Back in 2003 in That London’s Mexico Gallery on Fleet Road, I helped to curate an exhibition for el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). I even contributed some work and wrote the catalogue, which you can see by clicking here.
One feature of the show was a set of ofrendas or shrines to the departed, in which we honoured two famous Hampstead residents, Sylvia Pankhurst and Dorothy Hodgkin, plus two great Mexicans. One of these was the county’s only indigenous President, Benito Juárez and the other was a remarkable writer, poet, dramatist and theologian — and nun — Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 – 1695).
Here’s what I wrote at the time.
We often hear of Renaissance men but how much more difficult to be a Renaissance woman, especially for an illegitimate child in a time when women are denied access to education. Juana de Adbaje was sent to live with relatives in Mexico City at the age of ten. She showed such precocious talent in writing witty Latin verse that she attracted the attention of the Viceroy and Vicereine and went to live at court for five years as a lady-in-waiting.
But even for a highly respected young intellectual, the road to further education was closed off on account of her sex. It is possibly for this reason (and her antipathy to the subservient role of a wife) that she took holy orders with the Barefoot Carmelites, which gave her the opportunity to continue her studies in science and music as well as writing in Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl.
The owner of a personal library numbering some 4,000 volumes, Sor Juana also hosted a literary salon at the convent. She avoided theological writing until 1690 when a private letter of criticism to a Jesuit priest was made public, leading to an admonishment from the Bishop. Her Reply is a brilliant defence of women’s rights to education but the church hierarchy was obdurate and powerful and much of her collection of books and scientific instruments was confiscated.
She never wrote for publication again.
I have also heard it said that neither holy orders nor the conventions of heterosexuality prevented her from having a passionate and varied love life, adding extra meaning to her epithet of the Mexican Sappho. But this may or may not be real news and you didn’t hear it from me.
But it is true that her famous critical letter, which got her into such hot water, was a defence of the rights of women to a full education equal to that of men. And her most famous poem, Hombres Necios (Silly or Stupid Men), is also on the subject of male privilege and sexual double standards — very much a #metoo of its day — and ours.
In 2003 I translated the first four verses for the catalogue. And last week, as part of my project to script a show called Lust in Translation, I made a stab at the whole thing. It was great fun (ie bloody difficult) to stick to her ABBA rhyme scheme, while being relatively fluid with the metre from one verse to another (as she is).
I hope it works, and captures the angry but witty diatribe of the original. Read it and ask yourself how much has (or rather hasn’t) changed in 350 years …
You brainless men, who all condemn
poor women by your rigid laws,
can you not see that you’re the cause
of ev’rything you blame in them?
If, playing out your stupid game,
their disdain you keenly seek,
why expect them to be meek,
once you’ve coaxed them into shame?
Their resistance down you beat
and then maintain with gravity
that it was naught but levity
that gave you reason to entreat.
Oh, what a brave and noble sight
we see, when Man his logic takes
and with his hands a monster makes —
and then recoils in childish fright!
you’d have the woman you would wrong
a harlot while the chase is on
but then, once caught, a penitent
What attitude could be more queer
and suited to a pompous ass —
to be the one who clouds the glass,
and then complains it isn’t clear?
Will nothing leave you satisfied:
neither favour nor disdain?
Rebuffed, you whiningly complain,
you sneer if you’ve been gratified
A woman’s stymied from the start
be she demure, polite, devout —
‘ungrateful’ if she kicks you out,
she sleeps with you and she’s a ‘tart’
Your double standards you apply —
the unjust judgements of the fool;
while half you blame for being cruel,
the rest as ‘easy’ you decry
So how to balance love and lust
in your ideal lady-friend,
if the ones that reject you offend
and the ones who are willing disgust?
For between all the ire and unease
with which your frustration afflicts you,
blessed be the one who rejects you —
and you can go whine all you please
Wings are lent by your complaints
to every woman’s liberty,
yet once you’ve set their passions free
you want to find them very saints!
Where lies the greatest guilt of all
in such immoral passion —
the one who falls from coercion
or the one who coerces her fall?
And who should Hell most welcome in
(though both should be deeply abashed),
the woman who sins for the cash,
or the man who pays cash for the sin?
So why does your guilt, oh so dire,
make all of you men so afraid?
Either love us as what you have made
or make of us what you desire
You’d find you have much better cause,
if you’d give up your stupid chase,
should you want to build up a strong case
against she who for your love implores
Oh, I see just how smugly you revel
in your arsenal of libertine’s arms,
but combined in your pleas and your charms
are the World, and the Flesh and the Devil!
Dai Lowe, April 2019