Poet of the Infinite: Tutor Obed Lira (SF10) Leads Faculty Seminar on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Considered by many to be the first major poet of the Americas, Sor Juana’s work spanned academic disciplines while breaking social boundaries.

May 30, 2023 | By Jennifer Levin

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

In her early twenties, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) chose convent life over marriage. Being a nun in the Catholic Church of New Spain (present-day Mexico) came with a room of her own and time to follow her interests in literature, philosophy, music, and science. She read widely and wrote intricate poetry that blended her wide-ranging interests.

“It’s been argued that she might be the first major poet of the Americas, of the hemisphere,” says Obed Lira (SF10), a colonial Latin American literature scholar and first-year tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. “She was, and still is, read and respected in most of the Western world. Her reach is admirable and unusual: published in Spain during her lifetime, read by contemporaries in Europe but also by Peruvians, Brazilians. She had a correspondence across the globe.”

In March, Lira led a faculty seminar on Sor Juana, who tends to be a polarizing figure in academic circles. Progressive critics emphasize her writing’s eroticism, gender-bending, and other subversive qualities, highlighting her proto-feminist inklings. Others might look past such factors to focus solely on her interest in philosophy and science. Lira says both approaches are necessary to understand Mexico’s most famous literary nun.

“I think the confusion arises when people think she’s just great because she did this as a woman in a period where that was unusual,” he says. “And that’s part of her greatness—you cannot overlook it—but she engages directly, and originally, with the canon and thereby places herself in it. The whole world has caught up.”

Lira earned his master’s and doctorate in Romance Languages & Literatures from Harvard University and taught at Bucknell University from 2017 to 2022. While at Bucknell, he published a scholarly article, “Cloistered infinity: Sor Juana and the metaphor of the infinite sphere,” in Colonial Latin American Review; served as a research affiliate in Stanford University’s Poetic Media Lab; and published a book of Spanish-language poetry, Una Lengua Al Borde. But he didn’t enjoy the world of elite academia as much as he’d anticipated. During the pandemic, he reconsidered his future. Poised to leave the academy entirely, he applied for a position at St. John’s, hoping to return to a community of motivated, serious students—and an institution committed to diversifying the seminar table.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Lira grew up primarily in Juarez, Mexico, and didn’t speak English until he was 15 years old. When he came to St. John’s as a transfer student at age 21, he was still quite new to English. Few people on campus spoke Spanish, but Lira felt at home in the Southwestern setting. “When I was an undergraduate, I was one of the few Mexican students at the college,” he says. “It’s not like that anymore, and there is much more academic support for students. I’m amazed at my students who do the work well, at their maturity and dedication.”

Sor Juana’s major poem, Primero Sueño (“First Dream”), is about the soul’s journey in pursuit of absolute knowledge, Lira explains. She muses on humanity’s intellectual capacity in a gongorismo-style silva, alternating eleven and seven-syllable lines using the ornate and obscure language and assonant rhyme scheme originated by Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), the most famous poet of Spain’s Golden Age.

“This is extremely difficult. The Sueño is about 1,000 verses,” Lira says. “The beginning of the poem describes how the body goes into the process of sleep. She talks about all these bodily organs, drawing from the science of the time, laying out in poetic detail how the anatomical processes work. Hers is a scientific and encyclopedic mind, but the poem is memorable in the way it frames the soul’s failure to reach absolute knowledge. She talks about the soul ascending in a neo-Platonic sense, trying to know by means of an intuitive vision and failing, and then trying an Aristotelian and scholastic method only to fail again. The soul asks, what do we do now?

“Sor Juana then evokes the figure of Phaethon, the son of Helios, who takes his father’s chariot against his warnings—a daring figure that inspires the soul to keep searching for knowledge, even if failure is inevitable, and even if you are forbidden to pursue it. And then the poem ends abruptly; her body, which she takes care to highlight as a female body, wakes up.”

The poem’s complexity required concerted work by everyone in the faculty seminar, says college tutor Philip Bartok, who taught Lira as an undergraduate in Santa Fe. “Obed and other Spanish speakers in the room were helpful in unpacking some of the subtleties of the Spanish verse,” he says. “The more poetically minded tutors in the room did excellent work in exploring the overall form and narrative structures of the poem.”

Bartok was especially drawn to the philosophical and theological frameworks Sor Juana used to convey the parts of her dream, such as “the passage from sleep to dream as a quieting of the body and a passage through the levels of the Aristotelian soul.” But he left the faculty seminar most intrigued by the speaker’s status, “not as a ‘one’ or a ‘he,’ but as a ‘she’ … wondering [if] Sor Juana was presenting the restraints on knowing in the poem as uniquely feminine, whether self-imposed or imposed from without.”

Santa Fe assistant dean Maggie McGuinness says that the Sueño responds to the same tradition St. John’s students respond to in their classes: “She’s clearly moved by the questions that we read in Aristotle, Aquinas, and others. She’s also moved by a similar ability to see some gaps that our students bring to the readings as well, in a way that’s not about being an opponent of the tradition. She sees a place where a thinker can move further, but with the same questions and desires that this tradition is beginning from.”

Lira and McGuinness consider Sor Juana’s identity important to her writings because she overcame political, social, and economic barriers to become a learned woman. Ultimately, the church punished her for being so brazen. “She wrote a theological response to a sermon by a renowned Portuguese Jesuit, Antonio Vieira. She dared to say he was wrong about his theological understanding of Christ’s favors to mankind. After that, Church leaders used her theological position to fuel their own internal feuds, and when her protection from the Viceroy of New Spain was no longer there, they were no longer willing to put up with her,” says Lira.

“They said, ‘Stop writing and go take care of the poor.’ A few short years later, she caught the plague while serving her sisters and died,” says McGuinness. “There was a cost to the demand that she focus on good deeds. Despite her belief that thinking and writing were meaningful forms of service, she sold her books (or they were taken from her), and she stopped her correspondence. It’s always a live question for us here: what does it mean to ‘do good,’ and is that compatible with the life of the mind that we also find so compelling?”

Sor Juana’s tragic end only furthers the polarization of her legacy. While neither Lira nor McGuinness sees her identity and output as separate lines of inquiry, McGuinness says this integrated approach is becoming less and less common. She began her academic career as a feminist poetic scholar studying the writings of Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks, but became disenchanted by how easily the importance of women’s art is dismissed in favor of their identity.

“I came to St. John’s in part because I was so frustrated by the way women’s art was taken as an uncomplicated expression of femininity, [as if] every poem just says, over and over, I am a woman,” McGuinness says.“I think the way we read here can teach you to be a good reader of someone like Sor Juana, or whoever you want to read, in a way that can leave you better equipped to see the work that they were doing.”

Lira was thrilled to see faculty grapple with the Sueño from all different points of view. “Not just the philosophical, scientific, and poetic achievement,” he clarifies, “but also the notion of what it means to be in an oppressed identity that precludes you from accessing those goodies at the same time.”

He says that Sor Juana’s mode of thinking can be found throughout the academic program at St. John’s, including the premise of broad learning over specialization. “She argues about how she’s a self-educated woman because she couldn’t go to formal schooling, and it’s been to her advantage because she’s seen connections between fields that other people might not,” Lira says. “In her Response to Filotea, she says, ‘One day I am playing the harp, and another day I’m looking at chemistry, and I’m seeing all these things connect.’ That’s a very Johnnie thing, to see the interconnectedness of all knowledge.”