"Our history," writes Octavio Paz, "has been a discontinuous process of fits and starts: at times a dance, at others a lethargy interrupted by a sudden violent awakening.
"Again and again we Spanish and Spanish-Americans rub our eyes and ask: What time is it in world history? Our time never coincides with other times. We are always either ahead or behind."
Paz, a Mexican poet and philosopher of culture, wears a unique, precious and no doubt burdensome mantle. It is a hereditary mantle, passed along. It has been worn in different times, in different sizes and to different effects, by Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Salvador de Madariaga and Damaso Alonso. It belongs to the expounder of the Hispanic Soul to the West.
To the West? Aren't Spain and Spanish America part of the West? Yes, of course; and no, despite everything.
That is what Paz, whose mantle size is Large, was just saying. Spain has been, to European and Anglo-American history and culture, something of what Ireland has been to England alone: Integrally, fertilely and disastrously joined, yet apart.
"Sor Juana" is, ostensibly, the biography of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. She was a 17th-Century Mexican nun who won the admiration and, in part, the censure of her times for her authorship of polished and worldly poetry. It was written in high Baroque style, and it touched mainly upon courtly, amorous and philosophical themes.
"Ostensibly" is not a reflection upon the quality or seriousness of Paz's massive book. He is passionately concerned with his subject. He admires her and her poetry. He is her paladin; he rejoices in the triumph of her rational, modern mind--so goes his vision--at work in an anachronistic, church-dominated society. He rages at the repression that forced her, at the end of her life, to renounce her gifts and beliefs in favor of a show of orthodox piety.
But it is fair to say that "Sor Juana" is less the result of Paz's seeing his subject, than of what he sees in her. The book is a paradox.
There is relatively little biographical material available about Sor Juana. Paz uses "must have" and "would have" so frequently that the reader develops sympathetic neck-ache contemplating the iron collar-grip with which the author lifts himself 3 feet in the air.
In his championship of her poetry, there is likewise some airy treading going on. Sor Juana was a master of the knotty Baroque conventions of Spanish poetry. She was a limpid versifier, and, amid the difficult and deftly handled conventions, there are flashes of individual wit, pain and defiance.
Paz, whose poetic analysis is brilliant and exhaustive, gets the fullest possible value out of Sor Juana's work. It is enormously important to him, for reasons that we will see, but he does not quite assert major status for her.
"She rivals her masters--Quevedo and Lope--but does not exceed them," is his highest claim. Or it sounds high, until you reflect: In their entirely different ways, both Quevedo and Lope de Vega were monstrous exceeders; so were Gongora and St. John of the Cross; and Calderon, Fray Luis de Leon and St. Teresa of Avila were at least exceeders, if not quite monstrous.
And so there are moments, particularly at the start, when the reader may wonder why more than 500 pages of detail and digression are being devoted to a middle-ranking if not quite minor Spanish poet whose intimate life is only a little better than indiscernible.
As I have said, Paz does wonderful things with her poetry--particularly his extraordinary analysis of her long metaphysical poem, "First Dream"--and his passion for her life often brings her to life out of the "must haves."
But the point of the book, and what makes it important and exciting, is the passion itself. In Sor Juana's out-of-sequence figure--an 18th-Century mind at work in the 17th Century in a Spanish-American society reminiscent of the 15th Century--Paz finds his theme of the Spanish clock that strikes simultaneously ahead and behind its time.
Sor Juana was brought up in the household of her stepfather, a modest landholder. From childhood, she was bright and independent--she avoided eating cheese because she thought it made one stupid--and a voracious reader in her grandfather's library. At 15, she was taken into the entourage of the vicereine. After several years, during which her beauty, wit and poetic talent made a strong impression on the viceregal court, she joined the Hieronymite Order of nuns.
Paz makes it clear that, for a young woman with neither the inclination for marriage nor any good prospects for it, the convent meant both security and independence. The Hieronymites were an easygoing order; and Sor Juana was free to write secular poetry, amass a library, keep servants and hold regular intellectual salons.