Early Modern Times – the Sor-rows of young Juana

Early Modern Times - the Sor-rows of young Juana

Dear readers,

Happy new year! This week, the 4th-year core course EMSP 4002 examined the life and selected works by ‘The Phoenix of Mexico’ and ‘Tenth Muse’, the poet, playwright, and philosopher Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-95). Sor Juana’s artistic and intellectual accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the constraints she was under throughout her life and career: her illegitimate parentage, her gender, the restrictions of convent life, and an eventual climate of severe intolerance of her literary activities (such that her Sor-rows were connected to both being a ‘Sor’ (sister in Spanish) and ‘rows’ over her daring to write the way she did). Confined as she was in her convent cell, she nevertheless managed to produce striking poems, plays, and works of philosophy such that she is considered among the greatest authors in Spanish literature–a lesson for all of us shut up in our convent of Covid.

Sor Juana’s origins would have given no sign of her future ascendancy to literary fame. A baptismal record indicates that Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born in 1648 in San Miguel Nepantla, a town near Mexico City now known as Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her honour. Both sides of her family were of Spanish descent. As she related later, though restricted from high status and formal education due to her gender and illegitimate birth (her father seems to have been a nobleman or captain), she rapidly developed a thirst for knowledge, and could read Latin by the age of 3 or so and wrote poetry by the age of 8, in addition to learning the indigenous language of Nahuatl. In other words, she went quickly from baby prattle to Nahuatl.

In her teenage years, between 1664-68, she was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Viceroy (the representative of the crown in colonial New Spain). Rumours that there was a brilliant young woman at the court led to a rigorous oral examination by the ecclesiastical and intellectual elites at court, which she passed with flying colours. Since, however, a career in higher education was impossible for a woman, Juana opted to circumvent the usual path of marriage–despite male interest in her beauty as much as her intellect–and was persuaded by her confessor Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda that life as a nun would be suited for her literary and intellectual ambitions. She had joined the Carmelite order (associated with Teresa of Ávila), but the strict discipline and austerity was ill-suited to her: she would have ‘nun’ of it. A year and a half later, in 1669, she entered the convent of San Jerónimo (Saint Jerome, a patron saint of learning and advocate of female education). She thought that there would be no place like (the convent of St.) Jerome, and that this convent would be a Jerome-coming.

She soon discovered, however, that convent duties–as well as the distractions, intrigues, and gossip of convent life–were at odds with the solitary life of a scholar, a major theme of her letters and autobiographical writing. Nevertheless, she flourished in the convent especially in the 1680s. Besides her duties as archivist and bookkeeper–as well as teaching girls music, dance, and theatre–she managed to eke out space for reading, study, and writing. She amassed one of the largest private libraries in the Americas and a vast collection of scientific and musical instruments, paintings, and other objects which were gifts from illustrious persons who caught wind of her poetry. Her compositions include love poetry, a neoplatonic poem entitled the ‘First Dream’, plays, and the design for a ‘hieroglyphic’ arch in honour of the Viceroy and Vicereine (the wife of the Viceroy). Indeed, the boldness of her output–which pushed erotic and intellectual boundaries–was only possible because of the enthusiastic support and patronage of the Viceroy and Vicereine (the latter the subject of several love poems, leading to contemporary speculation about erotic affection with Sor Juana). Church authorities were increasingly una-mused by this ‘Tenth Muse’, whose work aroused ‘Sor’ feelings that she was going from bad to verse.

These halcyon days were not to last: the Viceroy (and thus his wife as well) was recalled in 1688, leaving Sor Juana without her secular protectors. Her work was particularly despised by the Archbishop of Mexico, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas. Aguiar y Seijas was a religious zealot and misogynist, who condemned secular learning and arts, and refused to look upon women (especially those who were uncovered). His enemies encouraged Sor Juana to write a refutation of a Portuguese Jesuit theologian favoured by the Archbishop, knowing that a carefully reasoned refutation and penned by a woman, no less, would outrage him. It had the intended effect, but against Sor Juana’s wishes, the piece was published. It included a prologue by a former supporter of her work, the Bishop of Puebla (pretending to be a fellow nun), criticizing Sor Juana’s engagement in secular letters. In 1691, she replied with a passionate and erudite ‘Answer’ which not only defended her secular writing as a path to the divine, but also her investigations of the natural world as God’s creation and the capacity of women to engage in learning. With the ire of the Archbishop raised to a fever pitch, her allies abandoned Sor Juana. Researchers at Early Modern Times’s Department of Ecclesiastical Paranoia have uncovered documents outlining the Archbishop’s delusions that Sor Juana’s stupefyingly harmful scribblings were in fact penned by an evil twin sister named ‘Mary Juana’.

Sor Juana was now at the mercy of her enemies. Under such pressure, Sor Juana was forced to sell her vast library and collections. Mexico was hit by a series of floods and pestilence, which led to public displays of repentance and self-flagellation. In this context, Sor Juana’s confessor Núñez de Miranda convinced her to cease all further writing to atone for her sinful pride and devote herself to the indigent and mortally ill. Although she never made an explicit declaration renouncing secular letters, she wrote an entry in the convent’s Book of Professions signed in her own blood (as she had given up ink), ‘I, worst of all the world, Juana Inés de la Cruz.’ If she had been forced into international sausage-making as a form of penance, she might well have written that she was ‘wurst of all the world.’

Sor Juana died in 1695 of the plague. She did not vanish into obscurity, though, as the Vicereine had facilitated the publication of Sor Juana’s work. Her brilliant opus survived and flourished after the tragic end of her literary career. Thus did ‘The Phoenix of Mexico’ rise from the ashes of religious austerity, while her persecutors’ reputations have been Catho-licked.

EMSP news: the 9th annual Conference of the Early Modern takes place on Jan. 22-23 online, featuring fab presentations from EMSP students, and keynote lectures by Dr. Karen Detlefsen on Du Châtelet’s Mandeville and alumna Dr. Lindsay Reid on Shakespeare’s Ovid. More details, including how to register, can be found here. Don’t miss it!

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Cruz Control Studies Program

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