Excerpt: Hearing Voices

The following is an excerpt from Hearing Voices: Aurality and New Spanish Sound Culture in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (February, 2019) by Sarah Finley. Hearing Voices is in the New Hispanisms series, which publishes innovative studies that investigate how the cultural production of the Hispanic world is generated, disseminated, and consumed.

[Athanasius] Kircher’s work stands out in seventeenth-century music culture, for the Jesuit turned to rational order and scientific observation to demystify the fundamentals of sound and music. This chapter significantly develops prior readings of the poet’s engagement with Musurgia universalis and Phonurgia nova. I contend that these treatises were fundamental to Sor Juana’s acousticopoetic imagination, and many of my readings here will show how the nun transposed Kircher’s aurality to harmonize with her own intellectual interests. As Marie-Cécile Bénassy-Berling, José Pascual Buxó (Sor Juana), Karl Vossler, and others observe, there is little doubt that the Jesuit’s influence is omnipresent in Sor Juana’s writings. In Paula Findlen’s words, “The world that Sor Juana presented her readers was an edifice built by Kircher.” Nevertheless, while many draw out Sor Juana’s engagement with other areas of Kircher’s natural philosophy, only Paz attends to the poet’s inheritance of the Jesuit’s musical works. Indeed, the scholar underscores Kircherian resonances of Sor Juana’s fascination with intersections of musical sensing and emotion and also highlights correspondences between Kircher’s alignment of sight and sound and the poet’s work. The observations are astute, but limited primary and secondary resources have made developing them further challenging.

Until recently, musicological approaches have marginalized Kircher’s musical texts. Despite the vast distribution of Musurgia universalis throughout Europe, China, and the Americas, the Jesuit’s contributions to Baroque music theory have been overlooked for the most part. Existing scholarship (largely German and Italian) sometimes relies on the abbreviated German translation of the tome, failing as a result to recognize important sections of Kircher’s extensive work. Moreover, English-language studies mostly include superficial references to the Jesuit’s engagement with other theorists, as John McKay notes. In response to these lacunae, however, emerging musicological and historical scholarship deepens understanding of Musurgia universalis and Phonurgia nova by contextualizing Kircher’s musical ideas with broader intellectual discourse of his time.

Along with Kircher’s marginalization within musicological canons, a dearth of primary resources for considering Sor Juana’s inheritance of Musurgia universalis and Phonurgia nova also limit inquiry. Although scholars like Findlen and Elías Trabulse affirm that it is likely that Sor Juana had contact with Kircher’s works, the lack of extant materials from the poet’s library makes it impossible to determine which tomes formed part of her collection. Difficulties in establishing concrete connections have led to trepidation about the poet’s relationship with Kircher on the part of scholars like Antonio Alatorre, who questions the possible connections between the Jesuit’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652–54) and the pyramids that are central symbols in El sueno. In response to the dearth of materials for exploring Sor Juana’s inheritance of Kircher, Findlen identifies one alternative resource. Indeed, she observes that an ironically thin volume—supposedly the Opera kirkeriano—appears in both Juan de Miranda and Miguel Cabrera’s portraits of the poet (respectively, 1714 and 1750). While the paintings’ historical accuracy is debatable, of course, Findlen suggests that the book may be a sign of how prominently Kircher’s work figured within Sor Juana’s library.

Along the same lines, references to Kircher in Sor Juana’s works strengthen hypotheses about his importance for her poetic imagination. First, Romance 50 explicitly remarks on the nun’s Kircherian bent:

Pues si la Combinatoria,

en que a veces kirquerizo,

en el cálculo no engaña,

y no yerra en el guarismo.

Here, the neologism kirquerizar (“to Kircherize”) highlights Kircher’s impact on Sor Juana’s writing, just as Trabulse notes. Another reference appears as part of a discussion on order in the Respuesta: “Es la cadena que fingieron los antiguos que salía de la boca de Júpiter, de donde pendían todas las cosas eslabonadas unas con otras. Así lo demuestra el R. P. Atanasio Quierquerio en su curioso libro De Magnete.” While Sor Juana does not cite the correct title of the Kircherian work here, Paz hypothesizes that one of three different treatises inspire the cosmic image to which she refers: Magnes, sive de arte magnetica (1641), Mundus Subterraneus (1665), or Magneticum Naturae Regnum (1667).

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