By: Rich Frontjes
Speakers and Listeners in Public Discourse
American public discourse is theoretically founded on the freedom of speech. This freedom to speak, however, in no way guarantees entry into conversations where the common good is considered, assessed, or decided. Free speech is the freedom to speak publicly—but participation in public discourse requires inclusion. And inclusion is variously brokered: depending on the conversation, its participants, and the power dynamics at work, any given stream of public discourse involves a boundary. On one side are the participants, and on the other side are the listeners—or, frequently, those whose attention is focused elsewhere.
In contemporary society, the boundary between participants and listeners exists partly as a function of access to media. Individuals or groups with the (financial or other) power to gain access to media increase their chances of entering the public discourse. The powerless, of course, are typically also voiceless. But financial power has not always been the key that opened the door to participation in public discourse: various epochs and cultural moments have likewise had various modes of adjudicating participation in public discourse.
The present power of media outlets to perform this boundary-keeping function once resided largely within other institutions. The Roman Catholic Church and its functionaries exercised considerable control over public discourse for centuries of European history and cultural development. Exploring how participation in public discourse has been adjudicated in a specific past instance elucidates a dynamic which clarifies the nature of contemporary public speech. In the example of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), we discover a turn of events in which ecclesial power brokers attempted to enforce silence upon an otherwise astoundingly prolific poet.
As a nun in central Mexico, Sor Juana was a largely self-educated polymath whose writing career saw the production of poetry, liturgical and public drama, and theology. With a substantial audience in both Spain and Mexico, Sor Juana’s embrace of the ornate Baroque style of the time won her great notoriety—she was even called “the Tenth Muse” in a posthumously published Spanish version of her works. But in 1693, after this career of voluminous writing, Sor Juana apparently recanted her work and initiated a period of literary silence that lasted until her death during an epidemic in 1695.
Sor Juana’s silence is difficult to “read,” but it is easy to hear. We cannot say with certainty whether it was the result of an enforced stop to her literary output, the silence of protest, or an act of sincere repentance. Nevertheless, it is provocative enough to merit interpretation. The extent to which Sor Juana’s 1692 major poem Primero Sueño delighted in speech and pushed the boundaries of knowing indicates her desire to project her voice into a public literary conversation. When her silence comes, it speaks volumes. What might this silence have to say to us about the nature of public speech and the nature of access to this speech? What can it show us about the way the absence of speech can itself be a mode of participation in public discourse? As the last significant poetic comment before she stopped writing, the sound of the Primero Sueño echoes into and conditions the silence that follows. The way speech and silence interacted in the public discourse of her time provides a jumping off point for reflection on similar dynamics in our own day.
The “End” of Sor Juana’s Speech?
The end of Sor Juana’s speech happened twice: once in silence and once in death. The prolific flow of poetry, drama, and prose ended abruptly in 1692 after a public theological exchange between herself and a (disguised) bishop. A host of political/ecclesiastical details provide a complex backdrop for the exchange, but at its base, it precipitates what amounts to a literary death. Whether the cessation of her writing paved the way for her physiological death is impossible to ascertain, but at the level of metaphor, a connection can be drawn. Which death, then, constitutes her “end?” At which “ending” does she cross the line separating worlds—when she crosses from speech into silence, or when her body crosses from animation into rest?
The end—at least the cessation of writing—is all the more remarkable in view of the outpouring of words that characterized Sor Juana’s writing. Her frequent commissions for public poetry, liturgical poetry, and drama gained her notoriety both in Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana’s baroque sensibility favored an abundance of words and a panoply of images knit together in an orderly but wildly allusive text. The poems gain tremendous momentum with the cascade of words and images; the force needed to resist this poetry would have to be substantial. There is, therefore, something deeply troubling in this end from a strictly literary standpoint—something unwell, as the stanching of a living (dis)course of water.
