Sunday, January 22, 2017

Book Review: Obras Completas de Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Title: Obras Completas


Author: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Date: 1969

Publisher: Editorial Porrua S.A.

ISBN: 968-432-650-5

Length: 876 pages of text, 30 pages of translations (Latin and other languages to Spanish)

Illustration: black-and-white print of a painting of the author (some editions have a color print on the front cover)

Quote: “Porque ¿qué inconveniente tiene que una mujer anciana, docta en letras y de santa conversación y costumbres, tuviese a su cargo la educación de las doncellas?”

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “the American Phoenix,” entered a convent in order to write. Even there, she wrote only what she was asked to write, had everything vetted by people higher up the social and church hierarchies, had a horror of writing anything that might be considered emotional or immodest. She wrote a lot of poems, several scripts for church pageants, two “mini-series”-length comic plays, and some essays. She didn’t always choose “Sunday School” material; the Renaissance was a revival of “classical” European traditions, and some of Sor Juana’s writings read as Pagan. Still, in any case, she avoided anything inflammatory.

So why are her complete works such an infuriating read? Well…remember Virginia Woolf’s melodramatic story about the bad end to which Shakespeare’s sister would have come, if Shakespeare had had a sister? That was fiction. This is the true story of what happened, and it’s guaranteed to raise any woman’s blood pressure.

Sor Juana was an early classic American success story. Her parents weren’t married to each other, nor dd her mother have a feudal title. Spanish notions of how teenagers should behave had been influenced by Arabic ones; some think that in her early teens young Inés was one of those “star-crossed lovers” whose indignant parents really did maim or kill the boy and disown the girl. (Inés was her original given name, Sor was her title, Juana was her convent name.) She was, nevertheless, a brilliant autodidact, so her parents banished her to the new university in Mexico, where she earned multiple bachillería degrees. Faced with the choice between convent life and arranged marriage, she chose the convent, signing a vow in blood, at twenty-one. In the convent she was supposed to have withdrawn from the world into a “cell,” but her portrait shows that this was actually a symbolic withdrawal into a curtained office suite in which Sor Juana supported her monastic order by teaching music and writing and reading for the public.

She also wrote poetry. Quite successful poetry. Her poems were published internationally and raised a lot of money for the convent.

Only educated native speakers of a language can fairly judge poetry written in that language. In Spanish as in English, the most classic form of poetry is a lyrical metre that might be described as ballad metre, popular partly because it’s easy to sing to any of several popular tunes. Spanish ballad form favors assonance instead of precise rhyme; since Spanish uses only five basic vowel sounds, lots of words have assonance and it’s possible to keep one assonance chiming along for pages on end. (Sor Juana confessed that it was hard for her to stop writing in ballad metre in order to write prose or short poems; if you read her prose aloud you’ll notice examples.) If we used this poetic form in English, long poems might read like this, with any two syllables containing "IH...ih" used as if they rhymed:

This form can become monotonous
If you usually read in English,
By the third page of one set of
Assonances faintly jingling;
Yet the Spanish don’t consider
That it makes a poem sound silly
Or a tiny bit ironic
When a poet’s serious thinking
Takes the form of assonant couplets
That could stretch from here to Philly,
And “La Cucaracha”’s best known
Of the tunes t’which you can sing it…

Do not be deceived. Emily Dickinson wrote in English ballad metre; the fact that it’s possible to sing most of her poems to “Gilligan’s Island” or “Yellow Rose of Texas” did not keep Dickinson from packing profound thoughts into her poems. Sor Juana wrote a tremendous amount of commonplace stuff that hardly deserved  to be sung to “La Cucaracha”; that didn’t keep her from writing profound thoughts in her ballads, carols, and musical comedies, either.

My lack of education keeps me from knowing how many of Sor Juana’s profound thoughts were her own, rather than being recycled from other poets. Critics say she owed a great deal to Góngora; Sor Juana said that, too. I see some spiritual and philosophical thoughts that anyone can appreciate, a lot of Catholicism, and a repulsive mass of flattery of rich patrons that becomes only slightly less disgusting when we realize that Sor Juana did not actually need these people’s money; when she wrote scripts for pageants in which debates among Pagan gods were resolved by an agreement that the prince was greater than any of them, she was seeking money to finance charitable missions.

Myths about the little nun have often been based on translations of her poetry. What I had to remind myself, many times, is that Spanish is a more economical language than English, does not have half a dozen synonyms for every word, and thus has not formed separate vocabularies for effusions of different kinds of love. It was perfectly proper for a nun to use the same expressions when writing speeches for the lovers in a play, tributes to male or female patrons, or hymns in honor of her favorite saints. Training themselves to repress any feelings about a human friend that might differ from their love of the Blessed Virgin Mary is what nuns do.

Still…so many flatteries, so many occasional pageants…the selection of topics really reminds me of Phillis Wheatley. I kept wondering when Sor Juana would start writing original, mature thoughts, as Wheatley did toward the end of her too-short life. She didn’t. As a nun Sor Juana was cultivating the minor martyrdom of not allowing herself to write about her own thoughts and feelings; she was trying not to have thoughts and feelings of her own. She testified that she’d been told that “holy ignorance” was better than “all this studying,” that she’d prayed God to take away that excessive intelligence that kept causing her to think about whatever she was doing, and God had refused.

The Inquisition was still going on. A debate about whether women should be educated at all had technically been settled—Sor Juana had that handful of college degrees—but resentment of women’s intelligence was still high. When Sor Juana was forty, one of the rich patrons to whom she legally owed obedience asked her to publish a serious Christian essay, refuting a certain priest’s assertion that Jesus didn’t want Christians to love Him. It was a good essay and the consensus of the Christian world has been that Sor Juana was right.

