Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Sor Juana’s Rough Heroines: Cognitive Immoralism in Primero Sueño


Sor_Juana_by_Miguel_Cabrera (1)

Portrait of Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera

What follows is a guest post by Adriana Clavel-Vázquez and Sergio A. Gallegos.

Against all odds, Novohispanic nun Juana Inés de la Cruz gained widespread recognition as a writer in her lifetime. Today, she is also recognized as a distinguished Early Modern philosopher who advanced one of the earliest defenses of the right of women to be educated, and who emphasized how human knowledge is constituted by doubts and struggles. She was particularly preoccupied with the lack of recognition of women as intellectual peers, and its consequences for how women are treated.

Arguing against the subordination of women as a nun in 17th century New Spain, of course, wasn’t easy. She was reprimanded by several ecclesiastical authorities, most famously by Father Fernández de Santa Cruz under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea. Her most well-known arguments for women’s right to education in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea (“Reply to Sor Filotea”) are an emboldened reply to Fernández de Santa Cruz. To get around her censors, Sor Juana partly relies on her artistic production, such as poems, plays and loas. This allows her to surreptitiously advance philosophical claims and arguments without explicitly challenging her subordinate position, to hide controversial claims in plain sight, and to plausibly distance herself if they were to cause trouble.

But more important than these practical considerations, we think that Sor Juana’s use of artistic devices are aimed at engaging her audience’s emotions and imagination in order to further philosophical arguments. For example, she was keen on eliciting shame in her readers, particularly men, in the hopes that this would make them understand the oppression of women. In her famous poem “In a lighter vein”, Sor Juana uses shame to evidence men’s conflicting expectations from women’s sexual attitudes:

Silly, you men – so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you’re alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman’s mind. (…)

You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

When it comes to bravely posturing,
your witlessness must take the prize:
you’re the child that makes a bogeyman,
and then recoils in fear and cries. (…)

So why are you all men so stunned
at the thought you’re all guilty alike?
Either like them for what you’ve made them
or make of them what you can like.

Here we want to focus on her Primero Sueño (“First Dream”) to show how Sor Juana aims at engaging imagination and emotions in a different way: she invites her readers to ally with sympathetic immoral female characters, or rough heroines. As contemporary readers, this might not seem like much of a feat; after all, we’re used to rooting for Walter White or Tony Soprano. But eliciting sympathy for bad women remains rare even in our days. So Sor Juana’s use of rough heroines highlights her originality both as a writer and a philosopher. With this invitation to sympathize with bad women, Sor Juana hopes to: 1) make her audience reflect on how women are oppressed even when they’re, like men, rational beings; and 2) further her arguments against the subordination of women. This recurrence of prescribed sympathy towards bad women is consistent with Sor Juana’s public self-presentation: she famously signed off in her deathbed as “la peor del mundo [the worst in the world].”

Primero Sueño narrates the Soul’s quest for knowledge as the body has fallen asleep. The poem is about the limits of human knowledge, which is presented by Sor Juana as a Sisyphean task in which the Soul perpetually tries again after failing to achieve its goal. The limitations explored by the poem aren’t those socially imposed to women, which Sor Juana addresses in other work, but the limitations that come with the human condition as such. The poem’s main character isn’t man or woman, but the genderless Soul. The poem narrates the Soul’s journey in the third person, our female author mostly absent from the text. But for the genderless Soul to embark on this quest, it first needs to escape its (gendered) body. The goddess Night frees the Soul from its imprisonment by making the body fall asleep. The poem emphasizes the leveling power of sleep as rich and poor, men and women are liberated to pursue knowledge. Night thus emerges as a central character: the true emancipator of the Soul and facilitator of the journey.

