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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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Baldwin’s Unfinished Notes

February 22, 2019

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

James Baldwin was working on an unfinished manuscript when he died in 1987. Baldwin’s family recently gave this manuscript to filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, who then turned it into a 2016 film entitled I Am Not Your Negro. While a text of the same name accompanies the film, it is worthwhile to seek out the film which includes a stunning array of archival footage. The book, too, includes some photographs, but nothing in comparison to the film itself. Baldwin’s notes deconstruct personal relationships, historical events, and popular films, making it impossible to simply read his notes. It is immensely helpful to see the images and places that Baldwin discusses. Truly, an image contains so much to analyze. In one section, Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s discussion of the violence in Birmingham, while video images of Mars plays. This creates a strong image-to-text association, but also shows the great disparity between the barren world of Mars and the overheated passions of Birmingham. Baldwin writes: “White people are astounded by Birmingham,/ Black people aren’t./ White people are endlessly demanding to be/ reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars./ They don’t want to believe,/ still less to act on that belief,/ that what is happening in Birmingham/ is happening all over the country./ They don’t want to realize that there is not one step,/ morally or actually, between/ Birmingham and Los Angeles.” (34) The film also presents footage of Baldwin’s lectures and talk show appearances. Baldwin’s face speaks volumes. While the same is true of his written word, his presence enhances the documentary.

The notes that Peck received from Baldwin’s family were meant to draw parallels between three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These very different men were on the front lines of racial discussion and action. While the film gives some details and contains some footage of these men, I truly wish that Baldwin’s voice were able to tell us more about his relationships and interaction with them. There is so much left unsaid.

The film interlaces present day material with images from Baldwin’s life and from films and documentaries. In other words, Peck and Baldwin demonstrate the nation’s complexity. Baldwin’s focus on the arts helps to elaborate a number of points. He begins with questions of beauty, the notions of a young boy who saw equal beauty and likeness in Joan Crawford and a “colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly/ like Joan Crawford.” (25) Then, he moves into ways in which African Americans have been depicted onscreen, most of which played into stereotypes. Peck’s video montage offers a strong reminder of Baldwin’s voice through letters, lectures, analysis, and texts.

Below I have copied a few notes from the text which stood out to me. I recommend seeing the film in its entirety in order to better understand the discussion of race relations both past and present.

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“To watch the TV screen for any length of time/ is to learn some really frightening things/ about the American sense of reality.

“We are cruelly trapped between/ what we would like to be and what we actually are./ And we cannot possibly become/ what we would like to be until we are willing/ to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead/ on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame,/ and so ugly.

“These images are designed not to trouble,/ but to reassure./ They also weaken our ability to deal/ with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.” (86)

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“For a very long time, America prospered:/ this prosperity cost millions of people their lives./ Now, not even the people who are the most/ spectacular recipients of the benefits of this/ prosperity are able to endure these benefits:/ they can neither understand them/ nor do without them./ Above all, they cannot imagine the price paid/ by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life,/ and so they cannot afford to know/ why the victims are revolting.

“This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s/ decline, for no kingdom can maintain/ itself by force alone.

“Force does not work the way/ its advocates think in fact it does./ It does not, for example, reveal to the victim/ the strength of the adversary./ On the contrary, it reveals the weakness,/ even the panic of the adversary/ and this revelation invests the victim with patience.” (90-1)

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“History is not the past./ It is the present./ We carry our history with us./ We are our history./ If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” (107)

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“Not everything that is faced can be changed;/ but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (103)


Film: I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Text: Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Edited by Raoul Peck, Penguin, 2016.


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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. Furthermore, she invites 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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Political Speech in Julius Caesar

January 25, 2019

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

Most humans are inundated with political speech, the current pace of which seems unsustainable (or at least unhealthy to me). I think this has often been the case in other civilizations too. Shakespeare gives us a great example of political speech among chaos in Julius Caesar. Though there are many layers to this play, I want to focus on the speeches given by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Marcus Brutus (Brutus) directly following Caesar’s murder.

