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Sor Juana's Letter

March 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born Juana Ramírez de Asbaje. Her actual date of birth is unknown, but is thought to be around 1651. At the age of three, she walked to a local school, told the teacher she was five years old, and asked to learn to read and write. Inspired by Juana’s determination the teacher helped her, even though she realized her young age. From that day on, Juana dedicated herself to studying. She became known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty. Despite all odds, her actions and ambition led to an elite education at a time when poor women had very few educational resources.

Juana quickly outgrew the constraints placed on her as an illegitimate child from the small community of San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico. She moved in with an aunt and uncle in Mexico City by the age of eight. There she received formal training from a tutor. She learned languages such as Latin and Nahuatl, and set a rigorous studying regimen for herself. At this time, Mexico was mostly controlled by Spain and maintained a Spanish royalty. Juana caught the attention of the vicereine who immediately asked for her to join their life at court. She so astonished the royals that the Marquis de Mancera invited forty intellectuals (all men) to debate against Juana on different subjects. He writes, “[I]n the manner that a royal galleon might fend off the attacks of a few canoes, so did Juana extricate herself from the questions, arguments, and objections that these many men, each in his specialty, directed to her” (Paz 98). Yet at the height of this royal fame, she decided instead to join a convent. So, at the age of twenty, she entered into the convent of San Jerónimo.

Octavio Paz notes that while Sor Juana embraced many of the characteristics that define the Baroque period and wrote in traditional Baroque forms, she used unique material. Paz describes a style that represented the conflicting emotions of the era such as the desire for instant riches, personal freedom, and a new spiritual kingdom (71). Additionally, Sor Juana was very ambitious. Her poems demonstrate ability and ego. In the book Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers, Nina M. Scott explains some of Sor Juana’s talents. She writes, “From her earliest years Sor Juana was a consummate poet. The baroque was an age splendidly suited to her talents: she loved the play of dialectical opposites, puns and double entendres, labyrinthine syntax and imagery, much of it derived from classical mythology. She was also skilled at all the poetic forms in use at the time and enjoyed showing her mastery of them” (56). It is possible that she entered the convent to avoid marriage, which would make too many demands on her time to allow for studying.

While the vicereine was busy publishing Sor Juana’s material in Mexico and Spain, the church asked her to write about religion. As her fame grew, the church, however, became uncomfortable with Sor Juana’s secular poetry and ‘manly’ aspects (which is how they viewed her religious critiques and opinions). They were uncomfortable with a woman who capably and eloquently criticized the church since theology was thought to be a man’s realm. As a result of her fame and her secular writings, Sor Juana received a notice of censure from “Sister Philotea.” In reality, the Bishop of Puebla penned the letter, but in order to soften the blow he signed his letter “from Sister Philotea.” The actual source was clear to Sor Juana, and to the rest of the convent, however.

Sor Juana replied to his letter with a logical appeal for her situation. Scott explains, “Sor Juana’s famous ‘Reply to Sister Philotea’ is one of the unique documents of the seventeenth century, for it is one of the only ones to record so eloquently a woman’s cry for intellectual freedom” (58). This letter is worth reading solely for the historical content, yet it also speaks to continued struggles for equality today. As part of her defense, Sor Juana explains that God gave her these talents, which she has used on behalf of the good of the church. She defends her continued education and goes even further, asking that all women receive education. Below are a few excerpts from this astounding letter which dates back to 1691 (translated by Nina M. Scott).

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“My studies have not been undertaken to hurt or harm anyone and have principally been so private that I have not even made use of the guidance of a teacher but have relied solely upon myself and my work, for I know that studying publicly in schools is unseemly to a woman’s modesty because of the hazardous familiarity with men and this would be the reason for keeping women from public studies; not delegating a special place for their study is probably because as the Republic has no need of women for the government of magistrates (from which area, for the same reasons of propriety, the former are also excluded), [the state] is not concerned with that of which it has no need, but who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? Well, then, why cannot a woman profit by the privilege of enlightenment as they do? Is her soul not as able to receive the grace and glory of God as that of a man? Well, then, why should she not be just as capable in matters of information and knowledge which are of less import? What divine revelation, what rule of the Church, what reasonable judgment formulated such a severe law for us women?” (75)

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“If I have read the prophets and secular orators (a lapse of which Saint Jerome himself was guilty), I also read the Holy Doctors and Scripture and cannot deny that to the former I owe countless gifts and rules of good conduct.

“For which Christian will not avoid wrath when confronted by the patience of a pagan Socrates? Who can be ambitious in view of the modesty of the Cynic Diogenes? Who does not praise God in Aristotle’s intelligence? And finally, what Catholic can fail to be astonished when contemplating the sum of moral virtues in all of the pagan philosophers?” (76)

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“Your Reverence wishes that of necessity I should be saved in a state of ignorance, but my beloved Father, can one not accomplish this end and be learned? In the final analysis, for me it is the easier path. Because why should one be led to salvation by the way of ignorance if this is repugnant to one’s nature?

