The Imperfect Sex. Why Is Sor Juana Not a Saint?

Painted in 1750

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El sexo imperfecto. ¿Por qué sor Juana no puede ser santa?

Monthly Review

The Imperfect Sex.

Why Is Sor Juana Not a Saint?

Dr. Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University

Every hegemonic power in every historical period establishes the limits of what is normal and, consequently, of what is natural.  Thus, the power that ordered patriarchal society reserved for itself (reserves for itself) the unquestionable right to define what was a man and what was a woman.  Every time some exalted person takes recourse to the mediocre argument that “things have been like this since the beginning of the world,” he situates the origin of the world in a recent period of the history of humanity.

Like any system, patriarchy fulfilled an organizing function.  Probably, at some moment, it was an order convenient to the majority of society, including women.  I don’t believe that oppression arises from patriarchy, but instead when the latter attempts to perpetuate itself by imposing itself on processes that range from the survival to the liberation of human kind.  If patriarchy was once a logical system of values for an agricultural system of production and survival, today it no longer means anything more than an oppressive, and for some time now, hypocritical tradition.

In 1583, the revered Fray Luis de León wrote La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife) as a book of useful advice for marriage.  There, as with any other text of the tradition, it is understood that an exceptionally virtuous woman is a manly woman.  “What here we call woman of principle; and we might say manly woman (…) means virtue of spirit and strength of heart, industry and wealth and power.”  Then: “in the man to be gifted with understanding and reason, does not make him worthy of praise, because having this is his own nature (…) If the truth be told, it is a bouquet of dishonesties for the chaste woman to think she could not be so, or that in being so she does something for which she should be thanked.”  Then: “God, when he decided to marry man by giving him woman, said: ‘Let us make for him a help mate’ (Gen. 2); from whence it is understood that the natural place of woman and the end for which God created her, is for her to be a helper to her husband.”  A hundred years before Sor Juana would be condemned for speaking too much and for defending her right to speak, the nature of woman was well defined: “it is right for [women] to pride themselves on being silent, both those for whom it is convenient to cover up their lack of knowledge, and those who might shamelessly reveal what they know, because in all of them it is not only an agreeable condition, but a proper virtue, to speak little and be silent.”  Then: “because, just as nature, as we have said and will say, made women to remain in the home as its keepers, so also it obliged them to keep their mouths closed. (…) Just as the good and honest woman was not made by nature for the study of the sciences nor for negotiation of hardships, but for a simple and domestic profession, it also limited their understanding, and therefore it rationed their words and reason.”  But the moralizer of the day was not lacking in tenderness: “do not think that God created them and gave them to man only for them to keep the home, but also to console him and give him joy.  So that in her the tired and angry husband might find rest, and the children love, and the family piety, and all of them generally an agreeable refuge.”

By the next century, Francisco Cascales believed that woman had to struggle against her nature, which was not only determined but evil or defective besides: “The needle and the distaff – wrote the military man and university professor, in 1653 – are the woman’s weapons, and so strong, that armed with them she will resist the most prideful enemy to tempt her.”  Which amounted to saying that the distaff was the weapon of an oppressive system.

Juan de Zabaleta, notable figure of the Spanish Golden Age, declared in 1653 that “in poetry there is no substance; nor in the understanding of a woman.”  And later: “woman is naturally gossipy,” the woman poet “adds more madness to her madness (…) The woman poet is the most imperfect and abhorrent animal formed by nature (…) If it were permitted of me, I would burn her alive.  He who celebrates a woman for being a poet, God should give her to him as a wife, so that he might know what he celebrates.”  In his following book, the lawyer wrote: “the word wife means comfort more than anything, pleasure the least.”  Nonetheless, man “by adoring a woman takes adoration away from the Creator.”  Zabaleta at times goes so far as to create metaphors with a certain aesthetic value: the woman in church “with her fan in hand enlivens with its air the fire that encircles her.” (1654)

In 1575,the physician Juan Huarte informed us that the testicles affirm the temperament more than the heart, while in the woman “the organ that is most gripped by the alterations of the uterus, according to all the physicians, is the brain, although there may be no grounds on which to base this correspondence.”  Hippocrates, Galeno, Sigmund Freud and the most fanatical supporters of the Boca Juniors soccer team would all agree.  The wise and ingenious man, according to the Spanish physician, has a son with contrary traits when the woman’s seed predominates, and no wise child can come from a woman.  For this reason, when the man predominates, even when he is brutish and stupid a clever son results.