What’s more, the magnitude of this end is all the more clearly visible when we recognize the extent to which Sor Juana’s writing was often an intensely personal expression of her theological, religious, and philosophical desire. It is difficult to imagine that the desire ceased, and it is likewise difficult to imagine that Sor Juana finally acquiesced to the wishes of the church hierarchy. If the end of desire falls flat as a metaphor for her “first death”—the end of her writing—and the notion of acquiescence to ecclesiastical chastisement makes little sense in view of her lifelong tenacity, how can her silence be interpreted? What does the end mean in this particular personal, theological, and literary narrative? The answer may be found in her own work. The pattern of the Primero Sueño involves an intellectual ascent that revels in its freedom, but later incurs the natural “descent” or consequences of its daring. This pattern may suggest a key for interpreting both Sor Juana’s literary life and literary death. The end of the Sueño in silence, overwhelming light, and wakefulness illuminates the end of Sor Juana’s literary career, and, indeed, her physical life. The ends interpret each other.
The Primero Sueño
By her own report, Sor Juana cared for the Primero Sueño more than any of her other compositions. This is remarkable both in light of her voluminous oeuvre as well as her apparent delight in dramatic compositions (the loa to El Divino Narciso, for example). A possible reason for her preference for this long poem, however, is its apparent subject: the “act of knowing” or attempting to know. As an epistemological poem, the Sueño touches the content of Sor Juana’s most compelling desire, the “desear saber” that she easily traces back to her early childhood. Noted especially in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea (1691), this overwhelming urge to know and to learn was written into the story of her life at every turn. In spite of its compelling nature, however, the desear saber was frequently uncomfortable. The most obvious difficulties (later in life, rather than in childhood) are related to the dramatic 1691 exchange of letters, accusations, and defenses that many argue led to her final cessation of writing in or around 1692. Given the difficulties arising from the thirst for knowledge, we are not surprised to find in the Sueño a tendency to describe the dreamer’s epistemic journey in terms of “conflict, especially of light against dark, lucidity against obscurity and even obscurantism.” 
The Sueño begins, of course, with sleep. As is often the case, however, it takes time to fall asleep—in this poem, there is a sequence that simulates this “falling.” The first image we encounter in the poem is the image of night: the “Pyramidal, doleful, mournful shadow/born of earth.” In this instance, the darkness is related to an “attempt…to ascend.” This theme of thwarted ascent (toward knowledge) is not fully developed until later in the poem, but it is notable that it appears at the outset (4). The darkness is given weight by “mist” and “exhalation” (17, 18). It hovers over “a silent kingdom” in which “only muted voices could be heard” (20, 21). The opening picture, then, is utterly sensuous, and not a little ominous: the darkness is constituted not only by an absence of light, but is intensified by humidity as well as an aural heaviness which “mutes” and “muffles” (24) any sounds or voices.
Having set the poem into motion—or into stillness, rather—with these images of darkness and silence, Sor Juana begins to populate the (thus far) straightforwardly-sketched scene with characters from a variety of legendary sources. A “humiliated” bird appears in the heavy darkness—Nyctimene, the erstwhile daughter of Epopeus turned into an owl by the goddess Minerva—and is seen “lurk[ing]…at the chinks in sacred doors” (28). The sense is of a temple, though the building in which the owl “lurks” is not named or described in detail.
The owl begins alone, drinking the oil from the various lamps in the temple. Soon Nyctimene is joined by goddesses Diana and Minerva, and the trio commence a song—“a tuneless and appalling a cappella”—which is more “silences than sound” (57, 59). The strains of this “gloomy” music bring sleep, but by such a circuitous path that the poet uses lines 70 through 147 to describe its onset: “Sleep, in summary, now possessed all things, all things were now by silence overtaken” (170). Chronologically, the poem is now at “the darkest hour of the night,/shadow marking midpoint to the dawn”: it is midnight (151-152).
Sleep is compared to the image of death; particular attention is paid to the way in which death comes to those from high and low estate alike, with the poles represented by (among others) the Pope and a “lowly rustic in his hut of thatch” (183, 185). With these preliminaries satisfied, Sor Juana gives the “soul”—the central character of the poem from here on through—freedom to explore the dream. This freedom is imagined as freedom from “governing the senses,” or a sort of freedom from administrative duties (193, 197). The senses are “dead” in sleep, leaving the soul free of the responsibility of gathering and ordering input.