The Soul begins by searching in the realm of the eternal, absolute truths, and attempts to attain knowledge through intuitive thought. However, although the poem presents it as the “supreme sovereign of the sublunary world”, the Soul is defeated, and retreats. After being blinded by its first attempt, the Soul embarks on its quest again, only this time it approaches knowledge of finite beings. At first, the Soul is so eager that it attempts to take in the diversity of Creation all at once; but this chaotic approach leaves it with nothing but confused concepts, so that the Soul “looking at everything, nothing it saw”. The Soul thus resolves to engage in a methodical epistemic activity that involves knowledge by degrees. It approaches the vastness of creation through a “metaphysical reduction”: it abstracts universals by deploying Aristotelian categories and by classifying individuals according to genus and species. The Soul progresses from the simplest concepts and creatures to the tripartite Soul. And yet, Creation is so vast and incomprehensible that the Soul realizes that true understanding of even the smallest natural phenomena evades it. The poem oscillates between noting the Soul’s cowardice and helplessness, and extolling its braveness and efforts. Eventually, the body begins to feel the need for food and movement, and begins to recover its powers. Before Apollo comes to fully wake the world again, Venus and Aurora cast the first lights and dispel Night, who retreats defeated.

We can find various philosophical influences in Sor Juana’s Sueño. Some of them, like Thomistic scholasticism (found, for example, in references to the First Cause and the Aristotelian categories) are unsurprising for a catholic nun. Others are far more interesting. Georgina Sabat-Rivers notes that we can find evidence in the poem that Sor Juana was familiar with Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton. Susan M. McKenna emphasizes the influence of Descartes, for example in the poem’s analogies of the body to a machine, its promotion of scientific observation and experimentation, and, of course, in its advancement of an epistemological system that orders examined objects from the simplest to the most complex. Octavio Paz and Elias Trabulse instead focus on Athanasius Kircher, hermeticism, and Florentine Neoplatonism as the greatest philosophical sources of the poem. Paz cites as evidence the poem’s debt to the tradition of spiritual dream voyages, and Sor Juana’s view of the soul as a prisoner of the body (an idea strongly disapproved by the Church). Following these influences, the poem examines how the human mind attains knowledge: “simulacra” from the external world are delivered from the external to the internal senses, estimative and imaginative, to then move from memory to fantasy. Fantasy is then presented by Sor Juana as painting “mental figures” with “bright colours” thanks to the light of intellect. “Mental fantasies” are then organized from simplest to most complex.

Nevertheless, both McKenna and Paz note a significant departure in the poem from its philosophical influences. Sor Juana repeatedly emphasizes the futile nature of the quest for knowledge, even if the Soul is brave enough to keep trying. The Soul is compared to Phaeton, brave in the face of defeat, so that “once travelled, no punishment threatened can halt a second attempt”. Paz regards precisely this as the poem’s greatest philosophical contribution. For him, the Sueño is prophetic because it focuses on the revelation of non-revelation. The Soul in the Sueño finds itself isolated in its journey: there is no demiurge, messenger or guide, and the quest doesn’t culminate in the union with God. And yet, Sor Juana doesn’t advocate for scepticism. The Sueño isn’t a poem of disillusionment, but an epic of the act of knowing. What is original in Sor Juana’s philosophy is that doubts, struggles, and failures are a crucial part of the act of knowing. But so is the impulse to keep trying to achieve understanding. Perhaps most crucially, because the poem finishes in the absence of revelation or encounter with God, the impasse doesn’t lead to religion and faith, but to a profane devotion to the human, heroic desire to understand, limited as this understanding might be.

The theme of the poem is for Paz, therefore, not only the human search for knowledge, but the human experience of vertigo of being on the edge of understanding. Moreover, for Paz the subject of the poem is the human soul. Because the protagonist has no name, age or gender, the Sueño examines the nature and limits of human knowledge as they emerge from the Soul’s imprisonment in the body, and not from specific social conditions. According to Paz, reading the poem as saying something about womanhood misses Sor Juana’s greatest philosophical contributions, ones that were well ahead of her time.

