Wednesday, 09 July 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

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Poet, scholar and church-defying nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz suffered terribly from an affliction only too common in 17th-century Mexico. This debilitating condition affected roughly half the population at the time, severely limiting the ability of sufferers to read, speak in public or contribute positively to society. It wasn’t the pox. It wasn’t the plague.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz had no penis.

Born in San Miguel Nepantla in 1651 to a reasonably poor Mexican mother and an absent Spanish father, Juana was unaware of her condition during the early years of her life, which she spent chiefly in her grandfather’s hacienda.

Ensconced in her childhood home, Juana found two things: God and a massive library. Into the first, she plunged herself, becoming passionately devout and eagerly committing herself to the role of Good Catholic. Into the second, she hid herself, consuming books and learning as if they were pedagogical marshmallows. By the age of three, she could write. By the age of five, she could handle arithmetic. By the time she hit the peak of moody adolescence, she could pop off a few poems in Spanish, Latin and an Aztec language or two. Unbeknownst to the young and beautiful Juana, such achievements were usually reserved for members of the I-Have-A-Member club.

In 1664, an opportunity presented itself for Juana to become a lady-in-waiting to Vicereine Leonor Carreto, a noblewoman in Mexico City who also, according to rumour, had no pecker to speak of. Juana saw a chance to score a proper education in Mexico City, and hatched a plan to disguise herself as a young man so she could attend the university and surreptitiously learn stuff. But, like an idiot, she told her mother about it. Silly girl. Everyone knows you don’t tell your mother stuff like that when you’re sixteen! You need a cunningly fabricated cover story.*

Unsurprisingly, Juana was forbidden from attending university or receiving any formal education. It was around this time she felt the first pangs of penislessness. All was not lost, however. The Vicereine allowed her companion to continue satisfying her thirst for knowledge in private, when she wasn’t attending to her court duties. She read, she wrote, she studied and generally set a fabulous example for brainy women of the future.

“I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less”, she wrote. It sounds nicer in Spanish.

Juana’s swottiness did not go unnoticed. Philosophers, poets, theologians and important people with fancy hats were called to the viceregal court to quiz her on all manner of topics. Imagine, if you will, a sort of Baroque Millionaire Hot Seat, only with more Spanish and puffy sleeves with ribbons on, and not quite as much electricity.

Juana floored her audience with her intellect. “¡Qué mujer!” they would exclaim, irritating their editor slightly with the use of unusual punctuation, “What a brainiac! Also she is pretty and I would like to see her bosoms”. In the courts of New Spain, having a keen mind in the absence of a trouser-bulge was quite the novelty. It earned Juana widespread renown and a handful of marriage proposals, which she turned down. In her mind, God and learning were still life’s only worthwhile pursuits.

To those ends, Juana entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome in 1669, officially becoming Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. She found the order a very comfortable place for a woman unburdened by a desire for marriage or the weight of a todger. There she had the time and freedom to indulge herself completely in her own education, and churned out poems, plays and essays like a champion. She would sometimes cut her hair, and set herself a learning task to achieve by the time it grew back again.**

“…There seemed to be no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning.” she wrote.

As a layperson at court, Juana’s book learnin’ had been a spectacle. As a nun, it was a no-no. Her insistence on being female, religious and educated was considered not only unladylike, but sinful and rebellious. Juana incorporated the criticism and her response to it into her writing.

“One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper***”, she wrote, inadvertently authoring Latin America’s first feminist manifesto.

Though her writing continued, the Church effectively won. I hate it when that happens. Evidence suggests she agreed to undergo penance; she sold her books, music and scientific equipment; and she referred to herself as “la peor de todas” - the worst of all women.

What little survives of her literary output was probably preserved by the Vicereine Carreto. These writings helped cement Juana’s reputation as a bit of a sub-par nun but a cracker of a Baroque poet, long after the plague took her life in 1695, aged 43.

“May these clumsy scribblings represent black tears my pen has shed to ease its pain”, she wrote. A bit heavy, sure. But this is the sad bit at the end.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

* Mum, if you’re reading this I really did sleep over at Fiona’s house that time and we didn’t go anywhere near a nightclub in the city. Also, you are very beautiful.

** I do a similar thing myself, but it looks a bit more like I’m pouring myself a gin every time I get to the end of a paragraph.

***If by “philosophise” you mean “chop parsley and recite smutty limericks”, then I’m totally with you, nun-lady.


Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity