PENELOPE AND THE MINYADES: MYTHOLOGEMES AND A RHIZOME FOR WOMEN'S TEXT(ILE)S AS WOMEN'S WORK IN THE LYRIC VOICE OF JUANA INES DE LA CRUZ.
Sebastian de Oovarrubias y Orozco, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o Espanola (1611)
The trope of the weaver has been amply explored as a figure in and of women's writing. Ever since Caryln Heilbrun famously argued that Penelope is the paragon of the plotless woman, who writes herself only to unweave herself, bound as she is to the marriage plot, the search for another figure for women's writing was set in motion. Both Clayton and Miller, in their return to the classical sources of these mythologemes for writing women, have elevated Arachne and Athena as alternative figures for women's creativity. In studies of Juana Ines de la Cruz's construction of her lyric voice, pioneering work by Bergmann and others have affirmed the paradoxical agency of Juana Ines's affirmation through effacement strategy a la Penelope, while Merrim has responded to Heilbrun's famous call to women to turn from the marriage to the heroic plot by tracing the "heroic" possibilities of Hispanic women's writings in the early modern period, including the turn to convent life, that were "narratable in a patriarchal world" (108). Similarly, Franco's reading of Primero sueno (c. 1688) and La respuesta de la poetisa a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (1691) explored the transgressive figures employed as metaphors in the poem--Nyctimine, the Minyades, phaeton, Icarus, among others--for the striving of the (female) subject for knowledge, despite the various limits placed on the epistemic quest. By no means an exhaustive review of the literature of weaving and transgressive figures in the poetry of Juana Ines de la Cruz, these brief references will, I hope, point my reader to authorities of greater note on the work of Juana Ines and how she may have related to a larger body of mythologemes for transgression.
As my own contribution to this volume on Juana Ines de la Cruz's minor forms of writing, I would like to think through weaving figures with her and about her, as alternatives to the mythologeme of Penelope, or the exceptional Arachne or Athena. The Minyades, the sisters who disobey Dionysius in the fourth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses so that they may do the work of Athena and tell one another stories, fit the bill. For their transgressive labor--they continue to work on the god's feast day--their house and their weaving are transformed into a vineyard, and creeping vines, for "coepere virescere telaeinque hederae faciem pendens frondescere vestis; / pars abit in vites, et quae modo fila fuerunt, palmite mutantur; de stamine pampinus exit; / purpura fulgorem pictis adcommodat uvis" (the weaving all turned green, the hanging cloth / Grew leaves of ivy, part became a vine, / What had been threads formed tendrils, from the warp / Broad leaves unfurled, bunches of grapes were seen, / Matching the purple with their colored sheen) (Metamorphoses IV. 396-99). in this scene of divine retribution, their work and their home bear fruit otherwise, as the primary source of intoxication for the Dionysian feast. The sisters themselves are transformed into bats who "haunt houses not woods," so that they are separated from their original home, now terroir for the god they had scorned, in a form of self-imposed exile (IV. 414).
In the opening night sequence of the Primero sueno, the poetic voice refers to the Minyades in an extended narrative metaphor for bats inhabiting the higher reaches in the space whence the poetic voice speaks (vv. 39-52). A mere episode, but ten lines, give or take, in her longest poem, which is 975 verses long, these verses serve as a rhizome, in the sense employed by Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus 9-47), for proliferating, boisterous storytelling by women in a narrative poem otherwise characterized as a silent quest by a solitary, poetic voice whose gender is not revealed until the poem's famous last line: "el mundo iluminado y yo despierta." indeed, the very presence of the poetic subject in the poem has been questioned, though Perelmuter's tracing of deictic markers throughout the text point to an origo or point of origin for that voice. Elsewhere, I have followed a similar methodology to trace Juana Ines's subjectivity in her portraiture poems, arguing that her gestures toward the epideictic in these lyric poems opens a space for the neuter, or ternary logic, in a genre dominated by male subjectivity. Here, I explore the possibilities of a minor reading of the Primero sueno with an eye to plotting the reproductive surface of her poetics beyond the poetic voice's presence or absence in the poem. If, as Fiol-Matta has argued, the reunion of body and soul in the poem is signified melancholically through its use of the first-person singular and feminine markers in the last verse of the Primero sueno, the Minyades and their joyous transgression offer an alternative point of entry into the poem's silvas, whose meter, as has been widely commented, alludes to wild forest growths. My "minor" reading of the Minyades' weaving of fables in the Primero Sueno burrows into a metaphor for a laborious collective of women that both breaks with and reinforces the silence in the poem as well as prefiguring Juana Ines's yearning for an academic community as sisterhood, one that will be construed within the strictures of obedience and modesty by the very public nature of her later Respuesta.
