(See the rest of this edition on-line)
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:
- why I think her work is well worth studying in depth
- something of the uniqueness of her poetry
- the relevance of her thinking today, particularly the appropriation of her work that has been made for modern feminism.
DIFFERENCE in the sense of- sexual difference (she forces us to change the way in which we read the canon of male writers)INDIFFERENCE in the sense of
- 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)- 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.
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.
- Seventeenth-century Mexico, known then as Nueva España, was a highly autocratic society, ruled by viceroys sent from Spain and rotated in practice every seven or eight years.
- The arch-bishop held great power, and the Santo Oficio, or Holy Inquisition, was greatly feared (Sor Juana mentions it in a famous letter, saying that she does not wish to get into trouble with it).
- The religious climate of Nueva España was much more orthodox than in Spain: Catholicism was a well implanted religion in Spain, but in the Americas it was relatively new.
- The colonial state was highly centralized:
- the indigenous people were governed by specific laws, and there were special statutes for different ethnic groups -- blacks, mulattoes, indians, mestizos, creoles, and Spaniards
- religious orders were governed by specific laws, as were virtually all different social groups
- ownership of land was strictly controlled -- much was owned by the Church, while the state was interested in preventing the rise of large, powerful, creole land-owners who might represent a source of antagonism to the rule of Spain.
- Mexico City had a population of roughly 100,000, of which 20,000 were Spaniards and creoles, and 80,000 were indigenous, mestizos, and mulattoes.
- It was the centre of education, with the University, only open to men, founded in 1551.
- It was the seat of the viceregal Court, rivaled in importance only by the court of the Viceroyalty of Perú in Lima.
- The Court was the centre of the moral, literary and aesthetic codes and conventions, and it is impossible to understand Sor Juana's poetry without realizing its importance:
- Octavio Paz says that, of the three central institutions of the country -- the University, the Church, and the Court -- the Court represented an aesthetic and vital way of life, a "dramatic ballet whose characters were the human passions, from the sensual to the ambitious, dancing to a strict yet elegant geometry" (in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o, las trampas de la fe).
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.
[If you have not already read the outline biography of Sor Juana, do so now]