Hunger's Brides

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  1. Looking back, I can see ways in which elements of Hunger’s Brides are the result of an attachment to what is basically an insane methodology. At the project’s outset, when I realized the extent to which myths coincide with Sor Juana’s career, I decided to weave them into the telling of her story, particularly those that I could relate to the central theme of hunger. Trouble was that I’d had no idea how many myths might interest even the average baroque poet – and Sor Juana was far beyond average in this respect. Initially I was lead onwards by my fascination with how the myths of Echo, Narcissus, Isis, Horus, Phaethon, the Phoenix, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca seemed to be playing themselves out in aspects of her life. And then I felt myself fascinated to discern traces of these mythologies at work in our world: the Fall, Progress of the chosen people, the return to a golden age, the promised return of the culture hero, the war on Nature, the struggle between earth cult and sky cult.
  2. There’s probably not much doubt that the Aztec regime was capable of appalling brutality; glimpses of the daily life of the common people are less widely available. The proverbs and riddles I ran across put the culture of the people in a different, more human light. A study of the Aztecs presents us with a couple of interesting opportunities today – notably with respect to issues of paternalism and victimization. It is possible, without condescension, to see the Aztecs as a great civilization, without necessarily viewing them as innocent victims in their fall. It is also possible to look on the tradition of Nezahualcóyotl as a movement towards reform that the Conquest may have interrupted.
  3. It’s only in considering this question now that I see there’s been a tension between beauty and reality throughout Hunger’s Brides – not just in Sor Juana’s story but in Beulah’s. The beauty of Juana’s world is almost surreal; the beauty of Beulah’s Yucatan, she calls hyperreal. Throughout the book there is an anxiety that things or people (or myths) can be too beautiful to be true. And while there were indeed two sharply divergent visions of America prevalent among the early colonizers, the myth of Eden already contains both. The beauty of Eden serves as a sort of incitation – to that which is ugly in us – to mar and despoil it. As I did the research it seemed plausible that many of Sor Juana’s contemporaries would have felt a similar incitation to pull her down. But in the story told by Hunger’s Brides I imagined it to be more powerful, more troubling, if Sor Juana could recall a time when she herself had succumbed to the same sort of temptation.
  4. I don’t suppose I wrote a single page of the 17th-century material without an eye to our own time. Historical fiction is not necessarily escapist. Unavoidably, we see the past from our own perspective, but the other thing I wanted to do was look at our present from the perspective of the past. Whether we are on the brink of collapse is a hypothesis that is unprovable in advance. That said, it is an utterly vital question. And yet, outside of fiction, we have no real venue for this discussion in a secular society. A civilization that cannot see the risk of its own collapse seems ill-equipped to forestall or reverse it.
  5. By far, the worst year of working on the novel was the last one, in which I was detailing the final months of rumour, menace and strange events that led up to Sor Juana’s final silence. It was sickening to realize that I was basically working out the problem of how to break the mind of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; that I had become part of the prosecution; that those who loved her, or knew her best, would know best how to hurt her. I had the intuition that the way to break a wildly creative mind driven to see patterns in apparent disorder, to solve problems and thought puzzles, is to feed that mind bad information – rumours, half-truths, lies, insoluble dilemmas. Secret knowledge and mysterious rituals are often fascinating to children. But during the reign of the Holy Office this hunger for mystery was primal territory that had to be brought under Inquisition control.
  6. A theme that emerged during work on the book was the notion that to cut ourselves off from the past – as individuals and as a culture – weakens us, leaves us prey to certain diseases and maladjustments. I thought it was interesting to have Beulah intuit that this potential vulnerability held not only for Sor Juana but also for Donald, and of course for contemporary culture as a whole.
  7. I thought it worthwhile to show how someone so brilliant can still be wrong about things. It happens all the time. But this is an anti-intellectual age and we tend to be harsh in our judgments of highly intelligent people when we see evidence of their failings. Not that Sor Juana’s time would have been completely immune from this, but my concern was translating her for our time, presenting that intelligence and her life of the mind in a way that we would not find alienating. An emotional portal into her childhood opened up for me when I saw I could give her a grandfather like Octavio Paz, and then contextualize her love and respect for books as an extension of her love for him.
  8. It interested me to consider the possibility that her mother would discourage her from a world of letters, but for somewhat unconventional reasons, reasons we might even consider feminist. Isabel’s opposition is not at all because she feels that women should be subordinate or submissive. Quite the opposite. Isabel is a force of nature – and understands nature as a feminine preserve. Isabel would believe that in the world of learning Juana would be in a male world with little hope of establishing her own sphere of independence. I also thought it was funny to think of her mother wanting her to have a career in the stock markets, in the more literal sense of the term.
  9. What appealed to me here was that such a notion today seems antiquated and unwordly. Yet it also seems the very basis for social cohesion to insist on an equation of rights and benefits on one hand, and responsibilities on the other. It was not really that long ago, in historical terms, that U.S. President John Kennedy could say, ringingly: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Now, it would seem, sacrifices for the common good are something we ask others to make.
