It has been claimed that to surrender one’s heart is to be enslaved, by which it could be meant that when the heart is owned by another, all the abject shamefulness of slavery devolves to one’s lot, such as lack of autonomy, enforced obedience, servility, victimhood, humiliation and more. This claim asserts that to give one’s heart is to cease to be free.
To what extent can this be true? Do we have any choice in the matter? That is, do we fall in love volitionally? Is being in love the equivalent of slavery? Does one indeed become a slave to another when one surrenders one’s heart? Does the one to whom the heart is given become a slave owner? If love is requited and a heart is given in return, do both parties become slaves of each other?
If the one to whom the heart has been given, becomes a master – then it follows by an inescapable logic, she is a debased human being. But is this so? Is the slave a mere possession, and the master a moral reprobate? Can giving and receiving of core affections be reduced to such an abject level as this?
It is true that some people – and they tend mostly to be women – become the chattels of others under the auspices of contracts and conventions which are widely approved of and accepted by social and religious institutions alike, and marriage was, for women at least, just such an institution, and frequently is. Economic conditions too have their power to enslave, and most of the world’s population have no other choice than to exchange their labour in return for remuneration under the terms dictated by employers. Imprisoned people are slaves of sorts, as are the old, the severely ill, and the incapacitated. But these are not matters of the heart. All these many varieties of slavery have in common that they are, for the most part, without real reward, and that they are all essentially heartless.
When does a person who has given his or her heart to another become a slave? I suppose it could be when the heart (which signifies the love and devotion given to another) is not valued, or not returned, or not respected. Heartbreak is indeed a kind of enslavement, when pain and misery become the master, and a kind of all-pervasive negation becomes the element we find ourselves swimming in. The dismantling of one’s very self in an ensuing process of undoing and demoralisation more than resembles, and is perhaps worse than, slavery. But this is the result of losing one’s heart rather than giving it – by which I mean, it fails to be the ‘possession’ of either the giver or the recipient. Such misadventures are the lot of many of us humans, and considering how painful and damaging they are, we fervently wish to escape them. We might wish to remain safe from the vicissitudes and dangers of love by avoiding the occasions of love, but what may be gained from such a resolve?
We may consider one woman’s thoughts on the subject – and one who was intimately familiar with the heart’s surrender, and with a more mundane form of enslavement as well – that of being the property of the Convent, and the Catholic Church. It would appear that Juana Inés Asbaje gave serious thought – and more – to the subject of love, and to love in the context of slavery and slave ownership. It was with grave sorrow and misgiving that she chose to become a nun, and bind herself in an indissoluble bond to the church and convent, thereby enslaving herself for life, with not the slightest hope of an eventual manumission.
Encarece de animosidad la elección de estado durable hasta la muerte.
Si del fogoso bruto ponderara
la furia desbocada en la carrera,
el jinete prudente, nunca hubiera,
quien con discreta mano le enfrenara.
Pero si hubiera algo tan osado,
que, no obstante el peligro, al mismo Apolo
quisiera gobernar con atrevida
mano, el rápido carro en luz bañado
todo lo hiciera, y no tomara sólo
estado, que ha de ser toda la vida.
If the dangers of the sea were to be considered,
None would dare embark, upon once having viewed them.
Neither would one risk the peril of confronting
The fearsome bull within the fraught arena.
If the ardent and fiery brute-force of the race
Should go unchecked, surely the furious bolting
Of the steed would not be dared by any rider,
Rather it would be bridled and discreetly handled.
But should there be another so daring, so undaunted,
That despite the self-same dangers, facing an Apollo,
She would seek to control and govern with fearless hand
The breakneck progress of that dazzling chariot,
She would dare all, and not elect to choose
An estate demanding lifelong possession of her very being.
In this poem, Juana Inés appears to mean the very opposite of what she is saying. If one considered the dangers inherent in certain choices, one would not choose them. If one considers the dangers, and still chooses, one is an equal of the gods. As in the case of many of Juana Inés’s poems, her reasoning and the sense can be applied to many other situations as well. The conclusions are apt and applicable to a multiplicity of serious situations.
