Hearing Voices: Aurality and New Spanish Sound Culture in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sarah Finley. New Hispanisms: Cultural and Literary Studies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. xii + 238 pp. $60.
The Golden Age of Hispanic Literature came to a close with the Mexican nun, poet, and thinker Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–95). Her liminal position—as a woman, nun, and colonial subject—offers a unique opportunity to examine and question the aesthetics and politics of the Hispanic Baroque from the geographic and socio-literary periphery. On the other hand, her interest and expertise in different areas of knowledge suggests that an interdisciplinary approach may be the most productive way to conduct such an examination. Sarah Finley’s Hearing Voicesaims to enrich the field of Sor Juana studies by taking that sort of approach, particularly by studying Sor Juana’s interest in music, sound, and silence, and it amply succeeds. Studies of different aspects of Sor Juana’s aurality are not new, but Hearing Voices proposes a“comprehensive overview of her poetic soundscape”(2) that uses the interdisciplinary theoretical frame of sound studies to explore the intersections of Sor Juana’s musical thought and imagery with non-auditory fields like philosophy, visual arts, and natural science, and with gender, authority, and intellect in the context of New Spain’s conventual culture. A balanced and clever combination of theory and close-reading analysis leads to a solid and suggestive conclusion: Sor Juana’s construction of a feminine aurality as a place of agency from where to dialogue with and, eventually, contest the ocularcentric and “masculine hegemonies in knowledge production” (127). The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 explores the relationship between harmony, concord, and political authority in several occasional poems, namely loas 374, 377, 380, 384, and romance 13; Finley argues that aural representations of authority in these compositions—both political and poetic—complement seeing and writing as primary modes in the construction of power. Chapter 2 builds on the impact of Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis in the Americas, and particularly in Sor Juana’s “acousticopoetic portraits” (57), redondilla 87 and loa 384, to demonstrate the intersection of writing, music, and painting, as well as body, voice, and gender, in the nun’s poetic soundscape. Chapter 3 explores the intersection of aurality, gender, and race in early New Spain through a detailed analysis of the imagery of the Virgin Mary in several musicopoetic compositions—villancincos—and other ritual pieces by Sor Juana. Chapter 4 expands on the idea of a feminine intellect and sonority, explored in chapter 3, by incorporating several concepts from affect theory and sensory perception into an analysis of the reimagining of Ovid’s Eco and Narcissus in Sor Juana’s romance 8 and in her play El divino Narciso. Chapter 5, perhaps the most suggestive of all six chapters, considers the importance of silence and nonverbal vocalizations in Sor Juana’s two major works, Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz and Primero sueño, and argues, compellingly, that tensions between visuality and aurality in those works reflect the nun’s position with respect to New Spain’s ecclesiastical hegemony and her transposing of “censorship and silencing . . . as alternative expressive modes that challenge masculine dominance from a position of apparent concord” (183). Finally, chapter 6, a coda to chapter 5 and a conclusion to the whole monograph, turns to sonority and its relationship to knowledge and female agency in Primero sueño. The scope, originality, and thoroughness of Hearing Voices are remarkable. The book’s informed interdisciplinary focus opens up new and stimulating ways to study the rich musicopoetic tradition of early modern Hispanic literature and culture. It also provides a coherent theoretical apparatus to reconsider questions of hegemony, gender, and agency in early New Spain’s conventual culture, and the early modern Hispanic world in general. Finally, it demonstrates the prevalence of aurality and sound culture in the Hispanic Baroque, and the need to further explore it. Despite some questions regarding its content (given the importance of hearing in early modern sensory hierarchies, to what extent can aurality be considered a means for expressing marginality?) and structure (wouldn’t it have been more effective to incorporate chapter 6 into chapter 5, and to expand on the conclusion?), Hearing Voices is an important contribution to the field of Sor Juana studies, and it will interest scholars in early modern Hispanic, European, and colonial studies, as well as in sound studies and gender and women’s studies.
Javier Jiménez Belmonte, Fordham University