  10. One thing I was curious about was that she did not enter one convent but two. Which suggested to me that her reasons were not only spiritual. Or she may have entered a very strict convent in a moment of spiritual crisis, but then woken up to the difficult reality of living her choice. Still, though she returned to the world, it was not for long. Her situation may have become untenable or intolerable, but her second choice of convent was also clearly more amenable to her worldly interests.
  11. Clearly, powerful figures within the Church felt threatened by her. The novel presents many instances of their betrayals and persecutions. But part of what made her seem so alone to me was that her relationships with women, too, were complicated and often difficult. In her autobiographical writings she spoke of the envy of the women around her, their endless, silly criticisms – even of her handwriting as too masculine. Part of her attraction to the Vicequeens, I suspect, was that these women had no need to feign inferiority or be subservient.
  12. She may simply have said all that the time permitted. The truth is that we will never know. My personal favourite, as hypotheses go, is that her path may indeed have been mystical but not particularly Christian – a negative mysticism that may have had as much in common with Hermetic philosophy (or the unknowability of God according to Maimonides, or the Unknown God of Nezahualcóyotl) as it would with Christianity. But what I wanted her final chapters in the novel to accomplish wasn’t advancing my favourite theory. Instead, I wanted to score or compose a silence that would serve as an inseparable partner in the total, cosmic music I had imagined her in pursuit of throughout much of Book IV. In a sense I wanted to make that silence of hers contain all possible texts and every plausible motivation. A music of unrealized potential. A score that corresponds more or less to this vision on page 713 of Theology as the Queen of the Sciences.
  13. When I first glimpsed, back in 1991, what the novel could be, I had already been working and puzzling away at hunger as a theme. What intrigued me was precisely that it seemed to cut across, or bind together, every level on which we’re capable of existing. Hunger goes to the heart of our incompleteness as beings. It is that process by which we take the world into ourselves, and are driven to reach out to it, bringing to it something of ourselves. Though the hunger of the title could be presented using very different language, we might say that the title refers to the hunger of two women, in very different eras, for ultimate connection. Sor Juana and Beulah are each, in a sense, wedded to this need to connect, to find meaning, to be completed.
  14. I’ve been asked more than once if I’d ever considered writing only the 17th-century material. I had considered it but was never really tempted. Hunger’s Brides is very much about what the past has to say to us, about the persistence of myth in western thought, the unhealed spiritual wound that the Enlightenment’s victory of Reason over Faith has opened in the West, and the threat of civilizational collapse. Beulah sees Sor Juana as someone who stood at a turning point on the way to the Enlightenment, a road not taken, in which our capacity for faith would not have been suppressed by reason, but nurtured by it, and our exercise of reason would have been tempered by a recognition of our human limitations. What makes Sor Juana particularly significant, as she stands at the threshold of the Enlightenment, is that we are at a turning point on the road beyond it. Beulah’s thesis being that the Enlightenment has died because of its inability to answer to our hunger for connection, for meaning.
  15. Donald’s experiences with and through Beulah may have changed him, or at least have reminded him of who he might have been. It interested me that it may be impossible for us to depict ourselves as we are, though there is some chance of having sufficient perspective to show ourselves as we used to be.
  16. Much as Beulah has done, Sor Juana has declared war on one category of reader at least – which she first announces on page 138 with her “music of gaps” – defying her readers in the Inquisition with a text so rich in multiple meanings that it defeats their need to control and catalogue all the testimony. Sor Juana opposes their need for a single truth, a single interpretation, a single meaning with the inexhaustible capacity of literature to create new interpretations.
  17. One aspect of the novel that I had expected to be controversial is Beulah’s approach to her art. She wants to write a text so beautiful, so intense, so sublimely attuned to Donald’s own innermost life that it breaks him down. She wants “to burn his house down.” She wants to make him anew, and her motives are not entirely pure.
  18. So far very few of the book’s reviewers have been women. But one of these wrote: “Sitting helplessly by while the remarkable Beulah tears her own heart out made for one of the most harrowing reading experiences I've had in a while…” One of the surprises I’ve had is that many women do not feel that way. Perceptive, passionate women. It’s been hard to get at, so far, but they seem to feel that Beulah makes too much of her anguish, makes a spectacle of it (true), that her happiness is there if she’ll only reach out and take it. It may be that these women consider happiness hard enough to find without sabotaging yourself. Beulah, an unbeliever, possesses personality traits I associate with true mystics. She lacks that switch that most of us believe we need in order to function today, that ability to neutralize the messages of suffering and cruelty and obscene inequality being delivered to us by our daily news cycles. Similarly, she demands meaning – insists on seeking out direct contact or confrontation with some ultimate source of meaning. She comes to believe she must either get answers or extinguish her need to believe, her need for sacredness – to kill God or to eat God, in a form of communion.
  19. Most readers take this as primarily a woman’s story, and say Donald’s authorship of Sor Juana’s chapters hadn’t even occurred to them as a possibility. With respect to Beulah’s fate, a few readers have been so caught up in the story, so fearful of what has happened to Beulah, that they misread who Donald has given the final mail packet to in the epilogue’s hospital scene. They think the “she” referred to must be the psychotherapist, instead of seeing that “she” is Beulah and that Donald has returned control of the future story to Beulah.

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