Foolish Men

Poetry, Meaning, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a self-taught scholar, nun, and poet living in Mexico in the latter half of the 17th century, was an overwhelmingly political figure, even when she was not involved in any politics directly.


Primarily a poet, two of Sor Juana's poems stick out as being particularly important. The first, To Her Portrait, is a reaction to a painting of herself done by Miguel Cabrera (shown left); the second, titled Foolish Men, a reaction to the world around her.


To Her Portrait is an important piece of poetry on its own terms, but is doubly important within the framework of "Foolish Men". While the two pieces do not relate at the surface, they do follow an overarching theme. Sor Juana, as portrayed in the Argentinian film "Yo, La Peor de Todas", is diametrically opposed to the silly - not silly in the sense of goofiness, humor, of insincerity, but silly in the sense of uselessness, arrogance, and even morally bankrupt.


To Her Portrait respects the art of Cabrera while at the same time rejecting it entirely and utterly. Of the painting, she notes its fine artistry and its "reasonings of shade." Of the act of painting people - the attempt at immortalization - she says something rather different:


"'Tis but vain artifice of scheming minds;

'Tis but a flower fading on the winds;

'Tis but a useless protest against Fate;

'Tis but stupidity without a thought;

'Tis death, tis dust, tis shadow, yea, 'tis nought."

Foolish Men, meanwhile, does not argue against attempted immortalization but instead focuses on the inherent double standard society/culture (read: men) force on women.

She points out that society cannot make up its mind about women, cannot decide what it wants, that sometimes it wants "feminine frivolity" and other times it wants women to simply be docile. How, she asks, could one "cloud the mirror, / then complain that it's not clear?"


Sor Juana's overarching point is not that the patriarchy is bipolar - that is only surface meaning. If one looks deeper, one will note that Sor Juana is attacking men that do not act the same as "most men" of the time period just as much if not more than she is attacking men that do act the way the patriarchy asks them to act:


"So why are you men all so stunned

at the thought you're all guilty alike?

Either like them for what you've made them

or make of them what you can like."


She is not simply saying that men should not be so damn bipolar in their thinking - though she is saying that, to be certain. Sor Juana is saying that men are all guilty of the crime, even when they do not actively take advantage of the broken system. Sor Juana is, in effect, responding to the Twitter "campaign" #notallmen hundreds of years before such a hashtag (or the internet) even existed.

It is not that To Her Portrait and Foolish Men are directly connected. That is not what I am suggesting. Instead, what I am suggesting is that Sor Juana's two poems are connected in their core theme: that of all of us being guilty, even if only implicitly.


Even when one does not actively take advantage of a bipolar patriarchy, one is either advantaged or disadvantaged by it. If one is a man, they are objectively advantaged by it, whether they appreciate that advantage or not. Similarly, even if one does not approve of the process of immortalization - or, for a 21st century audience, the process of Celebrity (capital C) - one still partakes in it.


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is not picking and choosing in her attacks - she is not selectively being angered by some things and ignoring others. Instead, she is attacking the institution of culture, of custom, because she is aware of its inherent problems. Anyone who is unaware, innocent in their ignorance or not, is part of the problem of that system. Sor Juana was aware of this, and proclaimed it in her poetry, even when she was aware of the potential outcomes.