Various bodily organs receive attention and address before the soul’s journey is described. The heart, lungs, the tongue (silent, now), and the stomach, among others, are each considered in relation to the orderly functioning of the body. For Sor Juana, the heart is the “core of vital spirits,” while the lungs are “magnet[s]” that attract cool air and release it slightly warmer—the air “steals” a bit of bodily heat with each breath (210-225). This sequence is remarkable for its ability to illustrate the quality of the freedom which the soul is beginning to enjoy (and which will allow its upcoming journey)—the soul’s responsibilities, imaged through the organs’ functions, are myriad. A subtle undertone of neglect of responsibility, though, is impossible to ignore, and is perhaps vaguely autobiographical—her literary work eventually came into tension with her identity as a nun.
Throughout the description of these organs—preparatory to the soul’s release—Sor Juana continually invokes silence. The tongue is silent, and it is a silence of constraint—enmudecía,/con no poder hablar—there is no “power” for speech, to read the double entendre of poder. Likewise, the body’s “warmth” is the “silent indication” that life persists—otherwise, the sleeping figure is un cadáver con alma—a cadaver with a soul (200-205). Physical life is intimately close to physical death, and the soul’s freedom from integrating the work of the senses and the organs is a step yet closer to complete death. Significantly, then, as this portion of the poem develops, an image of life and death emerges which suggests a spectrum rather than a binary opposition. Wakefulness is at one pole of this spectrum, and complete death at the other. Between these exist sleep (an image of death, but attended by the soul) and dreaming sleep (an image of death, again, but with the soul demonstrating a sort of “independence” and agency). In light of Sor Juana’s two “deaths,” such an image provides a category for interpretation that might be lost if a purely “either/or” notion of “death/life” were applied to the end of her work and the end of her physical life. And though perhaps unavailable to Sor Juana in the confusion of her first (literary) death, readers seeking images to explore the vacuum of her final years can find a point of orientation in such a spectrum.
Now that the soul finds itself “transmuted into/beauteous essence and discarnate being,” its journey—so far much anticipated, but as yet not embarked upon—begins. The poet takes a final lyrical moment to hover over the soul’s freedom within the dream:
…free of all
that binds her, keeps her from liberty,
the corporeal chains
that vulgarly restrain and clumsily
impede the soaring intellect that now,
unchecked, measures the vastness of the Sphere…Sueño (297-302)
This freedom, however, immediately comes up against images of freedoms thwarted or rebuffed: alongside the massive twin pyramids that the soul begins to apprehend, we find images of “the mighty Titan, Atlas, [who] an elf became,” as well as “Mount Olympus,…humbled…” (310, 314-315). If other mythical ascents are any indication, this ascent will likewise be filled with risk.
For the course of the description of the two pyramids, Sor Juana continually returns to notions of the punishment that comes to those who overreach: simply gazing upon these pyramids has consequences. The “questing eye,/exhausted now, and overcome with awe” has made its way up the pyramids and finds itself completely overcome by the sight. In fact, the gaze down the pyramids makes the eye “dizzy,” and a sensation of pain (“punishment” in Peden’s translation) ensues—and all because the eye “ventured to give vision wings” (354-368). The twin pyramids—“artificial Mountains”—are subsequently joined by the image of the Tower of Babel and “dolorous signs of which today/(not ruins, but asymmetries of language/that a voracious time does not erase)” (412-417). The heights of the pyramids recall the height of Babel as well as the consequences of the aspirations which built it; the location of the punishment in language is particularly significant in the context of a verbal composition such as the Sueño. Thus the soul, free from the constraints of the body, reckons itself constrained by the pattern of ascent-and-punishment that it apprehends. The soul marvels at what it is able to see, but begins to feel fear:
[The soul] cast her gaze across all creation;
this vast aggregate,
this enigmatic whole,
although to sight seeming to signal
such clarity to comprehension,
which (bewildered by such rich profusion,
its power vanquished by such majesty)
with cowardice, withdrew.Sueño (445-453)
A “repentant vision” abandons its initial ambitions, deciding not to look into the sun, nor to aspire to the great heights that continue to attract and frighten the soul simultaneously. Adding further images of the negative consequences to her poem, Sor Juana invokes the image of the sun burning anything which comes to close to its heat, and recalls Icarus and his well-known plummet from his own ascent.