In saner times and places nobody would have questioned that either Sor Juana or Padre Vieyra, whose book her booklet challenged, was a Real Christian, publishing their thoughts about their faith in the hope of reminding readers to think seriously about their faith and practice the same.The Catholic Inquisition was not sane. Any question of anyone’s Christian beliefs was dangerous, and likely, like Sor Juana’s booklet, to be judged on a hierarchical basis rather than a rational one. That Vieyra had obviously been carried away by an emotional feeling about altruism, into opposing what the Bible rather plainly says, seemed less important that (1) women weren’t supposed to challenge men, and (2) even though full-time professional religious people did not technically own anything, still Vieyra’s family were rich while Sor Juana “bore the Bend Sinister on her escutcheon.” Therefore, the better her essay was, and the better it was received, the worse for Sor Juana. Didn’t she know she’d put Vieyra and herself, his church, and her convent, into real physical danger?

The Catholic Church had thus been using a talent that was probably on Emily Dickinson’s level to crank out work that was on Phillis Wheatley’s twelve-year-old level. Intimidated by the Inquisition, they went further and ordered Sor Juana to stop writing altogether. Nobody needed to write out a confession of the results. The dates tell the story. Mexico’s first world-class writer was born (in Spain) in 1648, entered a convent in 1669, wrote her Christian booklet in 1691, and died from what ought to have been a trifling infection in 1695.

So, is it enough to read her biography, or is there any pleasure or benefit to be gained from reading Sor Juana’s work? That depends on what you want:

1. If your goal is to build fluency in tourist Spanish, you naturally want to read things more recent than seventeenth-century poetry.

2. If your goal is to impress a teacher, Sor Juana may be an ideal author to translate. Many of her works are short and, although the economy of the Spanish language builds in layers of meaning that can make the superficial ease of translation deceptive, on the surface many of her poems are easy.

3. If your interest in Sor Juana is primarily in women’s history you may want to skip straight to the Letter to Sor Filotea de la Cruz, the longish essay near the end of the book (or the fourth volume, if you have the older edition in four small volumes).This is the most autobiographical document Sor Juana wrote, the only place where she testified about the prejudice against anything written by a woman.

It’s also the point at which your blood may begin to boil. Sor Juana’s radical idea, her locura she called it, was…that old ladies (such as Sor Juana had officially become at age forty) might be allowed to teach little girls the three R’s? As had become the norm, in the English-speaking world? In the Catholic countries, yes, that was radical. The trade-off for women’s freedom to worship Mary more than Jesus was social pressure to make themselves “dumb animals…with only enough intelligence to permit obedience.” O Mother Church the crimes done in thy name.

4.What about the pure literary pleasure of reading poetry? People whose native language is Spanish have enjoyed Sor Juana’s poems in that way for a long time. Opening the book at random, I find a sonnet about Pontius Pilate that any Christian can appreciate:

“Examinad primero las conciencias:
 ¡mirad no haga el Juez recto y soberano
que, en la ajena, firméis vuestras sentencias!”

In the English-speaking world we have few carols about the saints. In Catholic Europe this genre was more population. On page 337 of my copy I find a delightful nondenominational carol about St. Peter. It deserves its own tune, which is not printed in the book, so I’ll probably never sing it, but it begins,

“Aquel Campeón valiente
y veterano Guerrero,
que después de haber cenado
aquel divino cordero,
se fue con dos camaradas…”

and has a refrain,

“¿Quién pensara que habías,
valiente Pedro,
de temblar de una Ancila
y llorar a un temor tres desaciertos?”

The church used St. Peter’s Day as an occasion to focus on imperfection and forgiveness.

Then again there’s that great indigestible mass of verses in the loa genre. Loa literally means praise, hence the work creative types were paid to compose in praise of the local rich family and the musicals the most successful were paid to compose in praise of Royalty. Sor Juana was exploited to produce a lot of that kind of thing, and she became good at it. A middle-aged writer flattering a young prince could slip some sound advice into a pageant full of choruses in fancy dress; Sor Juana did. Still, modern readers prefer that even our Poets Laureate commend and encourage our Presidents in more subtle ways than

“Y vos, Pastor soberano,
ejemplar de lo perfecto,
Alcides de tanta Esfera,
Atlante de tanto Cielo…”

I kept thinking that if I were being flattered by such extravagances, far from rewarding the poet’s monastic order, I’d hear them as sarcastic and banish the poet. Autres temps, autres moeurs.

So you may want to read the "Complete Works of Sister Joan Agnes of the Cross" selectively. That’s the nice thing about a Real Book, though. You can. A book wont’ be incompatible with your next computer. Those long essays bristling with Latin quotations will still be there if you read only the sonnets for the first ten years you own the book.

In the confession she addressed to Sor Filotea, this author admits that a certain degree of personal charm and cheerfulness enlivened her monastic life. Those qualities come through in her work. In addition to the schoolgirl sycophancies, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has a biography full of outrageous injustice in common with Phillis Wheatley…and somehow I suspect that, despite the copybook flatteries, both poets really would have been fun to know.

Obviously it's far too late for this to be a Fair Trade Book, but since it's somewhat hard to find in the U.S. and this web site has to charge collector prices, we'll donate 10% of the sale price to a Christian educational mission. Prices may vary. As of today, that would be $10 for the book (one-volume edition with the portrait of the author on the frontispiece, as shown above) + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, for a total of $15 or $16 payable by you to this web site, from which this web site will forward $1.50 to charity. You could fit at least one more book of this size, or two ordinary-size books, into the same package for the same $5. If you wait another month, the price per copy of the Obras completas de Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz may come down to $5 or go up to $50 or more--we have no way to predict these things.