Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sor Juana

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [Cltraclctva]

from Octavio Paz's Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden:

It is truly amazing that among the ancient names of wisdom Sor Juana lists that of the consort of Simon Magus — a person described as a charlatan in the Acts of the Apostles — whom various Christian authors and Fathers of the Church, among them Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, vehemently denounced in blackest terms. Sor Juana must have been aware that the consort of the gnostic Simon was named Helena and that he had found her in a brothel in Tyre; Simon said that the fallen Ennoia (Epinoia), that is, the "Thought" of God, had taken refuge in the body of the prostitute. No less surprising is the fact that Sor Juana — here in agreement with the gnostics and heretics — attributes a gender to Mind, and the female gender at that. And, in fact, like sophia (wisdom), the words ennoia and epinoia, frequently used by gnostics and meaning "thought" or "idea," are feminine. The idea of the Fall is common to gnosticism and Christianity, but in the former there an an element essentially foreign to the Christian vision of the universe: belief that Mind is female. The gnostic sees the world in pairs, all of them derived from a dualist principle: nous (mind, spirit) and epinoia or ennoia (thought). That is why it has been said that gnosis can be seen as "a great sexual mystery." Sor Juana knew of these ideas indirectly, through syncretist treatises on mythology, Father Kircher's books, and other works influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the speculations of Neoplatonic hermeticism. Thus she affirms that wisdom is essentially female and, without saying so explicitly, insinuates that what we call mind or idea is also female.

These ideas were clearly heretical, and that is undoubtedly why Sor Juana relies on an astonishing etymology for Isis. Again she refers to Bolduc, who, "following well-reasoned arguments," says: "From Mizraim and Heber, the first teachers of the Egyptians and men renowned for their divine wisdom, and through their doctrine bearing on religion, we know that the name Isis derived from an iterated Hebrew name. That name is Is, which means Man."

This etymology protects her from any suspicion: the goddess Isis is the personification of wisdom, but her origin is doubly masculine. Is-Is = twice male. Furthermore, the Hebrew origin of the name lends to the wisdom embodied in Isis a character different from and superior to that of the Greek sophia, the Latin sapientia, or the gnostic ennoia. The wisdom of Isis is directly linked with biblical revelation, although this supernatural origin was later obscured through centuries of paganism. In the same way that the mystery of the Holy Trinity is visible in the doctrines of Hermes Trismegistus, there is an intimation of biblical revelation in the Egyptian wisdom of Isis. As Sor Juana describes: "But this name of Isis [she is referring to the original Hebrew] is not that of any ordinary wisdom [that is, profane wisdom] but that of Heber and Mizraim, as Bolduc himself explained: 'So that the cow that means Isis, or divine Wisdom, according to the men who were the first leaders in Egypt following the flood, that is, Mizraim and Heber, was, by some indications, different from the one that existed later.'" And Sor Juana concludes triumphantly that there was a time, before there were pagans and idolators, when Isis "represented only wisdom" — the true wisdom that had its origins in the Bible.

This bizarre etymology of Isis is not merely a baroque oddity or a theological sophistry intended to protect Sor Juana against doctrinaire attacks, but reveals, once again, Sor Juana's contradictions: it is a deliberate exaltation of the female condition that, simultaneously, expresses a no less deliberate will to transcend that condition. Wisdom is female, but the goddess who personifies wisdom signifies doubly Man. . . . The mythological enigmas in which Sor Juana took such pleasure are masks that reveal as they conceal. But it is possible to discern still another element in her predilection for Isis. A goddess whose name is the symbolic doubling of Man and who is the female archetype of highest learning — both profane and divine — Isis is also the "universal mother," the Magna Mater: Earth, and nature itself. Since the Greeks, Isis had been identified with Demeter, Aphrodite, Hera, and Io. In the case of Io, the connection was more direct: the majority of mythologists relate that Io, turned into a cow and pursued by Juno's gadfly, takes refuge in Egypt, where a compassionate Jupiter restores her to human form. The Egyptians, says Vitoria, "adored her in the figure of a cow and called her the goddess Isis." Sor Juana repeats this version and quotes the same verses from Ovid that Vitoria uses to illustrate his account, although she omits the mythologist's beautiful translation: "From woman to cow, from cow into goddess, for her spirit and beauty, thus was she changed."

The identification between Isis and Cybele was a little more difficult, but not impossible: according to Cartari, Cybele was the "great mother," and Isis was also the universal mother. The same was true of the wife of the awesome Saturn and mother of Neptune, the goddess Opis, frequently confused with Rhea and Cybele. All these goddesses resolve into Isis, who in turn is transformed into a kind of secret — although loudly proclaimed — emblem for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The nun, a "renowned and learned woman," projects her longings and desires onto the divinity venerated by Apuleius, one in whom motherhood and wisdom are combined. All the obsessions of Juana Inés are contained in the figure of the goddess: Isis is the image of motherhood and, at the same time, "the model of Egyptian wisdom." Juana Inés, through Isis, transposes the "masculinity" inherent in culture and the sexlessness afforded by her nun's habits into a kind of ideal femininity and symbolic universal motherhood. The French jurist André Tiraqueau "placed Isis in the catalog of learned women: and learned she was, in great measure, because she was the inventor of Egyptian letters." The goddess becomes confused with knowledge, that is, she is knowledge: "Finally, she had not only all the qualities of one who is wise, but those of wisdom itself, which was conceived in her." This idea is not in contradiction with what may be deduced from Sor Juana's interpretation in a different passage of the name of Isis: doubly Man. In the same way that the symbolic motherhood of the goddess, mother of signs, transcends natural motherhood, her being transcends mere human knowledge, which is masculine. Never ceasing to be Woman, Isis is double Man: in her, both sexes, without being annulled, are reconciled and transfigured. She is wisdom incarnate. An extraordinary ambition: Juana Inés, nun and virgin, is of the line of Isis, and her name will one day appear on that list of "learned women."

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