The poem proceeds to follow the soul in its dream of complete knowing. A variety of insights come, vast numbers of images are processed, but the soul remains frequently confounded by “awe” and “wonder,” as if the matters gazed upon do more to baffle it and overcome its faculties than they do to educate it. Gradually, the soul begins to question its aspirations, and in a series of powerful moments toward the end of the poem, the poet invokes images of daring and ambition ending in tragedy—the image of the glory-seeking sailor “rashly seek[ing] his doom/in order to immortalize his name” ends in an image of punishment again (800 & ff.). Again, silence operates in the post-ascent image: we find the wish that “the punishment were never known,/that the offense not be repeated;/rather, that prudent silence—judicious/statesman—muffle tidings of the consequence” (800-815). In an amazing parallel with Sor Juana’s own eventual punishment and silence, her poem here links the two, suggesting that the consequences of intellectual daring and risk-taking end with tragedy that must not be published. The silence, though, is not itself the punishment, but a strategy to avoid encouraging others to act in similarly ambitious ways. The poem says it best:
[N]ews of a compelling action is
its greatest danger,
as contagion spreads with every telling:
far better that the deed remain unsung
and not taught as admonition;
less heeded, less the chance of repetition. Sueño (821-826)
Autobiographical notes in the Sueño are difficult to overlook. Especially read in the knowledge that Sor Juana herself would be “punished” for daring to “give vision wings,” this poem—full of images of intellectual freedom and daring, yet fraught with the promise of its consequences—provides a hermeneutical key for reading Sor Juana’s first death.
The moment of composition of the Sueño, inevitably rooted in time, could never have anticipated the future—the end of utterances. From a modern reader’s temporal vantage point, however, the paradox begs to be investigated: how did a poet able to marshal veritable blizzards of words and images—exemplified in the Primero Sueño—revert to, enter into, succumb to, agree to…a nearly-four-year period of silence before her (physical) death? It is impossible to reconstruct this first death, and current theories tend toward psychological metaphors or images of fatigue or conversion (her own ostensible reason; Trueblood cites a 1693 document which claims that Sor Juana confesses her regret at “liv[ing] so many years without religion in a religious community.”)
Such images “work,” to be sure, but do they in any way improve on the trope which provides the structure for the Sueño? The notion that intellectual aspirations entail risk—invariably, based on Sor Juana’s images from the world of mythology and the Bible—is a sufficient metaphorical basis for reading Sor Juana’s literary and theological death. Her poem figures her life. A narrative of ascent, vision, and descent controls the Sueño and maps equally well her own life-long desear saber and eventual toppling from the mountain of her vision.
The Desire to Know
…el desear saber me le ha costado tan grande…
…the desire to know has cost me a great deal… Sor Juana, Respuesta a Sor Filotea
Sor Juana’s final literary and theological silence is particularly significant in light of her many autobiographical reports of her life-long and compulsive desire for “learning” and knowing. Her desire to know weathered the challenges presented by societal restrictions on her access to education and motivated her to pursue learning on her own. Church controversy around her writing later in her career was simply one among many difficulties she faced, and her desire to know endured even that. If not societal or Church-based resistance, then, what force could have led to her silence?
Sor Juana’s first death—the death of her writing, her poetic and theological utterances—is the end of an “inundation” of words, but cannot stand as the end of her intellectual life or her intellectual journey. It ends in silence, but it is the silence that comes with a risk knowingly taken. Like the soul in the Sueño, Sor Juana realizes the dangers of her aspirations, appreciates the cautionary tales such as Babel and Icarus strewn along the path of intellectual ascent, and plunges forward nonetheless. The silence at the close of her written career is the silence of one who has seen a vision compelling enough to make lesser struggles irrelevant. When the sun illuminates the world at the end of the Sueño, it is a “luz más cierta/…y yo despierta”: the poet is awake, the world is washed in “certain” light, and the senses are reconnected with the soul. The poem ends in silence, but the ambivalent vision that some discern in the close of the poem seems to me more vibrant in the shadow of Sor Juana’s final silence: she has fought for this illumination and the silence that accompanies it.
