Please join us for the next installment of the Latin American Dialogues Speaker Series. This event will take place Thursday, February 23 at 5pm in the University Center Chickamauga Room. Dr. Robert Fritz of Murray State University will present research that bridges Spanish literary analysis, science studies, the history of medicine, and gender studies.
Sor Juana’s Shadow: Science, Gender, and Poetry in Colonial Mexico
Dr. Robert Fritz (Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Murray State University)
This presentation examines the poetry of the seventeenth-century Hieronymite nun and Mexican literary icon Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) from a perspective informed by scholarship in the history of science. Although Sor Juana scholars have long recognized the poet’s extensive knowledge of period natural philosophy and the occult sciences, relatively little scholarship has contributed to a better understanding of the relationship between this knowledge and the broader social context of the poet’s life and work in Colonial Mexico. Whereas the starting point for many studies of Sor Juana’s epistemological outlook focus on her masterpiece Primero sueño (1692), long read as an allegorical representation of abstract systems of thought, this study instead focuses on Sonnet 165 (“Détente, sombra de mi bien esquivo”), arguing that the poem’s themes arise from understandings of human psychology rooted in period medical and occult scientific literature that informed lay readers’ understandings of human nature, even as the verse form alludes to the tradition of Petrarchan love poetry. Adopting the maxim of historians Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer that the problem of knowledge and the problem of order are the same problem, I argue that the poem dialogs with medical discourses related to amor hereos, a form of lovesickness described in medieval and early modern medical texts. By treating the behaviors associated with lovesickness as pathologies, medical literature contributed to the naturalization of misogynist attitudes towards women as sources of contagion. As Michael Solomon has observed, such discourse was inherently ideological and granted medical practitioners the authority to treat disruptions to the social order as disease. Sonnet 165 challenges notions of a victim’s helplessness in the face of this condition, converting the diseased imagination of the patient into a space of personal agency and self-mastery, thereby shifting the causal etiology from external factors (i.e., exposure to sexually attractive people) to internal volitional states. By challenging the natural philosophical foundations of amor hereos, Sonnet 165 undermines the ideological functions of period misogynist medical discourse.
Dr. Robert Fritz is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the Department of Global Languages at Murray State University in Murray, KY. He earned his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Hispanic Literatures at Indiana University Bloomington. His research interests concern the relationships between literary discourse and epistemological paradigms in the Medieval and Early Modern eras. The research he will present today delves into the history of popular scientific writing in the Spanish speaking-world, focusing specifically on the work of seventeenth-century Mexican poet, Sor Juana Iés de la Cruz.