Divine Order" (whether scientific or theological) is strictly mediated through a patriarchal hierarchy of men. It is hardly surprising, then, to find that Sor Juana's meditations on knowledge are peppered throughout her work with silence, hermeticism, and contradiction.

The Court, in which Sor Juana spent four years of her adolescence, was the point of contact with Europe and European aristocratic culture; the Church was the controller and censor of knowledge and culture as ideological instruments, and was at times in conflict with the more liberal atmosphere of the Court. Sor Juana's work negotiates a precarious feminine space between these competing institutions. For the culture they controlled was almost entirely a masculine culture. Its writers were men and its readers were men. The doors of the educational institutions were entirely locked for women. This is why it is so extraordinary that the greatest writer to emerge from Nueva España, the first great poet of Spanish America, should have been a woman.back to contents

[If you have not already read the outline biography of Sor Juana, do so now]

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© Geoffrey Kantaris, 1992