Let us learn about not knowing

Querida Juana,

The recent edition of your Selected Works (tr. Edith Grossman) has kept me company this month. As I found myself immersed in your ballads, redondillas, epigrams, décimas, sonnets, and letters, I was greatly surprised by your sharp portray of female resistance, your rebellious defiance against undeserved authority and your fierce defense of gender equality.

Your poems fuse dreams, visions, metaphysics, allegories, love and religion – all riddled with wit. The satirical epigrams were my favourite ones: in epigram 95, you turn the negative comments on your own illegitimacy into a sharp critique of male domination and women’s lack of choice; and you attack back by using your opponent’s same arms: his false moralism and his choice to blame the victim and not the real oppressor (“Not having an upright father/ would be a defect, in my eyes,/ if I had chosen him(…)/ Your mother was more merciful,/ for she made you heir of many,/ so that among them all, you can/ take the one who suits you best.”); in epigram 94, you make fun of a drunkard who insists in the noble character of his lineage (“with your talk about those kings,/ who, more than the kings of swords,/ must have been the kings of cups.”).

I had to struggle against my tendency to read some of your love redondillas (87, 91) and décimas (102, 103) as if they had been written by some kind of pastoral Sapphic nun. I then tried to read your inclination towards female subjects as an expression of your creative and intellectual efforts to change the lenses through which women were perceived in your time. I guess you made a good job in writing within the Baroque literary tradition in order to break – from within – some of the misogynist aspects of this same tradition.

The topics of knowledge and imagination play an important role in your poems. Both ballads 1 and 2 reflect upon the contradictions and dangers of knowing (“Nothing enjoys greater freedom/ than the human understanding”; “Discursive reason is a sword/ quite effective at both ends:/ with the point of the blade it kills; the pommel on the hilt protects.”; “Our intellect is like fire:/ deeply ungrateful to matter,/ flame consumes more matter the/ brighter the fire appears.”), as well as its inescapable freedom. In both poems, imagination is equated with power, while knowledge is riddled with subtleties, tore between competing points of view – and true knowledge consists not in gathering information but in knowing how to choose wisely.

The intellectual potential of human beings is also explored in First Dream, where the search for knowledge is represented by a soul leaving the body: a spark of reason, which partakes its luminosity with divinity. Wisdom is symbolized as an attribute of the night (In nocte consilium). The night, therefore, is the time that leads to revelation, as the soul is temporarily released to embark on the divine adventure of knowledge. Awakening takes place in the end, as the soul can never fully reach the mystery of God. This is not a poem that criticizes erudition as a vain dream: it is a poem that conveys the search for knowledge as a spiritual journey and dream, a quimera, a quest never completely fulfilled, but always fulfilling. As Octavio Paz puts it: “Epic act of knowing, the poem is the confession of doubts and struggles of Understanding. It is a confession that ends in an act of faith, not on knowledge but on the desire for knowledge.”

The allegorical play Divine Narcissus (El Divino Narciso, 1689) was also a surprise for me, as it seems to oppose the violence of Spanish colonists (represented by the character Zeal, a Spanish captain) and to denounce the mistreatment of the indigenous people. You bring to the center of the discussion on evangelism the idea that the American native inhabitants enjoy freedom of choice: they are not treated in the play as wild irrational creatures who must be tamed, but as rational subjects with whom a dialogue is possible. You seem to take an ecumenical point of view: both the ancient pagan gods and Christianity are glimpsed as versions or reverberations of one same truth. Also interesting is the fact that the main characters are women: America, as a representation of the indigenous people, is a gorgeously attired Indian woman; Religion, as a representation of Christianity, appears in the form of a Spanish lady. Zeal wants America to die, but Religion argues to keep her alive.

I have a question on the title of the play though: is The Divine Narcissus a personification of God himself? If so, and if, as Narcissus, God is also in love with his image, would that be a silent critique on the role played by the Church in the Americas? In the end, as a play is chosen as a visual form of evangelism, are you implicitly criticizing the Church for performing the same kind of idolatry they accuse the Indians of practicing? Maybe I am over-reading your play, señora, but I cannot help but think that, as you are a woman forced to silence some aspects of yourself in order to have some space to pursue your talents within a misogynistic structure, your silences may speak more loudly than your words.

A highlight of your book is the Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz, drafted in March 1691, as an answer to all recriminations made to you by Fernandez de Santa Cruz. Having previsouly written a letter in which you criticized a sermon by Antonio Vieira (the Letter Atenagórica, which means “worthy of the wisdom of Athena”), and maintained that dogmas and doctrines, as a result of human interpretation, are subject to being falsified, you were caught in a power struggle within the Church. The bishop Fernandez de Santa Cruz, under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz, warned you that no woman should strive to take part in philosophical issues, and that obedience was a female virtue. As a response to his criticism, you then wrote this powerful – and at times angry – defense of your life, of your writings, of your right to speak your mind within a culture that coerces you into silence, as well as an impassioned appeal that women should have the right to education. I would pair this letter with the redondilla 92, in which you attack the hypocrisy of men, who are “the reason/ for the very thing” they blame on women.

As for the translation, Grossman tries to preserve your poems’ meters and syllabic patterns, and dispenses with end rhymes, in order to convey the rhythm of the original poems. I may try to read other translations, along with the original versions – so do expect to hear from me soon, señora.

Un fuerte abrazo,


Andrey Remnev, "Hole".
Andrey Remnev, “Hole”.

About the book

10 thoughts on “Let us learn about not knowing

  1. What a beautiful meditation on Sor Juana’s works. I enjoyed many of the same aspects of Sor Juana’s works as you did. I was surprised by how sharp and witty she was. Although I didn’t discuss it, I shared your sense that the Divine Narcissus was criticizing the Christian conquest and conversion of the Aztecs. Did you find and read a copy of the entire play?


  2. Oh, thanks, Juliana! I couldn’t find English translations of her plays, either. I read that Sor Juana wrote some comedic plays. Since she and Aphra Behn were contemporaries, I thought it would be interesting to compare their comedies. 😦

    Hey, do you know if anyone else has posted about Sor Juana for the readalong?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.