In the Primero sueno, the creeping vines of the Minyades' weaving recall the metaphors for the concept of the rhizome employed by Deleuze and Guattari, which, per Brinkley, "resemble crabgrass, a bewildering multiplicity of stems and roots which can cross at any point to form a variety of possible connections" (14). The genealogy of the grape vine and the rhizome of the creeping vine compete until the weeds encroach the (Theban) terroir, the place of origin. A similar dynamic informs Sebastian de covarrubias's entry for hablar, which serves as an epigraph to this piece. As noted by covarrubias, hablar shares the same root as fabulare, to tell stories. In his entry, speech as fable seems to overrun the boundaries of definition and categorization, as sayings on the act of saying generate others, including: warnings on public speech, sayings that value silence over speech, and the difference between fable and a lie, which seems to hinge on the use of the diminutive (habla vs. hablilla). To speak in fables, hablar in the Spanish shared across the Atlantic and a century by covarrubias and Juana Ines, suggests multiple entry points for the unruliness of a minor literature: perhaps not Kafka's castle with many entrances, but a convent with many grates, passageways, even windows.
Minor literatures, according to Deleuze and Guattari, show three characteristics in their capacity for multiplying lines of flight: the deterritorialization of the language, the connection of the individual and the political, and the collective arrangement of utterance (What is a Minor Literature? 18). As Martinez-San Miguel has argued, these conditions are met in the Respuesta and "Cuando, numenes divinos" by Juana Ines de la Cruz. By analyzing "Cuando, numenes divinos" (Romance 51) as part of a larger strategy of colonial subjects to avoid a dialogue with representatives of hegemonic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, Martinez-San Miguel's "minor" readings of colonial Latin American discourse include a foray into the place of silence in the lyric voice of Juana Ines (From Lack to Excess 142-45; 164-84). As for the Metamorphoses, Ovid's contestatory relationship with the linear narrative of Virgil's Aeneid and its imperial ideology has been amply discussed by scholars of the classics (Quint 140). In this sense, it could be understood as a "minor" epic by the poet, who lived the latter part of his life in exile from Rome. in this episode of the fourth book of the Metamorphoses, which concerns this paper, the color purple takes on many hues, figurative and ideological. The three sisters, now transformed into bats with "purple parchment" wings, reflect both the color associated with the Dionysian rites, but also the purple of imperial Rome. Deterritorialized, the Minyades don't haunt their original home turned wild vineyard, but flit, instead, in others' homes, haunting the high places beyond reach.
While underscoring the authority of women's voices as a collective in the telling of foundational fables, their presence in the Primero Sueno creates discordance in a poem otherwise marked by silence and singularity. Unlike the other transgressive figures analyzed by Franco for Primero sueno, the Minyades are the only fabulists, a group of sisters, and a boisterous collective at that. One need only remember Juana Ines de la Cruz's complaints about her sisters' strident voices in the cloister, as an impediment to her solitary writing and studies, to note the cognitive dissonance in the imagery of the first section of the Primero sueno, which as many other commentators have noted before me, emphasizes both the silence, solitude and darkness of nightfall in the chamber evoked by the poetic voice. The extended allusion to the rowdy Minyades suggest a sisterhood of defiant storytellers, whose complicity in shared codes and transgression has contributed to a body of fable. In the Metamorphoses, these three sisters gave voice to the tale of pyramus and Thisbe (IV. 55-166), the triangle of desire between the Sun, Leucothoe, and Clytie (IV. 170-284), and the origin story for "bi-sexed" Hermaphroditus (IV. 285-388). Their different stories, per the poetic voice of the Primero Sueno, are the product of women's work, that of three "oficiosas [...] hermanas" (vv. 41-47).