But it’s difficult to see how Sor Juana’s aim would be for the Sueño to be “simply” about the human condition when the poem’s last lines forcefully strike the reader as suddenly revealing our gendered author. When Night is defeated by Venus and Aurora, the Sun comes back to illuminate the world again: “quedando a la luz más cierta el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta [the world illuminated with more certain light, and I, awake].” Sor Juana finishes the poem with the striking female first person “despierta”. If the poem is simply about the nature and limits of human knowledge, why would Sor Juana choose to finish the poem with a word that unavoidably reveals that she isn’t just a genderless soul?

Fully understanding the Sueño’s underlying philosophical claims requires us to attend to the artistic features of the poem to see how Sor Juana aims at enlisting the audience’s emotions and imagination to make an even stronger claim. Yes, as Paz well notes, the Sueño is an epic of the human act of knowing. But even without reference to a gendered Soul, throughout the poem Sor Juana emphasizes not only that woman is also the locus of the impulse to understand, but that women pay a high price for engaging in their heroic quest for knowledge. Throughout the text, Sor Juana prescribes sympathy for female characters that, although play a crucial role in the Soul’s journey, are presented with negative moral traits; these are Sor Juana’s rough heroines. The Sueño is as much about these rough heroines, as about the genderless Soul. Once we attend to Sor Juana’s use of rough heroines we realize that the poem isn’t just about the quest for knowledge, but about the Soul’s journey in a gendered body.

Sor Juana uses Baroque chiaroscuro, the juxtaposition of light and darkness, to bring attention to these rough heroines. But she subverts tradition by characterizing light as restricting, rather than enabling, the Soul’s attempts to attain knowledge. Darkness emerges as the condition of possibility for understanding. Remember that Night appears as true emancipator of the Soul and facilitator of the journey; while Apollo’s reign imprisons the Soul once again. But, crucially, it’s not that Night and darkness are characterized positively. On the contrary, the Sueño represents Night and her cohort negatively: they’re sinister, deceptive, sacrilegious, arrogant, pernicious. And although these negative features are emphasized throughout, these are the characters that demand our sympathy as they make the Soul’s quest for knowledge possible.

Night arrives to emancipate the Soul with her dark cohort, a “fearsome, shadowed crowd”. The first section of the poem, although describing the liberation of the Soul that enables knowledge, describes a lugubrious scene in which Night extends her dominion over the sublunary world with the help of birds of the night. Sor Juana pays special attention to four female dark figures in this “fearsome, tuneless choir”. First, Nyctimene, Minerva’s owl:

Sluggish of flight, with a song irksome to the ear, more so to the spirit, a shamed Nyctymene lurks at chinks and cracks in sacred doors or the most propitious gaps in high lunettes which may offer a breach to her intention to reach, in sacrilege, the bright sacred lamps of the eternal flame and extinguish them, unless she defames them first, consuming the dense oil found in the cloudless liquid that the fruit of the famed tree of Minerva gave up in anguished drops when cruelly pressed.

Second, the three daughters of Minyas transformed into bats:

And those three maidens who saw their house turned to wasteland, their cloth to weeds, for having disobeyed the divine Bacchus, no longer recounting a mélange of tales, they too have been turned into odious shapes, forming a second haze, fearing to be seen even in the shadows, birds with wings but no feathers: those three diligent maidens, sisters, I say, too daring, received the dire punishment of bare drab membranes for wings, so ill disposed the most hideous birds do mock them.

These dark minions of Night are clearly represented by the poem as having negative features, and yet the audience is prescribed to ally with them as part of what makes it possible for the Soul to escape the body. More importantly, no other redeemable features are brought up in the poem that could ground allegiance. Note that when Sor Juana slips and praises the bats as “diligent”, she immediately corrects herself to condemn them: “I say, too daring”.