In his book about Fernando (a.k.a. the Catholic Monarch Ferdinand), another renowned moralist, Baltasar Gracián, dedicates some final lines to Queen Isabel.  “What most aided Fernando – wrote the Jesuit – [was] doña Isabel his Catholic consort, that great princess who, even though a woman, exceeded the limits of a man.”  Although there were noteworthy women, “commonly in this sex the passions reign in such a way that they leave no room for counsel, for patience, for prudence, essential parts of government, and with  power their tyranny is augmented. (…) Ordinarily, manly women were very prudent.”  Later: “In Spain manly females have always endured a position for males, and in the house of Austria they have always been respected and employed.” (1641)

I believe that the idea of the manly woman as virtuous woman is consistent with the tolerance of lesbianism by the same patriarchal system of values that condemned masculine homosexuality to burn at the stake, whether in the Middle East, in Europe or among the imperial Incas.  Where there was a greater predominance for matriarchy, neither the virginity of the woman nor the homosexuality of men was watched over with such fervor.

A famous woman – beatified, sainted and given a doctorate by the Catholic Church – Saint Teresa, wrote in 1578: “Weakness is natural and it is very weak, especially in women.”  Recommending an extreme discipline with the nuns, the future saint argued: “I do not believe there is anything in the world that could damage a prelate more than to not be feared, and for his subjects to think they may deal with him as with an equal, especially for women, for once understanding that there is in the prelate such softness… governing them will be difficult.”  But this deficient nature impeded not only the proper social order but mystical achievement as well.  Just like Buddha, in her famous book Las moradas the same saint recognized the natural “stupidity of women” that made it difficult for them to reach the center of the divine mystery.

It is perfectly understandable that a woman at the service of the patriarchal order, like Saint Teresa, would have been beatified, while another religious woman who openly opposed this structure would never have been recognized as such.  I would sum up Saint Teresa’s slogan in just one word: obedience, above all social obedience.

Saint Teresa died an old woman and without the martyrdom proper to the saints.  Sor Juana, in contrast, was made to suffer psychological, moral and, finally, physical torture until she died at the age of fourty-four, serving her fellow man in the epidemic of 1695.  But none of that matters for canonizing her as a saint when “the worst of all women” committed the sin of questioning authority.  Why not propose, then, Saint Juana Inés de la Cruz, patron saint of oppressed women?

Those who reject Sor Juana’s religious merits adduce a political value in her figure, when not merely a literary one.  In another essay we already noted the political value of the life and death of Jesus, a value historically denied.  The political and the aesthetic in Santa Teresa – the “patron saint of writers” – fill her works and thoughts as much as the religious and the mystical do.  Nonetheless, a hegemonic political position is an invisible politics: it is omnipresent.  Only that politics which resists the hegemony, which contests the dominant discourse becomes visible.

When I kiss my wife on the mouth in a public square, I am exercising a hegemonic sexuality, which is the heterosexual one.  If two women or two men do the same thing they are not only exercising their homosexuality but also a challenge to the hegemonic order which rewards some and punishes others.  Each time a man goes out on the street dressed as a traditional woman, inevitably he is making a – visible – political statement.  I also make a political statement when I go out on the street dressed as a (traditional) man, but my declaration coincides with the hegemonic politics, is transparent, invisible, appears apolitical, neutral.  It is for this reason that the act of the marginalized becomes a visible politics.