“Is not God as ultimate goodness also ultimate wisdom? Well, then, why should ignorance be more pleasing to Him than learning?

Let Saint Anthony achieve salvation with his holy ignorance and well and good, while Saint Augustine goes by a different path and neither one of the two is wrong.” (76)

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“Has Your Reverence any stake in my betterment by reason of obligation, blood relation, upbringing, Church authority, or anything else?

“If it is pure charity, let it seem charity and have it proceed as such, gently, because exasperating me is not a good way to bring me around, for I do not possess such a servile nature that I will do something when threatened which reason would not persuade me to do; neither would I do for human respect that which I would not do for God, for to give up everything that might give me pleasure – even though it might be very just – is good if I do it to humble myself when I might want to do penance, but it is not when Your Reverence wishes to obtain it by dint of reprimands, and these not in secret as befits paternal correction… but publicly, in front of everyone, where each one reacts to a situation to the extent of his understanding and speaks as he may feel.” (78)

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Harvard, 1988.

Scott, Nina M. Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers. Ed., Trans. Nina M. Scott. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.


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Female Cartographers

March 15, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s blog took a look at Artemisia, an ancient female mariner. Despite the lack of discussion in print, women have spent time at sea, either in disguise or as themselves. Artemisia is only one historical example of a strong female capable of captaining her own ships. Unfortunately, many of the stories have been lost or buried in unread journal entries. As an example, a timeline of women at sea presented by the Mariners Museum begins in 1493 and notes how much more research is warranted in this area.

Mapmaking is another industry in which women have been all but elided. Ironically, according to Peter Barber, editor of The Map Book, “In the eighteenth century there were a surprisingly high number of female mapmakers” (212). In truth, it is difficult to find any map of history penned by a woman without digging deep. In much the same way that jobs of clerks and scribes were often denied to women, so too was cartography. Yet, there are pockets of history in which women combined skills of art and science in the form of maps. Barber continues, “In keeping with the eighteenth-century France’s enlightened attitude towards the position of women, this map predicting the eclipse of 1764 was produced by three women: Madame le Pauté Dagelet, Madame Lattré and Elisabeth Claire Tardieu” (220). This map emerged during the boom of the Enlightenment and clearly demonstrates a juncture between science and art. Barber continues, “The map has a more scientific appearance than earlier maps but the title cartouches are very decorative and impart a good balance of the artistic and scientific” (220). The map’s right-hand side incorporates background information regarding the eclipse. Embellishments draw attention to the subject (solar eclipse) and to Madame le Pauté Dagelet as author of the information. Barker also notes, however, that not much is known about her other than she was “an astronomer and member of the Académie Royale des Sciences (Béziers)” (220). Madame Lattré, the engraver, however, was part of a “well-established dynasty of map makers,” (220). No mention is made of how many maps Madame Lattré might have made, or if she officially contributed to the illustrious career of her husband’s map-making business.

Despite their involvement, little was known about the impact that women have had on cartography until recently. With the advance of technology, information can be parsed more quickly which greatly assists our ability to research topics previously thought obscure, such as female cartography. As an example, a current article from CityLab chronicles librarian Alice Hudson’s research in which she restricts herself to the last 300 years in North America alone because she had found thousands of maps by women. In the article, Hudson explains how tricky it is to discover the true identity of the mapmaker. For example, women often used initials rather than full names to hide their identity. As a further complication, indexes only mention male-owned businesses, and rarely the cartographers themselves.

During World War II, while men were sent off to war, women began to fill the gaps in some geography and engineering courses. In the first year alone, Chicago’s Geography Department witnessed more than two hundred women complete the course. After the war, many women went back to their domestic lives, but Marie Tharp continued on with graduate school in order to earn a PhD. She then became a research assistant at Columbia University working alongside Bruce Heezen. In her research, she discovered a large rift along the Atlantic, now known as the Mid-Atlantic Rift. After a year, she succeeded in convincing him about the existence of plate tectonics, however, she still needed his approval and name in order to distribute the information since it was Heezen’s name that legitimized the research.

Today, their map is considered to be one of the most influential maps of the 20th century. Though much of Tharp’s career was marked by limitations, she persevered. Though unable to be on job sites and out in the field, she learned how to parse data efficiently and intelligently. She also found a male colleague willing to listen to her ideas. She partnered with Bruce Heezen for almost thirty years, in part because he saw the brilliance of her work. According to Encyclopedia.com, Tharp was finally able to go to sea in 1965, not through her own institution (which still prohibited women from working at sea), but through a program offered by Duke University. Encyclopedia.com continues, “Largely invisible as a researcher early in her career, Tharp gained recognition for her geographic insights and cartographic skills later in life. She received awards from the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as well as the first annual Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Heritage Award in 2001. Four years later, Lamont created the Marie Tharp Visiting Fellowship program to aid promising women researchers.”