First, it is important to understand that Brutus is a statesman. He is of a noble and honorable family. He is well-educated, well-read, and well-spoken. His identity is closely linked to this nobility. Also, it is important to understand that Brutus likes Caesar in many respects. However, something within Brutus makes him distrust Caesar as a leader and popular figure. Shakespeare does not explicitly state what makes Brutus cautious about endorsing his friend. When Cassius questions Brutus as to whether or not he would choose Caesar for his king, Brutus replies only, “I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well” (I,ii,82) and then adds that he loves honor more than death (I,ii,89). Brutus’s character is founded on ideals of justice, honor, and government. Cassius, however, is more ambitious and plants the seeds of Caesar’s demise into Brutus’s head. Cassius’s brilliant, and ultimately convincing speech reads:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?

Write them together, yours is as fair a name;

Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;

Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em,

Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

Now, in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed

That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!

Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!” (I,ii,135-151)

Cassius knows that nobility, honor, and justice are the keys to convincing Brutus. Cassius reinforces fears that Rome is splintering and being taken over by unworthy and uneducated classes. The fact that Julius Caesar rose from poverty, used plain speech, and created programs for the poor is all slightly absurd to the elite. Cassius knows how much a name means to Brutus, and also how little it means to Caesar. Even though Brutus replies, “I am nothing jealous,” the seed has been planted. And I do believe Brutus, his mission is not out of jealousy or even straight ambition. Rather, I believe he truly abhors the idea of a fallen Rome, one in which anyone can rule, regardless of nobility and lineage. To me, Brutus acts as though he believes himself to be Rome’s savior.

Unfortunately, Brutus does not understand politics, the people, or the time. In Act III, at the moment when Brutus and the conspirators murder Caesar, Caesar faces his friend and murderer. He speaks the famous line: “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar!” (III,i,77). After Caesar’s death, chaos ensues. Antony decides to appeal to the conspirators and so he sends his servant to Brutus with the message that “Brutus is noble, wise, valiant and honest” (III,i,127). Of course, Brutus admits Antony and the two discuss how to calm the growing crowds. In this meeting, Antony commits two noteworthy acts. First, he asks to be killed along with Caesar. This theatrical display is meant to demonstrate loyalty. The conspirators will have no more blood on their hands, though. Instead, they ask Antony to join them in representing Rome. And quickly, perhaps too quickly, Antony agrees and asks to shake each bloody hand (III,ii). However, Antony is keenly aware of the precarious situation. He appeals to Brutus’s nobility and honor more than anything and then requests to speak at Caesar’s funeral. After agreeing to let Antony speak, Brutus thinks to give himself the upper hand by speaking first. And so it is decided that Brutus will first appeal to the crowd and then Antony may address the public in the way of a formal ceremony.

Brutus gives a perfectly serviceable speech. He speaks with candor and humility. He speaks of friendship and duty. He speaks reasonably. Antony, however, follows with a knockout speech. (Also, watch Damian Lewis perform Antony’s funeral speech. ) He utilizes poetic device, repetition, and emotion. He praises Brutus many times, but ends his speech: “O judgment! Thou are fled to brutish beasts,/ And men have lost their reason” (III,ii,109-10). “[B]rutish” is very nearly Brutus. In other words, those who used to represent the epitome of reason now make no sense. Clearly, Antony knows people whereas Brutus knows the law. But who is to be believed? Did Caesar offer all the money and favors to the poor in earnest? What part of Antony’s speech is theatrics and what part real?

I think it matters very little whether one finds this play more reflective of Shakespeare’s time or Roman times. Though 1,000 years separates Roman speeches from Shakespeare’s play, the characters play large roles still played out today. A number of sources (Plutarch included) have noted Antony’s eloquence and Brutus’s honor, but do they act virtuously? To me, the play demonstrates larger human truths with which we still wrestle (and likely always will): what is justice, virtue or nobility? Who demonstrates it and how are we to judge of honesty?

In hindsight, we also know that in the future, Antony’s passions and ambition will overcome his reason and good-will. These faults only grow larger with his rise to fame. So, we are left with a scenario where either Brutus pursues nobility to a fault or Antony overindulges at everyone’s expense. The irony is that good and bad elements were always present in their characters and in their political rhetoric, but it took time to discover which trait would dominate.

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