We can understand in the same way the political and religious factor in two women as different as Saint Teresa and Sor Juana.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons for which one of them has been repeatedly honored by the religious tradition and the other reduced to the literary circle or to the Mexican two-hundred peso notes, symbol of the material world, abstraction of sin.

Translated by

Dr. Bruce Campbell

St. John’s University

Dr. Jorge Majfud was born in Tacuarembó, Uruguay in 1969. He majored in Architecture and in 1996 graduated from the Universidad de la República in Montevideo. He travelled extensively to gather material that would later become part of his novels and essays, and was a professor at the Universidad Hispanoamericana de Costa Rica and at Escuela Técnica del Uruguay, where he taught mathematics and art. He received his PhD degree at the University of Georgia. He currently teaches Latin American Literature at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. His publications include: Hacia qué patrias del silencio / memorias de un desaparecido (novel, 1996); Crítica de la pasión pura (essays, 1998); La reina de América (novel, 2001); La narración de lo invisible / Significados ideológicos de América Latina (essays, 2006); Perdona nuestros pecados (short stories, 2007) and La ciudad de la Luna (novel, 2008). His stories and essays have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian and Greek.

Dr. Bruce Campbell is an Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, where he is chair of the Latino/Latin American Studies program. He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003) and ¡Viva la historieta! Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

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Crisis for the Rich, Via Crucis for the Poor

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per...

Crisis de los ricos, via crucis de los pobres

Crisis for the Rich, Via Crucis for the Poor

Theories of evolution after Darwin assume a dynamic of divergences. Two species can derive from one in common; every now and then, these variations can disappear gradually or abruptly, but two species never end up flowing together into one. There is no mixing except within a given species. In the long view, a hen and a man are distant relatives, descendants of some reptile, and each one represents a successful response by life in its struggle for survival.

In other words, diversity is the form in which life expands and adapts to diverse environments and conditions. Diversity and life are synonymous for the biosphere. Vital processes tend toward diversity but at the same time they are the expression of a unity, the biosphere, Gaia, the exuberance of life in permanent struggle for the survival of its own miracle in hostile surroundings.

For the same reason, cultural diversity is a condition for the life of humanity. That is to say, and even though it might be motive enough in itself, diversity is not limited merely to avoiding the boredom of monotony but instead is, besides, part of our vital survival as humanity.

Nevertheless, we humans are the only species that has replaced the natural and discrete loss of species with an artificial and threatening extermination, with industrial depredation and with the pollution of consumerism. Those of us who insist on a possible though not inevitable “progress of history” based on knowledge and the exercise of equal-liberty, can see that humanity, so often placing itself in danger of extinction, has achieved some advances that have allowed it to survive and abide its growing muscular power. And even so, we have added nothing good to the rest of nature. In many respects, perhaps in that natural process of trial and error, we have regressed or our errors have become exponentially more dangerous.

Consumerism is one of those errors. That insatiable appetite has little or nothing to do with progress toward a possible and yet improbable post-scarcity, hunger-free era, and everything to do with the more primitive era of greed and gluttony. Let’s not say with an animal instinct, because not even lions monopolize the savanna or practice systematic extermination of their victims, and because even pigs are sated sometimes.

The culture of consumerism has erred in several ways. First, it has contradicted the aforementioned condition, passing over cultural diversities, substituting them for its universal trinkets or creating a pseudo-diversity where a Japanese laborer or German office worker can enjoy for two days a piece of traditional Peruvian craftwork made in China, or for five days the most beautiful Venetian curtains imported from Taiwan, before they fall apart from use. Second, because it also has threatened the ecological balance with its unlimited extractions and its returns in the form of immortal garbage.

We can observe concrete examples all around us. We might say that it is good fortune that a worker could enjoy commodities that previously were reserved only for the upper classes, the unproductive classes, the consumer classes. Nonetheless, that consumption – induced by cultural and ideological pressure – often has been turned into the very purpose of the worker and an instrument of the economy. Which logically means that the individual-as-tool has been turned into a means of the economy as individual-as-consumer.

