Book Review for Sor Juana by Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans’s book Sor Juana: Or, The Persistence of Pop is a loving meditation on iconic  seventeenth century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in particular her image and its omnipresence in modern Latinx pop culture. As a pop icon, Stavans says, Sor Juana shows up on everything from t-shirts to tattoos; tribute is paid to her in hip hop lyrics and operas, and her image even graces official government documents like stamps and the $200 peso note.  “Along with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Evita Perón, she is ubiquitous,” Stavans says, and “firmly grounded in the pantheon of Mexican icons.”

The book Sor Juana is a loving, playful exploration of this brilliant, controversial, and unpredictable woman. It uses the multifarious visual and cultural interpretations of the nun in pop culture as a stepping off point from which to illuminate the spirit of this woman, and to explain how she managed to capture the hearts and minds of generations. Each of the book’s 10 chapters reflects on an important image, piece of writing, or theme by or about Sor Juana, and is beautifully illustrated with images of the nun in her various incarnations, from playful to irreverent, to lustful, to piously sincere.

The chapter “Philosophy of the Kitchen” discusses Sor Juana’s early life and family, and touches briefly on her reception in court. Sor Juana’s intellectual curiosity was often treated as an unusual anomaly, Stavans explains, a parlor trick: mostly innocuous, but when it challenged ideas espoused by men, that same intellect was diminished and disregarded.

In the seventeenth century, it was unseemly for a woman’s ideas to exist at all, and her gender and subservient role in society were used to keep her in check. Sor Juana recognized this, Stavans says, and the reluctance with which her ideas were received, and was justifiably frustrated: “What wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? … Had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.” Stavans uses this quote, in part, to demonstrate the many ways Sor Juana subverted the limitations placed on her by sex and society. For Sor Juana, the kitchen was “a laboratory of study … an alchemist’s workroom,” a place in which a woman might safely explore both ideas of the mind and the elements.

Sor Juana is full of such intriguing insights. While her choice to serve in the church was a surprise to many, Stavans says, for Sor Juana, it was the only logical choice. Through her devotion to God and the church, she was able to pursue her intellectual and creative pursuits, safe from some of the more restrictive social roles available to her, such as wife or lady in waiting.

In fact, Stavans points out, most of Sor Juana’s poetry was written after she became a nun. Furthermore, she demurred that almost everything she wrote, from plays to poetry to philosophy, were written because others requested them of her. Stavans delights in not only the substance of her work, but the atmosphere and conditions in which it was allowed to be created. Sor Juana used her role as a nun to create a space in which she could continue her intellectual studies, just as she used the fact that her writing was all done by request to justify her writing.

Stavans’s work presumes the reader’s general familiarity with Sor Juana in at least a few of her many guises. His meditations are a celebration of her life and her work. Each section of the book explores a significant aspect of her work or her personal history. Stavans summarizes the significance of the breadth of Sor Juana’s encroachment into both the arts and imagery of modern Latinx culture, quoting Octavio Paz, who calls her “a key intellectual figure in the journey of Latin America toward modernity.”

In modern academic and intellectual environs, Sor Juana is lauded as a feminist, a poet, a philosopher, and a revolutionary, and Stavans gives space to all of these incarnations in his book. It is refreshing that he seeks not to pin Sor Juana and her work into the narrow confines of a single theory. After all, she wasn’t easily codified, even in life. Controversial in her own time, Sor Juana was as diverse as she was brilliant: an illegitimate child, a prodigy, a favorite in the royal court, an intellectual, a theologian, a borderline heretic, a secularist and, finally, a nun. It is because of this diversity in her existence, her subversion of nearly everything a woman was expected to be, that she became the important pop cultural touchstone she is today.

Link to review at TLR


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