The Mexican Phoenix Rises: On “Sor Juana: Or, the Persistence of Pop”
By Ed SimonFebruary 27, 2019
Sor Juana: Or, the Persistence of Pop by Ilan Stavans
That Bradstreet figures in our literary history as much as she does makes sense. Her conceits are metaphysically sophisticated, and Bradstreet’s plain-style lyricism prefigures the Augustan poetry of a century hence. If anything, an argument could be proffered that the wife of the sometimes-governor of Massachusetts Simon Bradstreet remains underappreciated still. However, the Genesis story that sees her as a poetic Eve inaugurating a felix culpa in the Eden of colonial Massachusetts is in large part due to the strange negotiations and ambiguities that have permeated the study of early American literature. When speaking of “Early American literature,” one must always be cognizant of how unclear the very words “early,” “American,” and “literature” can be.
A reader in London might have been surprised at this volume of verse from the colonies, with Bradstreet elevated alongside Calliope and Euterpe in the parliament of muses for the act of simply writing American poetry, but somebody in Barcelona or Madrid wouldn’t have had reason to be shocked. By the year that Bradstreet had written the first “American poetry,” the Spanish equivalent of our imagined 17th-century reader would already have had veritable libraries of American literature to contemplate. By 1650, New Spain had produced the picaresque novels of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, the drama of Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, the studious histories of Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, the mestizo writing of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and Bernardo de Balbuena’s singing of “the famous Mexico,” for whom “there are not as many stars / in the sky, as flowers in her garland.” But New England had only Bradstreet.
When Massachusetts and Virginia were but a dozen or so small villages clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, the massive wooded continent stretching unfathomably behind them to the west, New Spain was already a civilization a century and a half old. Any accounting of early American literature does a disservice to the achievements of New Spain when with monolinguist obstinacy we perpetuate the fiction that American poetry is only first birthed by Bradstreet. The year that The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America was published, the population of Boston was roughly 2,000; by comparison, Mexico City’s numbers were approaching 350,000. By the time Bradstreet was writing, the muse had been springing up for 15 decades in warmer climates some 3,000 miles south.
Sor Juana would distinguish herself as an exemplary Neoplatonist philosopher, nascent observational scientist, protofeminist, and, most of all, a baroque poet of profound complexity. According to her biographer Octavio Paz in his Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith, she produced verse that would be unrivaled in the Western hemisphere until Dickinson and Whitman. Sor Juana, the poet who could write a dream vision about the very origins of dreams; Sor Juana, the nun who could cast aspersions on the entire scholastic edifice of Catholicism by writing to her bishop: “[W]hat wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? […] Had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.”
Now as part of the University of Arizona Latinx Pop Culture series, Hispanist Ilan Stavans presents his short, impressionistic, individual meditation on the nun’s afterlives in Sor Juana: Or, the Persistence of Pop. Stavans’s brief volume is a mélange of different genres, drawing from academic criticism, chapbooks, graphic novels, and gallery compendium, so as to examine the contested poet who endures as “an archetype of the collective Mexican soul,” who “along with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Evita Peron […] is ubiquitous” in Latinx culture, and whose visage has graced the 1,000-peso note.
Critics from Stavans to Paz have claimed that Sor Juana is the catalyst that explains the “metamorphosis of the poetry of New Spain into the poetry of Mexico,” and this may well be true, but hers is also a verse which draws from esoteric currents of occult thought, from the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance Jesuit Athanasius Kircher to Aztec cosmology, and possibly Kabbalah. Sor Juana may be a “key intellectual figure in the journey of Latin America toward modernity,” but she is not an easy poet. A poetry of dreams and illusion, where the easiest interpretive cipher might as well be in Sor Juana’s own command to “stay, shadow of my elusive prize / image of enchantment I most want, / fair illusion for whom I joyfully die, / sweet fiction for whom I painfully live.”