In almost all of the developed countries, or those following that “model of development,” the furniture that invades the markets is intended to last only a few years. Or a few months. The furniture items are pretty, they look good just like almost everything in the culture of consumption, but if we look closely they are scratched, missing a screw or our out of square. That preoccupation of my family of carpenters with improving the design of a chair so that it might last a hundred years turns out to be exotic now. But the new disposable furniture does not worry us too much because we know that it costs little and that, in two or three years we are going to buy some more new stuff, which happens to provide more interest and variation in the decoration of our homes and offices and above all stimulates the world economy. According to the current theory, what we throw away here aids the industrial development of some poor country. Thus we are good, because we are consumers.

And yet, those furniture items, even the cheapest ones, have consumed trees and burned up fuel in their long journey from China or from Malaysia. The logic of “dispose of it after use,” which is most reasonable for a plastic syringe, becomes a necessary law for stimulating the economy and maintaining the perpetual growth of GDP, with its respective crises and phobias whenever its fall provokes a recession of two percent. In order to escape the recession one must increase the dosage of the drug. The United States alone, for example, dedicates billions of dollars so that its residents might continue to consume, to spend, in order to escape the madness of the recession and thus allow the world to continue to turn, consuming and discarding.

But those discards, as cheap as they may be – consumerism is based on cheap, disposable merchandise that makes the recycling of durable products almost inaccessible – possess bits of wood, plastic, batteries, steel pipe, screws, glass and more plastic. In the United States all of that and more goes into the garbage – even in this time of what is called “great crisis” for the wrong reasons – and in the poor countries, the poor go out looking for that garbage. Over the long term, the one who ends up consuming all the garbage is nature, while humanity continues to suspend its changes of habit in order to get out of the recession first and in order to sustain the growth of the economy later.

But what is the meaning of “growth of the economy,” that two or three per cent with which the whole world is obsessed, from North to South and East to West?

The world is convinced that it finds itself in a terrible crisis. But the world was already in crisis. Now the crisis is defined as worldwide because 1) it proceeds from and affects the economy of the wealthiest; 2) the simplified paradigm of development has radiated its hysteria out to the rest of the world, undermining its legitimacy. But in the United States people are still flooding the stores and restaurants and their cut backs never involve hunger, even in the gravest cases of the millions of workers without jobs. In our peripheral countries a crisis means children begging in the streets. In the United States it tends to mean consumers consuming a little less while they await the next government check.

In order to get out of that “crisis,” the experts squeeze their brains and the solution is always the same: increase consumption. Ironically, increasing consumption by lending regular people their own money through the big private banks that receive rescue aid from the government. It’s not only a matter of saving a few banks, but, above all, of saving an ideology and culture that cannot survive on their own without frequent ad hoc injections: financial stimulus, wars that promote industry and control popular participation, drugs and entertainment that stimulate, tranquilize and anaesthetize in the name of the common good.

Will we have really emerged from the crisis when the world returns to a five percent growth rate through the stimulation of consumption in the wealthy countries? Will we not be laying the ground for the next crisis, a real – human and ecological – crisis and not an artificial crisis like the one we have now? Will we truly realize that this one is not truly a crisis but just a warning, which is to say, an opportunity for changing our habits?

Every day is a crisis because every day we choose a road. But there are crises that are a long via crucis and others that are critical because, for oppressed and oppressors alike, it means a double possibility: the confirmation of a system or its annihilation. So far it has been the first because of a lack of alternatives to the second. But one must never underestimate history. Nobody could have ever foreseen an alternative to medieval feudalism or to the system of slavery. Or almost nobody. The history of the most recent millennia demonstrates that utopians usually foresee the future with an exaggerated precision. But like today, the utopians have always had a bad reputation. Because mockery and disrepute are the form that every dominant system has always used to avoid the proliferation of people with too much imagination.

Dr. Jorge Majfud

Febrero, 2009

Lincoln University

Political Affairs (USA)

Translated by Dr. Bruce Campbell. St. John’s University