Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

This poem is one of the earliest “feminist” texts—a tour de force in seventeenth century New Spain. (In another poem, “Stupid Men Who Accuse . . .,” Sor Juana condemns the inconsistency of men who blame women for what they themselves have caused by means of their persuasion: surrender and loss of virtue.) The poem’s spirit resembles that of late twentieth century postrevolutionary, conciliatory feminism. It sincerely exalts a woman’s love for a man, but does so with a grain of irony: Men are so easily fooled by conventional female weapons, such as tears. Tears are a literary convention too, however—a cliché symbolic of the effusions of that supreme cliché, the heart. A craving for convention and fiction, including crocodile tears, is thus the common characteristic of both amorous males and readers who are more than ready to “suspend disbelief.”

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In the hands of the superior woman or of the master writer, however, banal material turns into precious substance. The catalyst in this alchemy is emotion combined with intellect—that is, the controlled ecstasy of the Baroque—an apparent contradiction in terms that is familiar to a nun as part of her spiritual training. The amorous strategy of persuasion is conceived—Baroque irony of the second degree—by a nun. Feminism here joins the art of writing in a peculiar synthesis, not in the ordinary antagonistic manner of Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own (1929).

If circularity and authorial self-consciousness are formal markers of the Baroque style, they are also the essential marks of much great writing of any time—such as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612, 1620) or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Lieden des jungen Werther (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1902). Sor Juana’s instinctive knowledge of the illusory nature of all things worldly did not prevent this surprisingly worldly nun from passionately loving the world: She loved it as an illusion, which is why the Baroque illusion-creating techniques were her ideal medium.

“This afternoon, my love” may have many intended and unintended “messages,” but above all it is about writing. The lover here is the reader, the indirect object of the “rhetoric” who is invited to suspend disbelief. Sor Juana’s all-consuming passion, writing, relegates the presented “passion”—the likes of Aldonza-Dulcinea or Lotte—to the rank of mere material; it is nothing but a pretext for creative fantasy.

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