The Sueño’s main rough heroine is, of course, Night. Although she makes the world fall asleep, liberating the Soul, her role as emancipator is never explicitly acknowledged by the poem. Instead, the audience is covertly invited to understand the subversion of tradition in the association of darkness with knowledge, and ally with the dark goddess. She is, nevertheless, only represented with negative moral features. Night isn’t a queen, but a “tyrannous usurper of the empire of day, girdled in black laurel of a thousand shadows made, and with a fearsome nocturnal sceptre she governed the shadows that frightened even her.” Unlike when the poem compares the defeated Soul with the courageous Phaeton, Night’s defeat lacks emphasis in any positive features. When confronted by Aurora and Venus, Night flees,

(like a cowardly tyrant, and hampered by fearsome misgivings she tried to display her forces, opposing brief repairs of her gloomy cloak to the slashes of light she received as wounds, though her courage badly satisfied, was an ill-formed pretext for her fear, knowing her resistance was weak), trusting in flight more than force to save her, she sounded her raucous cornet to gather in the black squadrons and retreat in order.

Like the Soul, nevertheless, Night will rise again after defeat: “At last her fugitive step came within view of the occident, and (recovered from her defeat, regaining her valor in ruins), in the half of the world undefended by the Sun, the second time a rebel, determines to be crowned once again.” But again, note that although the poem explicitly praises the Soul’s courage for embarking on an unsuccessful quest, Sor Juana goes out of her way to represent Night as figure that deserves to be defeated. The defeat of Night, of course, also means the defeat of the Soul. “Tyrannous usurper” as Night might be, only in her reign of darkness can the Soul aspire to knowledge. The audience is thus prescribed to ally with her not despite her negative traits, but because of them. After all, it’s her fearfulness that quiets the world and brings the body to sleep.

This exaltation of rough heroines reveals Sor Juana’s philosophical originality. Contemporary philosophy of art has devoted significant space to the relation between cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic values of works of art. Those who argue for cognitive immoralism, like Matthew Kieran, think that a work’s invitation to sympathize with immoral characters, like The Sopranos, can sometimes contribute to our understanding and appreciation. But back in the 17th century, Sor Juana seems to have already ascribed implicitly to a form of cognitive immoralism, by using sympathy for immoral characters to further philosophical claims.

The Sueño invites its audience to ally with female characters that are clearly represented as having negative moral traits. Crucially, the work is only rendered intelligible if we adopt the perspective that these are bad women, fearful and deserving of shame and punishment; if we didn’t, the poem would lose its lugubrious tone. Moreover, Sor Juana is writing for an audience that would have held the belief that these women were bad insofar as they transgressed gender norms. But at the same time, the audience is invited to ally with these rough heroines and to see their crucial role in the Soul’s journey. This exaltation of rough heroines also contributes to the aesthetic value of Primero Sueño. The poem is aesthetically valuable because of how Sor Juana integrates multiple layers of meaning using complex literary features to covertly prescribe sympathy toward bad women. Moreover, in Sor Juana’s time, the poem’s inversion of tradition in presenting darkness and morally reprehensible characters as worth allying with is a big aesthetic achievement.

What do these rough heroines contribute to Sor Juana’s philosophical claims? The conflicting imaginative experience that results from the prescription of sympathy for characters whose immoral traits are strongly emphasized is aimed at furthering the audience’s understanding of the obstacles faced by women who break with gender norms. It’s deeply meaningful that throughout her epic of the act of knowledge, Sor Juana emphasizes the negative features of the female characters that play a role in the quest for understanding. Without explicitly challenging her subordinate position, Sor Juana denounces how women are maligned for attempting to engage in the pursuit of knowledge. The impulse to understand is in women a doubly heroic enterprise. Like these rough heroines, women who challenge their subordination by engaging in the act of knowledge are bad. And among them, Sor Juana, “the worst in the world”.

Notes on the Contributors
Adriana Clavel-Vazquez is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, working on a project on the ethics of imagination. Her research currently focuses on embodied imagination, the role imagination plays in our social interactions and our engagement with art, and the interaction of ethical and aesthetic values.

Sergio A. Gallegos is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His current research focuses on the role of abstraction, idealization and approximation in the construction of scientific models, gender and racial oppression in Latin America, the privileged epistemic status of self-knowledge, and the notion of identity in metaphysics and logic. 

Edited by C. Thi Nguyen

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.