It remains true that the story of Sor Juana’s literary death is the story of ecclesiastical suppression of a non-conforming theological and poetic voice. The foregoing reading cannot escape the powerful political and sociological factors that brought Sor Juana to a sort of death-before-death, a preliminary end. Nevertheless, this reading of her Sueño alongside her “first end” allows an image of light to inhere in this otherwise dark period of nearly four years of silence before her physical death. The pattern of her Sueño is the pattern of her life, and its end is indeed silent—but it is also illuminated, awash in the rays of the sun that comes to face the one that had previously (precariously) sought to gaze into its too-intense light. The Sueño’s profusion of images, words, and ascents confounds the darkness of Sor Juana’s first death, making it less tragic and imbuing it with meaning. This meaning might otherwise be lost in any metaphor of fatigue, acquiescence, or capitulation. Sor Juana’s first death is “dreamed up” ahead of (or outside of) time—and death in a dream is a partial end, after all.
Silence as Speech
To compare Sor Juana’s silence with death suggests that it effectively ended her participation in public conversations. This is perhaps the sort of end that ecclesial authorities wished to enforce. Interestingly, however, Sor Juana’s final silence can also be seen as an amplified mode of participation in the public discourse of her time. The Primero Sueño stands as an example of the kind of “sound” that Sor Juana was capable of writing, but the attention given to her silence can also be seen as a form of participation. We cannot recover her intentions. Nor do we need to: silence is uniquely open to interpretation. It is not “blank,” though, since it is conditioned by the speech that precedes it: the political silence of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and the literary silence of J.D. Salinger speak because of what came before. Each of these cases implies a protest and a critique of the conversation—which is one way that Sor Juana’s silence is frequently interpreted. Participation in public discourse is frequently regulated and adjudicated through manipulation of access. In the absence of access (or in the refusal to accept access), however, pointed non-participation of otherwise strident voices can transcend the mechanisms of control. Whether intended in this way or not, Sor Juana’s silence has done precisely this.
Conversations change over time. Public discourse moves through its subjects and its interlocutors, and the vocabulary and categories shift in response. The vocabulary of Sor Juana’s time differs starkly from our own: while today theological conversation may be seen as specialized (and optional) discourse, during her life it was identical with discussions of power and politics. The Roman Catholic Church held massive temporal power—to say nothing of its spiritual power—and could change the political prospects of individuals and nation states in a way few institutions before or since have achieved. Thus theological conversation was political conversation. Those seeking rationale for wars, colonial expansion, and economic development all used theological vocabulary and categories to promote their interests. Access to theological discourse was access to the “halls of power.” In light of this, Sor Juana’s experience of literary death illustrates a dynamic of circumscription: the conversation is closed.
Still today this dynamic of circumscription finds expression throughout different modes of public discourse. Looking into history allows us to see it expressed in a particular way, but the dynamic is not peculiar to any historical moment. How public discourse is monitored and accessed continues to be charged with power dynamics and differentials.
Because of who she was and the power with which she wrote, though, even Sor Juana’s silence is a form of participation in the public conversation of her time. Beyond the categories of speaking and participating in public discourse exists the category of participative silence. The silence of a previously prolific writer is itself a comment on public discourse and an “entry” into the conversation. The silence of the perpetually silent is not typically noticed—but the silence (and the silencing) of an otherwise enthusiastically engaged voice is, ironically, as strong a comment as any that may be verbally expressed. Her silence was noted. The absence of her voice was obvious. We have seen in Sor Juana’s Primero Sueño a tremendous ability to use words to explore the imagination and very essence of what it means to know and to speak. When she stops (or is stopped), the silence speaks.
Not every silence is as evocative as Sor Juana’s was. Sor Juana was able to build an amazing obra before her poetry ceased, and this sound adds dimension to the silence that follows. Some silence is reticence, some is fear, some is the voicelessness of the oppressed. It is instructive to see how Sor Juana’s silence functions in the public discourse of her time—and it leads to questions about such discourse in our contemporary context. What does the silence of the previously prolific voice indicate? Why do so many who could speak choose to withhold speech—as in the low voter turnout which has become axiomatic in American political life? Finally, how can we discern among silences—which are enforced, which are based in fear or reticence—and which silences speak more eloquently than speech itself? With Sor Juana’s Primero Sueño and silence in view, such questions find enhanced clarity and importance. The health of our public discourse reflects the health of the common good, and a mere proliferation of voices is not necessarily vital. Words abound. But how do we include and attend to the silences?