Building upon the introduction he penned for the Penguin Classics Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Poems, Protest, and a Dream, edited by Margaret Sayers Peden, Stavans introduces readers to a woman who, in the crucible of Spanish monastic life, forged a poetic idiom for writing verse between the identities of Europe and America. Critics of Bradstreet, such as the poet Adrienne Rich, have noted that there isn’t much that is American about the Puritan writer (though I’ve contested that position elsewhere). No such similar claim could be made about Sor Juana, who dramatized the syncretism of Catholic and Aztec culture, and who when she was young wrote both Latin sonnets in praise of the Eucharist and poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. The result is not just some of the most stunning literature produced in New Spain, but some of the most profound writing of the Spanish Renaissance.
English literature has nothing similar, for despite the inclusion of Bradstreet in anthologies of 17th-century English poetry, Sor Juana’s poetry would be as if John Milton was writing in Boston rather than London. The nun may be a poet of the colonial periphery, but she fully inhabited Spanish in a manner that no equivalent in the English colonies did. From Sor Juana’s pen came comedies and dramas, which among scores of letters, treatises, plays, and poems include the 1689 drama Loa to Divine Narcissus, an allegory about Mexico’s founding in which “the main characters are Occident, personified by a stately Indian wearing a crown, and America, a noble Indian woman,” as Stavans explains; Response to Sor Filotea, which Peden describes as “the first statement in our hemisphere to argue a woman’s right to study and teach and learn”; and “Primero sueño,” or “First Dream,” a mystical epic from 1692, which Sor Juana called but “a little trifle.” “First Dream” begins: “Pyramidal, funest, the earth / born shade to Heaven went forth, / of vain obelisks the aspiring point, / to scale the stars intent.” There’s something inscrutable about the poem, with its Egyptian architecture and its singularities; something personal and beautiful, too. Nothing quite like this exists in canonical English literature until the modernist avant-garde.
The poem is written as a dream vision, connecting Sor Juana to William Langland, John Bunyan, Dante, and so on. But “First Dream” has a distinction, as Paz notes: “[I]n Sor Juana’s dream there is […] no Virgil or Beatrice […] Thus, Sor Juana’s poem continues the ancient tradition of the soul’s voyage during a dream but at the same time, on an essential point, breaks with it.” Something idiosyncratic in Sor Juana’s poem, whereby the verse is not just representational, but actually “a dream about dreaming […] a dream about the possibilities of poetry,” as Stavans writes. Where Dante described his voyage through the afterlife in a symbolically comprehensible way, “First Dream” is conveyed as an actual dream — the sort of strange dream where you might forget who you are. The result bears more resemblance to surrealism than anything being produced at the same time in New England.
Sor Juana’s aesthetics are baroque, that hodgepodge maximalism which emerged from the contact zones of Counter-Reformation and colonialism. She might share with John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and especially George Herbert and Henry Vaughan an infatuation with “neologisms and other precious words” meant to point out language’s artificiality, as well as an obsession with “conceits and counterfeits, [with] theatricality and obsessive sophistication,” and with verbal puns that Stavans explains are “designed to call attention to the fragile line between reality and fantasy, between beauty and ugliness, and […] between faith and reason.” But ultimately nothing in English poetry, not even that of the metaphysical poets, quite compares to Sor Juana, for whom “appearances are deceitful and light and shadow are versions of each other,” as Stavans explains.
The metaphysical conceits of Donne or Herbert are solvable, ingenious mechanisms where the image of a compass or a flea is used to convey an unexpected message, but a message that is fundamentally clear. Her complexity isn’t even evocative of English’s only true baroque poet, the Catholic convert Richard Crashaw, perhaps nearing its most equal apogee with the nonconformist verse of Thomas Traherne. “First Dream,” by comparison to the metaphysical poets, describes:
[T]he Orb of that Goddess
who three times beautiful
with three lovely faces being sustains,
becoming only owner
of the air that streams from her
in the dense breath she exhales.