To which category then can we assign Juana Inés? She considered the perils of a lifelong commitment to convent life, and in eternal servitude of the church. She made this terrible choice, even though a freer spirit probably never drew breath. She did so after full consideration, which makes her daring all the more remarkable. But if we consider her statement that had she possessed sufficient daring she would not have made the choice she did (to be a nun) we have to see it as a self-deprecating sleight-of-hand. She did see, she did dare, and she did choose – even though the she had to choose between two different but equally restrictive futures. She rejected the conventional roles available to women, all of them as the property of individual men. She became instead the property of a male institution, the church, but only because she aspired to write and study, to love, and to pursue learning. She was no mere nun, but a true and genuine poet. Love and poetry were her true vocations. Exigency alone dictated her choice, and it was one which demanded the highest degree of courage and fortitude on her part.
But it was the choice to love unstintingly which gave Juana Inés her chief joy, and highest degree of freedom. It did not matter to her that she loved under nearly impossible conditions and enormous constraints. The fact was that she loved with her all, and surrendered her all to love. It appears to me that her experiences in loving unleashed a remarkable creativity, and drew deeply of her soul’s potential. It heightened and refined her humanity, and made of her an illumined being.
Expresa su respeto amoroso: dice el sentido en que llama suya a la señora virreina marquesa de la Laguna.
Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.
Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.
Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.
Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.
Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.
En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.
She expresses her loving respect, explaining what she means when she says Her Ladyship the Vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, belongs to her.
My divine Lysis
pardon me if I dare
then to address you thus,
since to be called yours exceeds my merit
It is an error of the tongue
when that which is called imperial
and mastered, and of the dominion
appear to be the slave’s possessions.
Thus when I call you mine
I am not in the least pretending
that you will be adjudged to belong to me,
but solely that I wish to be yours.
I saw you – but just stop there:
in order to say there is a fire
it is sufficient to show the cause
there is no need to affix blame on anyone for the result.
And yet there are those, more deserving –
in their proximity to heaven –
equally placed is the humble valley
as the superbly high mountain.
Finally, I must be confessed
of this sin, which is my adoration –
and if you wish to chastise me,
your chastening will be my reward.
This poem, which appears to be of the utmost humility, is actually making a cosmic claim. Even as she calls herself a slave, she places her claim in a position superior to all dominion. How could this be? This playful equivocation with the first person possessive pronoun appears to be the object of a simple game – a play on words – and that is the usual interpretation of this poem. But when one takes the words of Juana Inés at face value, a whole hidden universe of deeper meaning tends to be missed. This poem is really about the paradox of the ‘enslaved’ heart. The deepest truths are to found in paradox, and Juana Inés’s life was a master-class on the subject of paradoxical truth.
A heart that is given can never be enslaved. If it is refused, it may be freed by default. If it is taken, it becomes the possessor of its recipient. The one possessing it is engaged in a relation to the core of another, and this connection is one which binds both. The master is only a master if he or she possesses the slave. Therefore the status of ownership devolves on what is owned. That which is owned becomes the definer. This is the subtle logic of relationships – call it metaphysical if you like, but it cannot be avoided.
In her servile situation as a nun, Juana Inés always had an eye on freedom. Her internal identity was fixed neither by status nor by role, both of which were in the end mere compromises and expediencies. Though she may just as well as have been called a slave as a nun, neither was ever her true identity. She was in fact a lover and a poet.
But a master on the other hand depends on his or her possession of the slave, and the riches the slave produces. As far as human relationships go, there is not much difference between a slave, or an employee, or an ordinary citizen living under the control of the state, for they exist in a contractual relationship with those they enrich. Though we may recoil in horror at this statement, it is one of of extreme banality.
The person whose own heart is her possession, ungiven and unsurrendered, owns an artifact of questionable worth. All joys accruing to such a person must be self-generated. Never could there be the joy of being possessed by love – which is as far from slavery as one can get, because such possession can truthfully be thought to be the highest form of union. This is the central truth to which which all mystics fervently attest.
Juana Inés knew this profound truth. In giving herself away entirely she found the core of her genuine self. She loved with an astute recklessness, free of all self- serving evasions. She found the greatest wisdom in loving unwisely, and the greatest freedom in letting her heart be captured.
Death comes to all of us in the end and the claim made over us by oblivion is the final enslavement. It may be a matter of pride to us that we die free and unenslaved by love – masters of our own life and fate, and unbeholden to anyone. To be self-sufficient and not dependent on another for our personal happiness may be a worthy goal to strive for, and a safer one than rolling the dice on love – but what would the world be like if this was the choice made by people like Sappho and Petrarch and Catullus and Juana Inés, who found the greatest wisdom and beauty in loving unwisely, and never counting the cost?
I think it would be a much dimmer and darker place, and one I would not at all prefer to the one they left us as a result of their profligate choices.
*Translations Dia Tsung.