The Primero sueno (c.1588) predates the Respuesta (1591), in which Juana Ines refers to the former as a papelillo, a diminutive work, in a moment of false humility. She describes it in material terms, not as an ambitious poem, but as a bit of paper. This papelillo, nonetheless, is the only one, she assures Bishop Fernandez Santacruz, written "por mi gusto," that is, by choice or pleasure (96). There are few activities done por gusto in the convent, at least not any she is willing to account for in this very public letter to Fernandez Santacruz, and the everyday interactions with her fellow sisters are not counted among them. At the same time, though in the Respuesta Juana Ines laments the interruptions to her studies and writing brought on by convent life, she also yearns for a community of (women) scholars beyond her "tintero insensible" (58). The impediments to her inclinations include: the singing and playing of instruments in a neighboring cell while she is reading in her own quarters, two servants asking her to resolve a quarrel while she is studying, or her obligation to entertain a friend when she would be writing otherwise. In all these examples, her solitary moments of otium are interrupted by the bodily or sonorous incursions of sisters from a place "outside" into her cell. In the Respuesta, she makes it quite clear that she cannot complain about these interruptions because they interfere only with her leisure time, "los ratos que destino a mi estudio son los que sobran de lo regular de la comunidad," which coincides with the leisure time of her fellow sisters (58). They break her precious silence, precious because it is the only time she is at leisure, which she can dedicate to her (true) vocation. Solitary vocation and leisure are, thus, opposed to collective work in the service of God, the busyness of the convent's livelihood.
However, in the Primero sueno, the lengthy description accorded to the disobedient sisters/ bats offers a line of flight, with a brief, sonorous vision of collective, women's authorship that is at odds with the allusions to the solitary male or female figures of 'failed' transgressions invoked throughout the poem. At the same time, its brief nod to fabulous women--in the sense of women brimming with fables--and framed-tale structures, offers a counterpoint to the heroic, though incomplete quests for knowledge, either in the Neoplatonist vein, or in the Neo-Aristotelian categories which dominate the dream sequence. The sisterhood of the Minyades will not figure in the later Respuesta either; they cannot serve as an exemplum of feminine decorum and erudition that characterize the litany of learned women, given as evidence in the very public Respuesta. They have no business there for they could not serve as figures for obedient sisters, nor may they represent Juana Ines's (at times, irritating) sisters when they are at their leisure in the convent. The Minyades, as Juana Ines described them in her papelillo are "oficiosas" and "inobedientes" (vv. 41-47), insubordinate busybodies who do not fit within the neg/otium of women's life in a Mexican convent toward the end of the seventeenth century. They are the stuff of fantasy and fable.
In the shadows of night in the Primero sueno, metaphors and figures gain a material presence. For the initiated reader, the process of visualizing the scene described is similar to Penelope's weaving at her loom. The text's allusions to figures of myth, the violent hyperbaton of the poetic syntax all must be unraveled in order to comprehend the prosaic scene at hand: there are three bats in the highest reaches of the space shared with the poetic voice. The poem then invites the reader to participate in the re-weaving of the original scene, much like the work performed by myth and fable that seeks to explain the world such as it is with an origin story, often of a singular transgression. in narrating how the world that is came to be, the poem makes a contrast in sotto voce, to the world that could have been, and involves the initiated reader in the poeisis of proliferating crabgrass as alternative (her)stories:
Y aquellas que su casa campo vieron volver, sus telas hierba, a la deidad de Baco inobedientes --ya no historias contando diferentes, en forma si afrentosa transformadassegunda forman niebla, ser vistas aun temiendo en la tiniebla, aves sin pluma aladas: aquellas tres oficiosas, digo, atrevidas hermanas, que el tremendo castigo de desnudas les dio pardas membranas alas tan mal dispuestas que escarnio son aun de las mas funestas (vv. 39-52)
The evocation of the three "oficiosas, digo, / atrevidas hermanas" recalls the moment prior to the sisters' punishment, their transformation. The poetic voice makes (her)self present at the end of the line, precisely at the moment of correction or of emphasis. The "digo" breaks the concatenation of adjectives so that we could interpret the sisters as "oficiosas" and "atrevidas"; alternatively, they could be finally judged as "atrevidas" instead of "oficiosas." Yet such a choice would imply an opposition between the two terms. The terms themselves, however, are shrouded in indeterminacy. Atrevida could be understood as adventurous or showing temerity; covarrubias gives the example of a Jew attempting to sleep with a Christian as a "grande atrevanca" under his entry for atrevido, first described as the person who acts without considering the consequences (201). It is not clear, therefore, if the atrevido is so considered because his actions transgress social mores or because he does so despite the (well-known) punishments that will be inflicted on him for performing such transgressions.
