Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Tenth Muse

Blessed Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695), whose full name was Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, was a self-taught scholar and poet of the Baroque school, and a nun of New Spain. Although she lived in a colonial era when Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire, she is considered today a Mexican writer, and stands at the beginning of the history of Mexican literature in the Spanish language.

Juana was born in San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City, the illegitimate child of a Spanish captain, Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, and a Criollo woman, Isabel Ramírez. Her father seems to have been absent from her life. Baptized in 1651, the baptismal records describe her as "a daughter of the Church". She was raised in Amecameca where her maternal grandfather owned a hacienda. Juana was a devoutly religious child, often hiding in the hacienda chapel in order to read her grandfather's books from the adjoining library, something which was forbidden to girls. Amazingly, she learned how to read and write at the age of three. By five, she reportedly could do accounts. At age eight, she composed a poem on the Eucharist. By the time she was an adolescent, she had mastered Greek logic, and at age thirteen she was teaching Latin to young children. She also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote some short poems in that language.

In 1664, when she was 16, she was sent to live in Mexico City. She asked her mother's if she could disguise herself as a male student in order to gain access to the university. Not being permitted to do this, of course, she continued her studies privately. The Vicereine Leonor Carreto, wife of the Viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, served as her tutor. The viceroy, put the 17 year old Juana's learning and intelligence to the test when he invited several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting during which Juana was asked to answer, without any preparation, many questions, including difficult ones on various scientific and literary subjects. She astonished all present by her responses, and eventually her literary accomplishments garnered her fame throughout New Spain. She was much admired in the viceregal court, and declined several proposals of marriage. Eventually, in 1667, she entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph as a postulant, and in 1669, the Convent of the Order of St. Jérôme.

Responding to criticism of her writing, Juana wrote a letter, Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Filotea), in which she defended women's right to an education. In response, the Archbishop of Mexico and other high-ranking officials condemned her "waywardness". By 1693, Sor Juana seems to have stopped writing rather than risk the Church's official censure. However, there is no undisputed evidence of her renouncing her devotion to writing, though there are documents which state that she agreed to undergo penance. Juana's name is affixed to such a document in 1694, but it belies her deep natural lyricism, and smacks of the kind of penitential documents couched in rhetorical and autocratic Church formulae, and suggests possibly someone else's authorship. She is said to have sold all of her extensive library, some 4,000 volumes, as well as her musical and scientific instruments. Only a few of her writings have survived, known as the Complete Works, probably saved by the Vicereine Leonor.

Sor Juana de la Cruz died in April 1695, at the age of 43, after ministering to other nuns stricken during a plague.

One of the most important books about Sor Juana, written by Octavio Paz, Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1989), deals with Sor Juana's poetry and life in the context of the history of New Spain. It focusses particularly on the difficulties women faced at that time trying to gain access to and become successful in the academic and artistic fields. Paz was drawn to Sor Juana's work by trying to answer basic questions about her personality and life: Why did she become a nun? What motivated her renunciation of her lifelong passion for writing and learning? Such questions, he realized, could be answered only in the context of the culture in which she lived, a world wherein the subjugation of women was absolute. In his book, Paz thoroughly analyzes Sor Juana's poetry and traces some of her influences to the Spanish writers of the Golden Age. Sor Juana's most ambitious and extensive poem, First Dream (Primer Sueño), is largely a representation of the desire of knowledge through a number of hermetic symbols, transformed into her own language, and utilizing her skilled image-making abilities. Paz concludes that Sor Juana's was the most important body of poetic work produced in the Americas until the arrival of nineteenth century figures such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

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