Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

'Las Ciencias Curiosas': Curiosity, Studiousness and the New Philosophy in The Carta De Sor Filotea De la Cruz and the Respuesta a Sor Filotea De la Cruz

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

'Las Ciencias Curiosas': Curiosity, Studiousness and the New Philosophy in The Carta De Sor Filotea De la Cruz and the Respuesta a Sor Filotea De la Cruz

Article excerpt

Curiosity and the Respuesta

The autobiographical letter from the Mexican nun and poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) to the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, the Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (1691; henceforth the Respuesta) remains one of the most studied, yet most misunderstood, texts in her extensive body of writings. In November 1690, Fernández de Santa Cruz published, without Sor Juana's permission, a treatise entitled Carta atenagórica (1690), which the Jeronymite wrote in response to a sermon given by the Jesuit Antonio Vieira in 1655 on the question of 'la mayor fineza de Cristo', or the greatest demonstration of Christ's love for humankind. As an introduction to the treatise he appended a pseudonymous letter written in the guise of a nun from Puebla, Sor Filotea de la Cruz, the Carta de Sor Filotea (1690; henceforth the Carta), in which he critiqued Sor Juana's treatise and her commitment to intellectual pursuits. In response, Sor Juana penned the Respuesta, a defence against the accusations the bishop had levelled against her.

As Rosa Perelmuter Pérez has noted, throughout the history of its reception most critics have interpreted the Respuesta as one of the first feminist documents to be written in Spanish America (Perelmuter Pérez 1983: 147). Octavio Paz, among others, interpreted the text's driving force as a defence of women's learning: 'Se da cuenta de que la atacan sobre todo por ser mujer y de ahí que su defensa se transforme inmediatamente en una defensa de su sexo' (Paz 1982: 538). More recent studies have expanded their spheres of analysis to include rhetorical aspects of the text (Bokser 2006; Scott 1994; Segura 1994; Ludmer 1991; Merrim 1987), its relationship to the nun's vita (Myers 1990), its list of women of letters (Peraita 2000; Jaffe 1993), and the construction of subaltern subjectivities (Martínez San-Miguel 1994). Nonetheless the vast majority of critics still situate the text primarily within the literary and socio-historical context of women's writing and women's access to knowledge.1 While its concern with gender is certainly important, this single-minded approach has led commentators to overlook other significant aspects of this compendium of Baroque knowledge. In this essay, I place the exchange in the context of contemporary discourses surrounding knowledge, its acquisition and application. It is within these parameters that I then turn to the question of gender, rereading both the Carta's and the Respuesta's engagement with women's access to knowledge in seventeenth-century Spanish America through a revaluation of Sor Juana's description of her intellectual method.

In order to do this, I examine a significant feature of both the Carta and the Respuesta that remains unexplored by commentators - the accusation against Sor Juana of the sin of curiosity, and her response. Rereading the Carta and the Respuesta as texts that engage with the word 'curiosity' not only offers a more historically grounded approach to understanding the disagreement that under lies the texts but also demonstrates how these two letters engaged with a word at a point in the late seventeenth century that witnessed a significant revaluation of its meaning and application. In this, I build on Neil Kenny's work on the history of curiosity in the early modern period.2 In doing so, I apply his approach to a new transatlantic context and also identify some of the limitations of his approach when applied to texts written by women.

Kenny argues that in early modern Europe, curiosity was a key word in regulating the circulation of knowledge. This discourse was defined by a multiplicity of opposing voices, each with equally strong convictions about what the term meant. Across European institutions, writers fought over radically different concepts of curiosity. Among these discordant voices, however, Kenny charts two significant and related transformations in the understanding of the term over the course of the seventeenth century. …

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