Along with female mariners, the field of cartography offers rich potential to those willing to do a little digging.

To view an image of the Heezen-Tharp map, click here.

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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. She invited all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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Beyoncé Makes Lemonade

February 15, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Beyoncé doesn’t release albums; she creates cultural events.” - Daphne A. Brooks

According to Wikipedia, Beyoncé is the most nominated female singer in the history of the Grammy Awards (and she has also won 22 of them). Furthermore, Wikipedia cites: “In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history and was listed among Time's 100 most influential people in the world for a second year in a row. Forbes ranked her as the most powerful female in entertainment on their 2015 and 2017 lists, and in 2016, she occupied the sixth place for Time's Person of the Year." In 2016 she made an album entitled Lemonade. It is known as a concept album and accompanied a one hour film by the same name. In it she narrates, dances, includes clips of family, and has many guest artists. She slips between genres such as reggae, hip hop, country, gospel, and blues.

Very few of us will ever have the chance to touch the whole world at once. I use dialogue for a living, but I do so in small groups and small venues. This allows for nice, intimate discussions which ensures that everyone can participate. Musicians, on the other hand, broadcast a message to the world instantly, quickly, and passionately. They embrace technological change in a way that questions how we use language effectively, potently, masterfully. Music is certainly not new, but music has begun to embrace a number of ways to increase its potential.

Lemonade is an ambitious project which addresses race, gender, and love. In it, Beyoncé unapologetically defends herself, her experience, and her right to be a strong, proud African American woman. By extension, her work inspires other women in tough situations. More than inspiration, though, she reminds us that we can (and should) aim higher. Beyoncé sends the message through lyrics like those found in “Freedom” where she says she breaks chains all by herself.

The album is not meant to show her perfections or even to tell the world that her experience trumps anyone else’s. It seems more closely aligned with owning the full complexity of experience. Life is full of decisions, and she tells all women to make their own decisions but also to own the past, not disregard it. Daphne A. Brooks, critic and scholar, writes, “The album encourages black women, in particular, to examine the wholeness of their beings and the complexities of their identities.”

While some dismiss her work as diva-like behavior, journalist Arwa Mahdawi reminds us that that would be a mistake. Beyoncé runs a business and knows it. Mahdawi suggests that we cannot ignore Beyoncé’s intentional branding. In fact, branding yourself is often expected of male artists, but dismissed in women. Mahdawi writes: “It’s a mistake to call Beyoncé’s notorious attention to her image ‘diva’ behaviour; it’s businesswoman behaviour. Beyoncé understood that she couldn’t let Beyoncé-the-person encroach on Beyoncé-the-brand. So she stopped saying much, and rarely gave interviews. In 2013, she made waves by appearing on the cover of the September issue of Vogue without deigning to give the customary interview that went with it. Her silence made her voice even more powerful, and reinforced the mythology she was creating.” She also surrounds herself with strong women. In music videos, she often dances among a group of women in step, herself at the front but always in step. The group dynamic is important, as is realizing that Beyoncé is a tour de force.

Lemonade begins with her grandmother’s 90th birthday in which her grandmother says, “Life gave me lemons, and I made lemonade.” Throughout the rest of the film, Beyoncé gives us the literal and figurative recipe of lemonade. I love to see an album that poses tough questions. This project made me wonder in what ways I interact with or participate in the world onscreen. What are the right questions to be asking? What does it mean to be female, powerful, and ambitious? How do we reconcile not just the past and the present, but the future? How can we address race relations in a healthy, powerful, and positive way? And, am I living up to my potential?

While not all critics think highly of Beyoncé (see bel hooks on the subject), so many people identify with her or her music that it would be impossible to dismiss her work. While she is talented, people often do not succeed based upon talent alone. Beyoncé has something extra that many people want to access. Taking a deeper look at her work has been a very worthwhile endeavor. She is sending a message and I, for one, am curious as to whether we are all receiving the same message, or if her work resonates for many reasons.

Contemporary success must attach to some objective desire whose impulse stems from the past. Success combines past reality with future visions in a way that seems visionary, but also still locates us in the present. Beyoncé participates in the past as much as she does in the present and future. In a way, progress always involves a stasis - the transcendent moment arrives only from an understanding of the forces which give rise to it. Beyoncé participates in the present by giving us a sense of opportunity which she has collated from history, experience, emotion, and public response. And for a few moments, the world moves in rhythm with her vision, her words, and her ideas, which are also our own.

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