Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Sister Juana Inez

(1) :  to perceive directly :  have direct cognition of (2) :  to have understanding of knowing
oneself> (3) :  to recognize the nature of :  discern
b (1) :  to recognize as being the same as something previously known (2) :  to be acquainted or familiar with (3) :  to have experience of
:  to be aware of the truth or factuality of :  be convinced or certain of
b :  to have a practical understanding of <knows how to write>
archaic :  to have sexual intercourse with

Oh, yeah!  The Biblical euphemism for sex!  But try working the definition the other direction.  “She looked at him, his head on her pillow, and recognized him for the first time.  But perhaps it was most important that she recognized herself, the truth of herself.  And she slipped out of bed.”  (That’s not a quote— I made it up.)

But I want to take this in a different direction, sort of.  My most recent juxtaposition of movies that told me something was two convent stories about “knowing.”  Of course, the point is supposed to be “knowing God.”  But then things get a little mixed up.  

One film is the classic “In This House of Brede” with Diana Rigg in the main role, which is so indelible that her role as Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” can’t help but echo it so many years later.  The other is a series about an Argentinian saint, quite real and celebrated:  “Juana Ines.”  

(http://www.tor.com/2010/11/19/faith-and-lies-two-fascinating-novels-about-nuns/  This review pairs the BOOK of Rumer Godden’s This House of Brede” with Gail Godwin’s “Unfinished Desires.”  (I haven't read it.)  I haven’t read Rumer Godden’s book for decades, but there once was a time I read right along the Vernon Branch Library’s “G” shelf, all the Godden books including her sister Jon’s novels. There are quite a few.

In spite of all the psych discussion of bonding, attachment, pheromones, limerence and so on, I still like the idea of “knowing” someone to signify “loving” them.  In today's hook-up culture, all is climax and then it’s over.  But if we’re talking “knowing,” there is no limit, the adventure continues so long as the loved person will allow it.  It can mean discovery even after death.

Since this is also a narcissistic culture, it is a convenient valence when one person wants to be known and supplies endless stories, explanations, past influences and present ideas, and all the other complexities of being human.  That’s the narcissist.  The other one, who in the myth is called “Echo” but in present psycho-jargon is called “enabler,” merely has to listen and remember.  

Girls are notorious for falling in love with horses during adolescence because horses are excellent mirrors, giving back the vibes they pick up.  And it is a physical relationship, even a dangerous one, which is always attractive during adolescence.  But at about the same time the same girls often fall in love with the idea of being a nun, of taking God for a lover.  Nevermind that God doesn’t exist.  Enabling a fantasy can be very fulfilling because one controls the plot.

Religious orders know about this, but they are sober institutions, each order with its own focus.  The House of Brede is meant to be an Anglican contemplative order: that is, the nuns spend their lives entirely cloistered and focused on prayer for the world.  Other orders are meant to teach or to heal.  The Catholic ones are always a problem for the Popes and for other male officials, because their good works build up power from the people's gratitude, as the people begin to love them, and cloisters can be hotbeds of dissent on the basis of sympathy rather than logic.

What the movies and novels love is the competition of human lovers with God-the-lover.  And then there is always the possibility of nun-and-nun pair-bonds.  All this was much more complex in the days of Sister Juana Inéz because it was a time of empire-forming when church and monarchy wrestled for control.  Also, Sister Juana Inéz wanted only to be a scholar but there was no convent with scholarship as a central calling, because women were supposed to be too simple and stupid to think properly.  If they clearly excelled, it was a challenge to the men.

Also, Sister Juana Inés was Mexican in part, as well as illegitimate, so she presented multiple challenges to order.  As an adolescent, she learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote some short poems in that language.  She deals with the division between body and soul and uses imagery of sensual nature.  Octavio Paz wrote about her and so did many others, including Diane Ackerman and Alberta, Canada, novelist Paul Anderson.  

This series on Netflix will undoubtedly make Juana Inés far better known.  She survived in part because of the patronage of the Vicereine of Mexico, which in the film becomes a love affair with many lady-kisses exchanged.  Her supervisor, confessor, and possible oppressor becomes a dark knife-faced wolf with his own even darker inquisitor who despises women.  There are hints of SM as the religious people try to keep their bodies under control.  Always in the background, quietly, are the Indio with their shamanic understanding of healing and their own suffering by oppression.  Aztecs were never living in an idyllic world, particularly after Spain stripped their wealth, throwing the entire European balance of power off-orbit.

The only signs of Sister Juana Inéz’ scholarship are her books.  Things.  Nothing about her philosophical premises or worldview.  No scenes of her explaining, just bits of erotic poetry meant to be — like the Song of Solomon — symbols of religious devotion.  She does make rather defiant statements in the little play presented.  The Mother Superior is unsympathetic, worried about disfavor from authorities.

“In This House of Brede” is an ancestor of “Call the Midwife,” so the Mother Superior is a kind and generous woman, a worthy role model for a growing young woman who is trying to escape the consequences of her choice to join a dedicated life instead of a conventional marriage.  “Brede” notes the cruelty of throwing over the young man who loves the postulant, and then the new cruelty of her teasing him with the possibility of turning back to him.

Rumer Godden’s other convent tale is “Black Narcissus” (1947), quite different, with a focus on fabulous mountain scenery which is the numinous location of a teaching order, and a mature, charismatic male to challenge their cloister.  The source of evil is a mad sister, while the erotic woman is Jean Simmons with paint on her face.  Deborah Kerr loves good, becoming so much the nun in several roles, that we were all shocked when she rolled in the surf with Burt Lancaster, getting to “know” him.

It is not knowledge, but the pursuit of understanding that seduces us.

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