All societies are both the creators of their myths and are created by them. All artists are the makers and remakers of our myths of meaning — myths we co-create whenever we engage with art. The best of them transmigrate across societies and epochs, naming what is difficult to name and difficult to bear, touching other lives — often lives wildly different from the artist’s — with that luminous longing for elemental truth that is the creative impulse in its purest form, the fundament of our shared humanity.

Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores the legacy of one such artist in Sor Juana (public library) — his superb more-than-biography of the radical seventeenth-century Mexican nun, poet, playwright, philosopher, and composer.

Sor Juana

Like Sister Corita Kent, Juana Inés de la Cruz used the cloister as a crucible of creative insurrection, making unexampled art that stood up to the politics of her time and place, filling her convent cell with books, art, and scientific instruments. Like Sappho, she comes to us only in fragments across the abyss of entropy and erasure, most of her plays, essays, and other papers gone, all of her correspondence destroyed, only her poems surviving, and those all but forgotten for more than two centuries, between their last posthumous printing in 1725 and their rediscovery in 1940. In the wake of her death, she was rose from the posthumous page as “the Mexican phoenix,” celebrated as “the Tenth Muse” — a distinction originally Sappho’s. Long before Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s great-great-grandparents were born on European soil, Sor Juana was lauded as “the Poetess of America.”

Nested into Paz’s rigorous and loving study of Sor Juana is a broader meditation on the creative spirit and the relationship between those who make art and those who enjoy art, be it literature or song — a relationship entwines intents to shape not only the destiny of the art but the landscape of the society in which it lives.

With an eye to the paucity of surviving biographical detail on Sor Juana’s life, and to the understandable but limited and limiting human impulse to mine the private lives of artists for information presumed to further illuminate their public art, Paz writes:

It is clear that an author’s life and work are related, but the relation is never simple: the life does not entirely explain the work, nor does the work explain the life. There is something in the work that is not to be found in the author’s life, something we call creativity or artistic and literary invention.

That invention, Paz argues, is not the author’s own but a kind of co-creation process that invites and involves the reader:

The work shuts the author and opens to the reader. The author writes impelled by conscious and unconscious forces and objectives, but the sense of the work — and the pleasures and surprises we derive from the reading — never coincides exactly with those impulses and objectives. A work responds to the reader’s, not the author’s, questions. The reader stands between the work and the author. Once written, the work has a life of its own distinct from that of its author, a life granted by its successive readers.

Art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

That succession of readers spills into the collective we call society. Turning now to the particular art-form of poetry — a form that has always carried a society’s most rebellious and generative impulses toward resisting and revising the status quo — Paz writes:

To a writer’s life and work we must add a third term: society, history… It would be absurd to close our eyes to this elementary truth: poetry is a social, a historical, product. To ignore the relation between society and poetry would be as grave an error as to ignore the relation between a writer’s life and work. [But] in the same way that there are elements in art and poetry that cannot be reduced to psychological and biographical explanations, there are elements that cannot be reduced to historical and sociological explanation.

Thinking of Sor Juana but speaking to every enduring creative visionary, Paz observes that it is not enough to see a great artist’s work as a product of history — we must also see history as a product of their work. (James Baldwin — another example of such an artist — touched on this in his unforgettable proclamation that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” Artists are the vital destabilizing forces of the status quo, who shake the very structure of society — with all of its structural biases — and incline it toward a more evolved architecture of values.) Paz returns to the vital role the community of writers and readers plays in this recreation, shaping and reshaping the landscape of social permission:

A work exists not in isolation but in relation to other works, past and present, that are its models and its rivals… There is another, no less determinant, relationship: that of work to reader… In every society there is a system of prohibitions and sanctions: the domains of what can and cannot be done. There is another area, usually broader, that is also divided into do’s and don’ts: what can and cannot be said. Authorizations and prohibitions encompass a range of nuances that vary from society to society. Even so, they can be divided into two broad categories, the expressed and the implicit. The implicit prohibition is the more powerful; it is what is never voiced because it is taken for granted and therefore automatically and unthinkingly obeyed. The ruling system of repressions in each society is based upon this group of inhibitions that do not need to be monitored by consciousness.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a menacing prophecy about the age of publishing focus groups and “sensitivity readers,” which is the death of literature as art and the triumph of the book as market commodity, Paz writes:

In the modern world, the system of implicit authorizations and prohibitions exerts its influence on writers through their readers.

In a passage that reminds me of the deadly silence with which the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was met — a book of lush and daring sensuality, composed not only against convention but beyond the parameters of anything previously known — Paz adds:

An unread author is an author who is a victim of the worst kind of censorship, indifference — a censorship more effective than the Ecclesiastical Index.

Throughout history, poetry has regularly fallen out of favor in periods of turmoil, for it has always been a form of rebellion — something evident in the fact that in all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the poets are the first to be jailed and persecuted when society begins bubbling with uprising. Paz writes:

Poetry is not a genre in harmony with the modern world; its innermost nature is hostile or indifferent to the dogmas of modern times, progress and the cult of the future. Of course some poets have sincerely and passionately believed in progressive ideals, but their works say something quite different. Poetry, whatever the manifest content of the poem, is always a violation of the rationalism and morality of bourgeois society. Our society believes in history: newspapers, radio, television, the now; poetry, by its very nature, is atemporal.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

Turning again to Sor Juana’s work as a lens on the broader picture, Paz observes that the most timeless poetry is made not only of its words but of the silence surrounding the words, which is “not the absence of meaning” but the opposite — the negative space contouring what cannot be said under the sanctions of its milieu. He writes:

Usually the author is a part of the system of tacit but imperative prohibitions that forms the code of the utterable in every age and society. Nevertheless, not infrequently, and almost always in spite of themselves, writers violate that code and say what cannot be said, what they and they alone must say. Through their voices speaks the other voice: the condemned voice, the true voice.

He returns to the role of the reader in the ongoing composting of ideas we call culture:

A work survives its readers; after a hundred or two hundred years it is read by new readers who impose on it new modes of reading and interpretation. The work survives because of these interpretations, which are, in fact, resurrections: without them there would be no work. The text transcends its own history only by being assessed within the context of a different history.

[…]

A society is defined as much by how it comes to terms with its past as by its attitude toward the future: its memories are no less revealing than its aims.

Complement Paz’s altogether magnificent Sor Juana with Audre Lorde on poetry as an instrument of change and Nabokov on what makes a good reader, then revisit Paz on the meaning of hope and the mightiest portal to change.



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