Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Respuesta a Sor Filotea”-1691

General context:  As many of you may already know, the “Reply to Sor Filotea” was written on March 1691 as a response to a critique of the Bishop of Puebla included along with the publication of Sor Juana’s “Carta Atenagórica”  (or “Letter Worthy of Athena”) (1690).  In the “Respuesta” Sor Juana defends her right to devote to secular and artistic endeavors, such as the production of love poems and dramatic pieces, as well as her right to study and develop intellectual pursuits as a woman in New Spain during the second half of the seventeenth century.  This author is one of the colonial figures most widely studied, so I would like to mention some of the critical works that were crucial in my understanding of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as an intellectual and as an artist.  The work done by Dorothy Schons is still crucial to understand the life and works of Sor Juana.  Her article “The First Feminist in the New World” published in 1925 remains a very engaging piece, informing the work of scholars such as Stephanie Merrim, Electa Arenal, Stacey Schlau, Amanda Powell, Margo Glantz, Raquel Chang-Rodríguez, Asunción Lavrín, Mabel Moraña, Nina Scott, and Georgina Sabat Rivers, among many others.  Octavio Paz’s book, Las trampas de la fe, is still a key reference for Sor Juana specialists, not only for all the crucial information it provides about the colonial condition in México, but also for the important omissions of his work, such as the consideration of gender in the colonial context, as Electa Arenal has already pointed out.  Asunción Lavrín, Stacey Schlau and Electa Arenal have done significant work to provide a broader context to Sor Juana’s writings, by identifying other women and nuns who were also writers during the colonial period, and by reconstructing the social context in which these women developed their artistic and epistemological interests.  Stephanie Merrim not only edited one of the most widely known collections of feminist studies on Sor Juana, but her latest book Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz proposes a comparative approach that links the works of Sor Juana with María de Zayas, Anne Bradstreet and Catalina de Erauso, among others.  One interesting example is her proposal to “re-place the ‘Respuesta’ in the early modern feminist debates known as querelle des femmes” which “constituted a pan-Western “language” —an ideological and discursive repertoire— for early modern debates of gender difference.”  Merrim establishes a dialogue between Europe and the Americas that is crucial for the study of Colonial Latin American cultures, because early Ibero-Americans did not conceive of themselves as a separate entity from the metropolitan centers of power.  Finally, Electa Arenal’s and Amanda Powell’s bilingual edition of the “Respuesta” is a crucial to make possible the kind of project proposed by the organizers of this Summit because it provides us with a thought-provoking “Introduction” and a very careful translation of the text that could be used in courses of Hispanic Literature in Translation or Colonial Literature in the Americas.

Today I would like to suggest three possible areas that could foster comparative studies on Writing Lives in the Early Americas.

I.  Subalternities and writing —One of the ways to approach this text as part of an autobiographic genre is to identify the conditions of subalternity that some of these texts share.  In most cases gender, race, ethnic identity and social class are important considerations to contextualize the narration of a life.  On the other hand, and given that writing was not necessarily a massive or democratic mode of representation or of cultural expression, many of these subjects had some form of privilege that allowed them to have access to this limited form of representation.  However, in Sor Juana’s case, we see how her gender and her condition as a nun were crucial elements for her problematic inclusion in certain modes of written expression.  Her use of the “letter” is also meaningful, as she chose a form of written expression that could have a very limited circulation, or could even be considered an intimate or private form of communication, to inscribe herself within a feminine intellectual tradition and to defend her right to study privately and to produce literary writings that had a broader audience among the powerful elite of the society of her time. Here we also should take into consideration that letters were —along with official reports to the King— an important genre in the Colonial period.  Thus, the “letter” sometimes was an intimate and other times an extremely official form of communication. As a result, Sor Juana portrays in her “Respuesta...” a subjectivity that is simultaneously a subaltern and in some cases a privileged voice due to her condition as a nun who was openly protected by two viceroys and their wives and probably by the Bishop of Puebla.  This ambiguous position vis à vis the centers of power brings me to the last point of interest in Sor Juana’s case that could also be addressed from a comparative point of view: her colonial condition.  Sor Juana includes in her works some consideration of the fact that she was born in the New Spain, and she seems to be aware of how her condition as a “cultural mestiza” and as a Creole woman made her a marginal subjectivity within the hegemonic sectors of her time.  However, in the “Respuesta” Sor Juana refers to her colonial condition in a narration of her “inclination” to letters and other intellectual pursuits. I would like to discuss this aspect as the second topic that could be of interest for us today.    