A similar ambivalence is heard in Juana Ines's oficiosa, which the 1737 Autoridades considers applicable "a la persona que es hacendosa y solicita en executar lo que esta a su cuidado" (23,1), but in the Tesoro of Covarrubias an "oficioso" is described as "amigo de dar a todos contento," closer to 'solicitous' in the sense of eager or anxious to please (1134). Are the three sisters hardworking or servile in the Primero sueno? They are disobedient, but disobedient only to Bacchus (or Dionysus); from the Metamorphoses we know that the three sisters were disobedient to him, because they chose to stay home to work for Athena while the other women of Thebes attend the festivities for the male god. The Minyades' storytelling accompanies the work they do por gusto to "utile opus manuum vario sermone levemus / perque vices aliquid, quod tempora longa videri / non sinat, in medium vacuas referamus ad aures!" (lighten our useful toil with talk, and tell / some tale in turn to while the tedious hours / away and give delight to idle ears) (IV. 37-39). In the Primero sueno, instead, the sisters are portrayed with no choice between deities, male or female; there is only Bacchus to be disobeyed. caught between a rock and a hard place, with temerity and solicitousness, they went to work and were punished for their transgression.
The similarities between Juana Ines and the three sisters must have been patent to her, as Amador Adam has argued: a fabulist who ignores religious authority in order to complete her work, they are reduced "de las luces palaciegas a una existencia obscura" (Amador Adam 119). The differences, between the mythical times of Thebes, in which the sisters had a choice to disobey one (male) god in order to follow another (goddess), and late seventeenth-century Mexico must have been salient to her as well. So, too, her choice of punishment for the Minyades speaks volumes, in that it offers a twist on the Dionysian trope of grape and twirling vines. Unlike Ovid's Minyades, their home is not turned into grape vines but "hierba," grass or weeds. They escape the fate of producing wine for the god they had rejected, but are subject, nonetheless, to escarnio or scorn that they embody in their "alas tan mal dispuestas." It is a minor revision to Ovid, but one suggesting, as Kirk has contended, that "with her representation of female suffering Sor Juana offers no outright challenge to patriarchal myths, but instead stealthily reworks powerful cultural symbols on her own terms" (46). And yet Juana Ines's reworking of Ovid, the turn to (crab)grass from vineyard, does not seem overly solicitous, as it denies the wrathful god the pleasure of spoliation of the sisters' former home to fuel his adoration by his devotees in his rites. From grape to wine, the former house and text feeds the god and his followers, part of the cycle of reproduction in the original myth.
From house to (crab)grass, the domestic space becomes sylvan in the papelillo by Juana Ines, and seems to escape the binary logic of fertility cult or barren convent. Hierba (mala) no muere, so the saying goes. The escarnio (scorn) lives on as well in the "oficiosas hermanas" as bats; their very wings, "pardas membranas" and "mal dispuestas" are what remains from their forced transformation, into pained, whittled down remnants of their former being. The term pops up again in the Respuesta in the section where Juana Ines implicitly compares the ill-begotten attention heaped on her person, by the publication of the Carta atenagorica (1690), with the scourging of Christ, asking " No basta que, como las demas insignias, fuese de escarnio e ignominia, pues ese era el fin?" (66). The escarnio of Christ with the crown of thorns, which physically gouges his face at his temples, the seat of his wisdom, is accompanied by the humiliation of being forced to wear the imperial purple, the garb of royalty draped ironically on the person who is, truly, the king of kings. Francisco Rosal, the lesser known Andalusian lexicographer and medical doctor, and contemporary of Covarrubias, who connected body and language in his dictionary entries, speaks of escarnio as a flaying of the subject, "como descarnar que es despedazar o hacer carne ... el escarnio burla o mofa. Tambien decimos roer [...] porque como el murmurar es quitar lo que adorna al otro, y sin ella queda feo, corresponde la metafora" (Origen y etimologia de todos los vocablos 146). When escarnio becomes both the end and the means, the whittling down of the subject to her bare ugliness, the threads of moral(e) fibers exposed, so too does the body unravel, though perhaps not the body of fable and its collective of fabulous women.
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|Author:||Legnani, Nicole D.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2018|
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