The Poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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3. Knowledge and gender

We do not find in the work of Sor Juana any of the mystic rapture which we find in the work of that other great nun-poet of the century previous to Sor Juana, Santa Teresa de Ávila. Sor Juana's work does not offer us a fetishistic glimpse at the inner workings of the female psyche, nor can it provide us with a polemical base upon which to build a psychoanalytical discourse of or on female desire, as has notoriously been the case with the work of Santa Teresa and the modern French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The Sleep of Reason in Sor Juana's "Primero sueño" does not engender monsters from the subconscious. Rather, it is the release of reason from the restricting confines of body and sex, an allegory of pure intellect in a desperate (and frustrated) attempt to understand the total workings of the universe.

Sor Juana's writing refuses any male attempt to 'know' woman, which is to say it both refuses male appropriation, and refuses the status of passive object of knowledge. If there is one fundamental concern of Sor Juana's work, it is:

THE DESIRE TO BE THE SUBJECT OF KNOWLEDGE (as opposed to mere object)
TO BE SHE WHO KNOWS (as opposed to she who is known).

In order to illustrate this, we should look at our first example, Poem 48 "Respondiendo a un caballero del Perú". This is a devastatingly ironic reply to an unidentified gentleman from Perú who had sent her some small clay vessels, telling her she should change her sex and become a man if she wished to be a poet. These are the first two stanzas:

Respondiendo a un caballero del Perú, que le envió unos barros diciéndole que se volviese hombre
Señor: para responderos
todas las musas se eximen,
sin que haya, ni aun de limosna,
una que ahora me dicte;
    y siendo las nueve hermanas
madres del donaire y chiste
no hay, oyendo vuestros versos,
una que chiste ni miste.
[. . .]
She begins the poem, then, by claiming that words fail her, or rather, fail the muses (the "nueve hermanas") who are the traditional source of inspiration for (male) poets. This is a very clever strategy to open with: by referring to the muses, Sor Juana is ironically pointing out that the writing of poetry is, traditionally, bound up with certain assumptions about gender. It is assumed that the poet is male, and that his source of inspiration is gendered female. Under a veil of modesty (implying that her claim to poetical inspiration fails in comparison with the greatness of his verses), she is actually mounting a strong rebuttal of a gendered writing culture which would place her, as woman, in the passive position of object of inspiration for male poetry. A similar poem, in reply to the Count of la Granja who had written to her a ballad beginning "A vos mejicana musa" (Poem 50), points up sharply the difficult negotiations required for a woman to accommodate herself to a writing culture that assumed such strong gender differentiations: "Por esto, como forzada, | sin saber lo que me digo, | os respondo, como quien | escribe sin albedrío".

If Sor Juana feigns awe only in order to mount a strong critique, she also sets up a discourse of indifference as a strategy of resistance to the either/or injunction of the gender system invoked by the anonymous gentleman (either you are a woman or you are a poet, and therefore need to be a man). Let's look at two examples of this in-difference from Poem 48. The first is relatively straightforward, and is an extension of the strategy above of feigning speechlessness but in fact refusing to reply on his terms:

    Mas si es querer alabaros
tan reservado imposible
que in vuestra pluma nomás
puede parecer factible,
    ¿de qué me sirve emprenderlo,
de qué intentarlo me sirve,
haviendo plumas que en agua
sus escarmientos escriben?

    Dejo ya vuestros elogios
a que ellos solos se expliquen:
pues los que en sí sólo caben,
consigo sólo se miden


Yet if, for singing your praise
no power on earth will do
if your feather-pen alone
is worthy to celebrate you,
    why should I make the attempt,
why throw to the winds all caution,
especially when feathers are known
to have written their lessons in water!

So I'll leave it up to your praise
to drink to its own health,
since whoever is his own model
has no other rule than self

Translated by Alan Trueblood

With devastating irony, she uses the rhetoric of praise to deflate his false compliment, arguing that his work is of such excellence that only he could possibly appreciate it.

Yet even more interesting than this resistance through indifference is the question of sexual difference in the poem. She now turns her attentions to his central piece of advice, i.e., that she should turn herself into a man. This is her reply:

    Y en el consejo que dais,
yo os prometo recibirle
y hacerme fuerza, aunque juzgo
que no hay fuerzas que entarquinen:
    porque acá Sálmacis falta
en cuyos cristales dicen
que hay no sé qué virtud de
dar alientos varoniles.
    Yo no entiendo de esas cosas;
sólo sé que aquí me vine
porque, si es que soy mujer,
ninguno lo verifique.
    Y también sé que, en latín,
sólo a las casadas dicen 
úxor, o mujer, y que
es común de dos lo virgen.
    Con que a mí no es bien mirado
que como a mujer me miren,
pues no soy mujer que a alguno
de mujer pueda servirle;
    y sólo sé que mi cuerpo,
sin que a uno u otro se incline,
es neutro, o abstracto, cuanto
sólo el alma deposite.
hacerme fuerza: violate myself (forzar a una mujer means "to rape a woman", so this is stronger than just "force myself")
entarquinen: turn me into a Tarquin (legendary rapist of Lucrecia)
Sálmacis: river that changed the sex of Hermaphroditus (from male to hermaphrodite -- Sor Juana adapts the story to her own ends, implying there is no magic river she can just dip into in order to turn into a man)
Yo no entiendo: Sor Juana feigns ignorance or lack of knowledge, strongly contrasted with sólo sé and también sé a few lines further down
aquí me vine: i.e., to the Convent, where she should no longer be considered a sexual being in the eyes of men
es común de dos lo virgen: Sor Juana plays on the gender of words to make her point -- in Latin, there is a neuter gender as well as masculine and feminine, so she uses the neuter "lo" in Spanish to imply that she is neither male nor female but neutral
no es bien mirado: literally, "it is not the done thing", but there is a play on the gendered nature of the gaze here
sin que a uno u otro se incline: "without inclining to one gender or the other" (i.e., masculine or feminine)
cuanto sólo el alma deposite: "insofar as the body is merely the vessel for the soul/intellect" (which Sor Juana claims is genderless)

The images of Tarquin the legendary rapist, violator of Lucrecia, and the river of Sálmacis, the waters that changed the sex of Hermaphroditus from male to bisexual, clearly indicate the violence which she sees underlying the demand for her to assume a sexually differentiated position: the suggestion of the Peruvian gentleman is now exposed as a kind of sexual violence, tantamount to a metaphorical rape. To the violence and violation underlying the imposition of strict sexual roles in society, Sor Juana opposes sexual indifference, claiming that she should not be judged in terms of those sexual roles, that her body as harbour of the intellect, should be considered neutral and abstract, and that it is this neutrality, this means of escape from the tyranny of sexual duality, which the Convent has provided her with. Note how advanced Sor Juana's thinking is in her linking of gender and language: the clever play on the gender of words in Latin makes the point that gender is as much a socio-linguistic category (a question of imposed social expectations and conventions) as anything innate. In this poem, she is claiming that "woman" is, literally, a man-made, conventional category. topThe path she has chosen is that of the intellect, sheltered within the neutral space of the Convent, not bound to the sexual tyranny of the either/or.

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© Geoffrey Kantaris