II.  Epistemology and constitution of situated or alternative knowledges— Autobiographies and life stories could be read as a representation of a subject’s knowledge as a result of her/his experiences.  In many cases an autobiography is a text in which an individual legitimates and authorizes her experiences as representative of a particular and important form of knowledge.  In the case of Sor Juana, nonetheless, her concern with knowledge is more than literal.  In her “Respuesta” Sor Juana deflects the attention from the original critique to her secular writings, and transforms her life story into a narration of her “inclination to letters” (47), and in some cases she even ventures into a critique of the epistemological paradigms of her time.  In her narration Sor Juana refers to her exclusion from the university, she describes the informal and difficult setting of her solitary education, and she even creates an artistic and intellectual tradition that validates her desire to study both in a secular and religious context.  Thus, I would like to propose this kind of reading as another area in which a comparative approach could be fruitful.  For example, in what way can some of these narrations be seen as a critique of a single cognitive subjectivity to favor what Donna Haraway defines as “situated knowledges” or what Foucault classifies as “subjugated knowledges”?  How does the intersection with colonialism complicate even more this constitution of a knowing subjectivity that is trying to define a voice and a space vis à vis the unequal relations of power defining the early Ibero/American period? 

III.  Colonial Rhetoric—In his book entitled Rhetoric in the New World, Abbott presents a set of questions that are also enlightening when reading the “Respuesta”: “Critical questions, then, confronted rhetoricians as a result of the encounter: Could Europeans adapt their ancient art to the exigencies of a New World?  Or would they ignore the customs and mores of the inhabitants of the Americas and perpetuate the centuries-old patterns of European thought?  Or would these theorists find a “middle way” cognizant of both the classical heritage and the indigenous experience?” (9).  Rosa Perelmuter has carefully studied the rhetorical structure of the “Reply to Sor Filotea” to point out the different strategies used by Sor Juana to create an intellectual persona in her writings.  However, I would like to posit additional questions that will combine both Abbott’s and Perelmuter’s readings.  Can we read “La Respuesta” as one possible example of a Colonial discourse in the Americas?  Can we describe and redefine some of the rhetorical strategies used by Sor Juana and other writers in the Americas to analyze the internal structure of a colonial discourse?  This kind of reading will allow to explore the intersection of rhetoric and colonialism to propose some of these writings as another form of minority discourse.  Once a colonial subjectivity has been defined (and here I am referring to the work done by Memmi, Fanon, Césaire, Bhabha, etc.), we could trace the textual marks that this colonial subjectivity leaves in the written productions of this period.  Autobiographies and life narratives are an excellent point of departure to study the internal structure of Early Ibero/American writings as a form of minority and colonial discourse.  Perhaps these questions will reconnect us back with the transatlantic setting in which these narratives where produced, but they also allow us to think about the internal connections that could be established between the writers that we are discussing today in this panel.

IV.  Useful bibliography:

Abbot, Don Paul.  Rhetoric in the New World: Rhetorical Theory in Colonial Spanish America.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Arenal, Electa and Stacey Schlau.  Untold Sisters.  Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works.  Albuquerque: University of New México Press, 1989.

Arenal, Electa and Amanda Powell.  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  The Answer/La Respuesta.  Including a Selection of Poems.  New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994. 

Bénassy-Berling, Marie Cécile. Humanisme et Religion chez Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  La femme et la culture au XVII Siècle.  Paris: Editions Hispaniques, 1982.