The Rev. Rich Frontjes serves as Priest in Charge of La Iglesia Episcopal del Redentor/The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Elgin, Illinois. He holds a Ph.D. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he serves occasionally as Auxiliary Faculty in History.
 Sor Juana’s initial commissions and audience were within the Church—she wrote small pieces to be performed during calculated pauses in the Mass. She also participated in the circulation of the literature that characterized courtly life in Spain’s viceroyalty in Mexico City—letters, clever poetry, and other short pieces. Eventually, however, her work in other genres—especially drama and poems written for public events—gained her a large following in Spain and Mexico. When she began writing theological material later in her career, she experienced stern pushback from Church authorities, and her last writings are polemical.
 After Sor Juana offered a critique of a sermon of the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio Vieira, her bishop used the pen name of a purported sister nun—“Sor Filotea”—and wrote her a public letter admonishing her against interfering in public Church matters. Sor Juana’s eventual response to this so-called “Carta Atenagórica” was her “Respuesta a Sor Filotea,” in which she defended her right to participate in theological discourse. Not all scholars associate the end of Sor Juana’s writing with this exchange, though major interpreters such as Octavio Paz, Pamela Kirk Rappaport, and Margaret Sayers Peden all see the two realities as causally related to some degree. My own assumption is that the exchange and subsequent admonishment from within the church hierarchy substantially caused Sor Juana to stop writing, though the attitude which underlay this change—defiant, cowed, or otherwise—cannot be recovered.
 Sor Juana’s recounting of her own story in the Respuesta a Sor Filotea details how from a young age she was aware of her “nature” or charism for reading and learning, describing in detail how she cut her hair in order to sneak into a class, avoided cheese for fear that it would dull her intellect, and begged to be sent to universities for more education. She learned to read very young (age 3) and continued this pattern of self-motivated and self-directed study throughout her life, and she also at a fairly early age she realized that to continue being truly herself—i.e., dedicating herself to her reading, writing, and learning—she would need to “avoid” marriage and enter the convent.
 Trueblood, 21-22.
 The close reading of the poem which follows will use a facing-pages bilingual text, with the English translation provided by Margaret Sayers Peden in the Penguin Classics edition (1997). This version has printed line numbers as well as the advantage of facing pages, though is occasionally idiosyncratic. Among the standard English translations I consulted are those by Alan S. Trueblood (1988) and Pamela Kirk Rappaport (2005).
 Parenthetical references throughout the reading are to line numbers.
 Spanish Baroque poetry is characterized by its delight in ornamentation and its ability to appropriate symbols and signs from widely disparate cultures and epochs. This type of poetry is also marked by an “encoded” knowledge. Carefully wrought conceits and tropes engage the reader in a game of allusion and incorporation of unexpected myths and legends.
 The reference to Nyctimene comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, one of Sor Juana’s favorite sources. Among other things, the Metamorphosis is characterized by a preference for grotesque physical description which is mirrored in her own baroque sensibilities.
 Sor Juana’s use of this Aristotelian trope comes to her via Thomas, according to Alan Trueblood: “…the interaction of sense, mind, and spirit [uses] terms and concepts passed down to Saint Thomas from Aristotle and Galen,” Trueblood, Anthology, 23.
 Trueblood, Anthology, 10.
 Sor Juana habitually uses the term “to know” (Spanish “saber”), though most translations into English (Trueblood included) uses the somewhat innocuous “wanting to learn” to translate “el desear saber”—“the desire to know.” “Knowing” (saber) is likewise translated as “learning.” Such a translation seems to lose both the urgency connoted by “desire” as well as the epistemological resonance carried by “knowing.”
 Initially, Sor Juana’s silence was enforced through her confessor and bishop, and was noted primarily as a form of repentance. Later readers, however, have reinterpreted the silencing process, and Octavio Paz indicates the way that silence functions in the ongoing process of reading Sor Juana’s works: “When we read Sor Juana, we must recognize the silence surrounding her words. That silence in not absence of meaning… Her speech leads us to what cannot be said, what cannot be said to an orthodoxy…” (Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, or, the Traps of Faith, Margaret Sayers Peden, trans. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.)
(Image: Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz painted in 1772 by Andrés de Islas.)