Donne’s poetry begs for interpretation, but Sor Juana’s for experience, or as the nun herself wrote in a letter: “[S]alvation lies more in the desiring than in the knowing.” In Sor Juana’s verse, the poem is the experience itself.
To read Sor Juana’s poetic idiom only through the lens of the baroque would be too limiting. Paz argues that “we must underscore Sor Juana’s absolute originality; nowhere in all of Spanish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is there anything like First Dream.” This, both Stavans and Paz would argue, is because Sor Juana is Mexican, an inheritor of a mestiza culture. “First Dream” could only be produced in a culture as thoroughly hybridized as colonial New Spain, the colonial capital of Mexico City built upon the very Aztec ruins of Tenochtitlán, the cathedral to the Virgin atop the Templo Mayor, Guadalupe contending with Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl, the very streets haunted with the barely purged presence of their indigenous origins.
If the baroque is credibly a Catholic aesthetic born from the hybridized contact points between the European and the indigenous, then the differences in colonization between the English and the Spanish go a long way to explaining why no equivalent aesthetic developed in New England. When conquistadors traipsed across the deserts of New Spain, they largely came as single men; the religious dissenters of New England, rather, brought their families. The result of the former was the development of an actual mestiza culture of which there is no equivalent in the north. New Spain’s literary culture didn’t just have a century’s head start and a massive population, it also had a fusion of Aztec and Spanish culture. Sor Juana is the embodiment of that hybridization, and any understanding of her profound theological vision has to be read through the ruptures and dislocations of colonialism, and of existing between cultures.
The baroque presents a world aglow, a reality illuminated, where Sor Juana describes “the golden Sunlight [… sharing] with all things visible their hues, / and with this restoration makes / the exterior senses operate / more certainly, as daylight breaks / on the illumined World.” The baroque is the picture of the illumined World, beauty and ugliness alike pressed into a poetics saturated with meaning, to the point of grotesquerie. Stavans is correct that this is an aesthetic that must by necessity be formed between cultures, for it includes everything within its purview, contradictions and all, overdetermined with sheer abundance. “First Dream” is the very culmination of the baroque, as well as a poem which transcends it, because nascent within her writings is a rhetoric of individuality, interiority, and subjectivity that defined the century that followed hers.
Paz explains that in “First Dream” “the protagonist has no name, age, or gender: it is simply the human soul. […] Personality and individuality have been carefully excluded.” This is a mystical perspective — no doubt. But it also is one that claims an equality of experience. The origins of such a perspective come from Sor Juana’s being swaddled between Spain and Mexico, Europe and America. Perhaps between Christian and Jewish as well, as there is credible evidence that she (like a number of Hispanic Americans) comes from a converso background. Much of theological modernity derives from the stripped-down identity conversos had foisted upon them, which Sor Juana so nobly explores in “First Dream.” The Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel describes how, for conversos, “authentic religion had been deinstitutionalized and privatized,” so that now faith depended on the “inner heart as its almost sole support.”
For Yovel, our conception of the private individual is not born from Protestantism, but from the experience of converted Jews living by necessity between Christianity and Judaism. If this is true of Sor Juana, then her writings must be grouped alongside her contemporary, the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, for both generated out of their converso heritage a new theological perspective that was the spiritual precursor for modernity. This religious perspective is the origin of her celebrated protofeminism. Despite the seeming anachronism of that term, when applied to Sor Juana’s thought it is appropriate, gesturing toward the eventual egalitarian rhetoric that drove future emancipatory movements. Sor Juana’s is a mystical democracy, and all the more radical because of it. The bishops of New Spain tried to silence Sor Juana’s voice, but her message has resonated from the pueblos and cathedrals of colonial Mexico, a message born from the universal predicament of exile, and thus the inheritance of all women and men.
Ed Simon is an editor at Berfrois and a staff writer for The Millions. A frequent contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion is available from Zero Books.
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