Bhabha, Homi.  “Difference, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism.”  The Politics of Theory.  Eds. Francis Barker et al.  Colchester: University of Essex, 1983.  194-211.

---.  “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.”  October 28 (Spring 1984): 125-133.

Césaire, Aimé.  Discourse on Colonialism.  New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972.   

Chang-Rodríguez, Raquel.  “Mayorías y minorías en la formación de la cultura virreinal.”  University of Dayton Review.  16.2 (Spring 1983): 23-34. 

---.  “Relectura de Los empeños de una casa.”  Revista Iberoamericana  104-105 (1978): 409-419. 

de Certeau, Michel.  "Montaigne's 'Of Cannibals': The Savage 'I'." Heterologies.  Discourse on the Other.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 19. 67-79.

---. The Practice of Everyday Life.  California: University of California Press, 1988.

Fanon, Frantz.  Black Skin, White Masks.  Londres: Paladin, 1970.

---.  The Wretched of the Earth.  New York: Grove Weindelfeld, 1991. 

Flynn, Gerard Cox.  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Nueva York: Twayne, 1971. 

---. “A Revision of the Philosophy of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.”  Hispania  43.4 (Diciembre 1960): 515-520. 

Franco, Jean.  “Introduction.”  “Sor Juana Explores Space.”  Plotting Women.  Gender and Representation in Mexico.  New York: Columbia Press, 1989.  xi-xxiv; 23-54. 

---.  “Las finezas de Sor Juana.” “Y diversa de mí misma entre vuestras plumas ando”: Homenaje Internacional a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Ed. Sara Poot-Herrera.  México: El Colegio de México, 1994. 247-256.

Glantz, Margo.  Borrones y borradores: reflexiones sobre el ejercicio de la escritura México: UNAM, 1992.

---.  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: ¿hagiografía o autobiografía?  México: Grijalbo y UNAM, 1995.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. and David Lloyd, eds.  The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse.  New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Lavrin, Asunción, ed.  Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America.  Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. 

López Cámara, Francisco.  “El cartesianismo en Sor Juana y Sigüenza y Góngora.”  Filosofía y letras  19-20.39 (Julio- Septiembre 1950): 107-131. 

Ludmer, Josefina.  “Tretas del débil.”  La sartén por el mango: Encuentro de escritoras latinoamericanas.  Ed. Patricia Elena González.  Puerto Rico: Huracán, 1985.  47-54.

Martínez-San Miguel, Yolanda. Saberes americanos: subalternidad y epistemología en los escritos de Sor Juana.  Pittsburgh: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana—Serie Nuevo Siglo, 1999.

Memmi, Albert.  The Colonizer and the Colonized.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Merrim, Stephanie.  Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

Merrim, Stephanie, ed.  Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Moraña, Mabel.  Viaje al silencio.  Exploraciones del discurso barroco.  México: UNAM, 1998.

Moraña, Mabel, ed.  Mujer y cultura en la colonia hispanoamericana.  Pittsburgh: Biblioteca de América, 1996.

Paz, Octavio.  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe.  México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990.

---. “Homenaje a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz en su tercer centenario (1651-1695)”  Sur. 206 (diciembre 1951): 29-40. 

Perelmuter Pérez, Rosa.  “La estructura retórica de la Respuesta a sor Filotea.”  Hispanic Review.  51.2 (Spring 1983): 147-158. 

Poot-Herrera, Sara, ed.  Sor Juana y su mundo.  México: Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, 1995. 

---., ed.  “Y diversa de mí misma entre vuestras plumas ando”: Homenaje internacional a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  México: El Colegio de México, 1993. 

Sabat-Rivers, Georgina. En busca de Sor Juana.  México: UNAM, 1998. 

Schons, Dorothy.  “The First Feminist in the New World.”  Equal Rights.  October 31, 1925, pp.  11-12.

Young, Robert.  Colonial Desire.  Hybridity, Theory, Culture and Race.  Londres: Routledge, 1995.