Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Sor Juana Anthology, Translated by Alan S. Trueblood

Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz was a 17th century Mexican nun. I had never heard of her until a few months ago when my brother attended a workshop/seminar as part of his Master's studies. I understand the need for students in the United States to learn about European literature as North American literature grows from it, but after reading some of Sor Juana's poetry, I'm wondering if our schools should also survey writers from South America as well. I know, it's hard enough to get U.S. students to even put down their I-phones and I-pods and pay attention in class. (Sigh.) I can dream though.

I'm not a big fan of poetry. However, I'm aware of the difficulties poets face trying to find the exact words to convey a feeling, a color, a scent, without using actually using those senses to demonstrate them. When a poet can do that with rhyme and meter, I am impressed. When a translator can come close to the original poet's message, and do it with rhyme and meter, I am very impressed. If only I didn't fall asleep while reading it.

My favorite part of this anthology was the The Letter of Sor Philothea de la Cruz (written by a priest under an assumed name, which interestingly he chose to pose as a nun) and Sor Juana's Reply to Sor Philothea. The priest had published an article written by Sor Juana without her knowledge and then wrote to her to admonish her for her opinions expressed in the article. She had written about another priest's sermon from over a decade earlier and had disagreed with some of his points on doctine. The priest posing as Sor Philothea praises her for her writing talent, but then accuses her of not being devoted enough to spiritual studies, and suggests that more secular studies breeds arrogance, a trait not desirable in women. There is an undercurrent of male chauvinism that would make any modern woman bristle.

Sor Juana's response at first glance seems a groveling, sycophantic plea for forgiveness. BUT. One has to remember that the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing and whatever a nun might write or publish was subject to close scrutiny. Possible consequences included strict censure, excommunication and worse. On closer inspection, her response brilliantly answers the fake nun's objections and flings the accusatory barbs right back from whence they came. Sor Juana gives a brief personal history of how she came to be educated, much of her skills learned from trial and error rather than formal instruction. A voracious reader, she excuses her curiousity as a gift from God that gives her more trouble than blessing, and yet she tries to keep it "under control" as she goes about her convent duties. She uses scripture to support her assertion that women should not only be permitted to study but are COMMANDED to study. She even suggests that the Church ought to encourage study in more women so that women may teach young girls in a modest setting so that men are not put in delicate positions of teaching girls which may lead to temptation.

I feel any serious student of literature, or any ambitious young woman for that matter, ought to read Sor Juana's Response to Sor Philothea. I can't even come close to Sor Juana's talent, so I won't try here.

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