Octavio Paz, a distinguished Mexican poet, social commentator, literary critic, and diplomat, has written more than forty volumes of poetry and prose. Any new work by Paz would merit attention solely on the basis of his literary distinction. His biography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648?-1695), however, is destined to figure as literary history. This biography is noteworthy because of the sensitivity with which Paz addresses the tragic dilemma of a female poet who wrote in an age hostile to intellectual activity on the part of women. Further, Paz connects the story of Sor Juana with a theme pervasive in his own work: the difficulties a Mexican poet faces in establishing a cultural identity. While bringing to this fascinating study extraordinary erudition, Paz never lapses into pedantry. His rich and painstaking scholarship enhances a narrative that is as enlightening as it is compelling.
Even a factual outline of Sor Juana’s life is fascinating. She was born Juana Ramírez, an illegitimate child with no father and no fortune; at the age of ten, she was sent to live with relatives in Mexico City. At fifteen she became a lady-in-waiting at the court, earning the patronage of a succession of the viceroys and vicereines. Two vicereines, in particular, Doña Leonor Carreto, Marquesa de Mancera, and María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, Contesa de Paredes de Nava, offered her patronage. At twenty years old, after spending five years at court, Sor Juana took vows as a nun and joined the order of San Jerónimo in Mexico City. In the convent she continued to study and write, winning a reputation for learning in both Spain and New Spain. She collected scientific curiosities and musical instruments and assembled a library, reputed to be the largest in the New World. Her poetry and drama won the acclaim of her contemporaries. The first collected volume of her works appeared in Madrid in 1689 and went through nine editions; the second volume (1692) was printed in Seville, and the third, posthumous volume (1700) in Madrid. Each of these latter volumes of her works went through five successive editions.
Without warning, in 1694, Sor Juana rejected her intellectual and literary pursuits. She relinquished her library and her musical and scientific instruments to Aguiar y Seijas, Archbishop of Mexico, who sold them to raise money for the poor. She summoned her confessor, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, and renewed her commitment to the dogmas of the Catholic church. She is even supposed to have written her submission in her own blood and to have begun “to crucify her appetites and passions.” Her submission states that “at the Time of Abandoning Humane Studies” she agrees to follow “the Road of Perfection.” A year later, at the age of forty-six, she was dead.
Epidemics are especially virulent within cloistered walls. During a plague in the 1690’s, nine of every ten nuns who became ill in San Jerónimo died. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was among the victims. In the biographies written immediately after her death, Sor Juana’s life was depicted as a “saint’s life,” progressing toward her renunciation of secular learning and her holy death. Later, in 1725, Sor Juana’s works were reissued; thereafter nothing was written about her until the late nineteenth century.
In the twentieth century, biographical commentary has wavered between interpreting Sor Juana’s biography as a “saint’s life,” and so uncritically espousing the perspective promulgated immediately after her death, and reinterpreting Sor Juana as psychologically disturbed. In a note on his sources, Paz observes that her extraordinary intellectual curiosity has been used as evidence of her masculinity. The influential psychological interpretation by Ludwig Pfandl characterizes Sor Juana as bisexual and attributes her religious crisis to menopause and manic-depression.
Challenging both of these interpretations, Paz supplements the admittedly meager facts known about this intriguing figure with remarkable historical research. Paz writes as an admirer of Sor Juana, but his admiration for his subject cannot be regarded as a flaw. With the unerring commitment of a biographer intent on obtaining justice for his subject, he questions assumptions for which there is no evidence and vividly evokes the political context in which Sor Juana’s submission occurred.
Between 1691 and 1693, grain shortages throughout Latin America led to an uprising against the viceroy. As a wave of religious superstititon swept over New Spain, the power of the Archbishop of Mexico increased, while that of the viceroy waned. According to one of her biographers, it was during these disturbances that Sor Juana, who had always enjoyed the patronage of the court, determined to submit to the three prelates who had censured her worldliness.
Noting that the literary activity of the cleric Félix Lope de Vega was overlooked by the church and that he was not even reprimanded for a succession of love...
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