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The “Golden Pen” of Avila

ISSUE:  Winter 1992
Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Feminity. By Alison Weber. $22. 50. Princeton.

English-speaking readers may know Teresa of Avila through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, whose “latter-day Teresa” recalls a sacrificial precursor, or through Bernini’s Baroque sculpture, where the saint’s hysterical swoon suggests, in terms articulated by Lacan, mystico-eroticism and even jouissance. Readers of this new study, however, will be astonished by Alison Weber’s quest for the rhetorical Teresa. Few readers, in English or Spanish, will be familiar with the duplicitous rhetorician of Weber’s haunting book, a woman whose consciously subversive strategies of empowerment allowed her to break through the Pauline injunction to silence.

Such empowerment inspired a shockingly explicit reassignment of her gender. Counter-Reformation theologians, it appears, could only account for Teresa’s virtues by unsexing her: as one Carmelite friar put it, “this woman ceased to be a woman” and, “to her greater glory,” restored herself “to the virile state.” Weber opens her book by describing a chilling hieroglyph, from a text published in 1614, the year of Teresa’s beatification. As Elijah and Elisha pictorially float in a cloud over Teresa’s body, represented as a walled city with towers, the saints proclaim, in a magisterial Latin inscription, “Our little sister does not have breasts.” Why this metaphoric mastectomy on the eve of the saint’s canonization in 1622? And where do the writings of a woman elected Doctor of the Church in 1969, in the wake of Vatican II reforms—the first woman ever to be accorded this honor—leave us as postmodern critics?

Teresa himself tried to account for her successful strategies: “we are living in a world in which we have to think of people’s opinions of us if our words are to have any effect,” she wrote in The Book of Foundations. Weber correctly qualifies the Machiavellian cast of this reflection: her study, she emphasizes, does not suggest a “Machiavellian Teresa,” but someone closer to the more ethical Aristotelian eiron, a figure whose deceptions are “not for gain but to avoid parade.” Teresa’s deception was a defensive strategy: she embraced stereotypes of female ignorance (“torpeza”), timidity, and frailty even while disassociating herself from the seducible/seductive myth. She deployed all these concessions ironically, in order to defend a lifetime of rebellion against Spain’s powerful letrados. Weber’s book spells out, cogently and persuasively, all the stages of the rebellion that won Teresa “a public voice for herself, if not for other women.” These stages are addressed in four brilliantly organized chapters, each one focusing on the rhetoric of a peculiarly Teresian strategy—humility, irony, obfuscation, and authority—as manifested in the context of four different works.

Instructively framed by a cultural study of ecclesiastical misogyny during the Counter-Reformation, Teresa of Avila begins and ends with a catalogue of contemporaneous theological opinions on the saint’s life and writings. We are introduced to a woman whose “golden pen” would feature prominently in portraits of her by Velázquez, Ribera, and Zurbarán. Weber’s study of Teresa, with its rich complexity and erudition, suggests another “golden pen” at work. Unlike the overtaxed one normally attributed to Teresa—who was known to write “as fast as a scribe” and with “her face inflamed”—Weber’s is a reflective post-Freudian pen, one capable of inscribing, without judgment, Teresa’s chief unresolved psychic conflict: her lifelong struggle to reconcile her love for with her resistance to authority. Teresa’s engagement in theological discourse was a form of resistance, most notably to the Pauline justification for excluding women from apostolic roles: “for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:37). It was also a shame for women to write in the church, or at least “it was not proper for women’s writings to become public,” as Domingo Báñez, one of Teresa’s confessors, testified at her canonization. Writing in the teeth of all these proscriptions, Teresa produced a body of work that Rafael Lapesa, in his modern history of the Spanish language, celebrated for its “delicious femininity.” Critics of a similarly cloying alignment have pointed to the “coquetry,” the “tact,” or the “charm” of Teresa’s prose style. The subject of these traditional Teresian critics, no longer the “manly soul” rationalized by 16th-century theologians, was now “a woman in the very structure of her ideas.” Instead of unsexing Teresa, this new school of criticism—who found “delicious” her use of such “feminine” linguistic traits as diminutives and self-depreciation—patronized her. What these readings did not—could not—disclose, however, Weber develops as her central thesis: that Teresa’s “rhetoric of femininity” was a conscious strategy, one that exploited various stereotypes about women’s language and character.

Chapter 1 of Weber’s study is entitled “Little Women,” a translation, as well as an ironization, of the diminutive mujercillas—a term whose 16th-century semantic shift toward the pejorative the author explores. This opening chapter historically documents how Teresa’s lifetime spanned a period of “misogynist retrenchment.” Readers are shown how, throughout the 16th century, Spain’s religious climate became increasingly hostile toward women, whose attempts to read even Saint Paul were considered presumptuous: “What business has a silly woman,” argued Luis de Maluenda, “reading the Epistles of Saint Paul?” In the palmier days of Cardinal Cisneros, however, before such hostility flourished, Weber sees a movement “of evangelical democratization, transcending gender and class barriers.” This movement, she argues, was fortified by Erasmus’s defense of “the rights of women to study the Scriptures” (a defense that should not blind us to the notable lack of any “special sensibility” in Erasmus toward women, as Francisco Marquez Villanueva has rightly argued). Under Cardinal Cisneros, a defender of female visionaries, many women had been inspired to participate in a movement of interior Christianity. This evangelical renewal gave rise to the alumbrados, or Spanish Illuminism, a heretical sect with two distinguishing sociological features: that many of its adherents were converses and many of its leaders, women. Although Teresa was not an alumbrada, she was suspect on at least four grounds: “as a conversa, a woman, a reader of Scripture, and a practitioner of mental prayer.” (Teresa’s conversa status came forward in the 1940’s, with the discovery of her Jewish ancestry: specifically, of a grandfather who had confessed to judaizing secretly and was publicly “reconciled” to the Church.) Weber sees Teresa’s writings as a conscious attempt to differentiate her own varieties of religious experience—her ecstasies and inner revelations—from charges of Illuminism. The analysis here of the persecution of the alumbradas is eloquently concise: “the fear of Protestantism nourished by anti-Semitism transformed a tiny sect of evangelicals, in the Inquisition’s eyes, into a threatening band of heretics.” As the Inquisition moved to consolidate their hierarchical controls, moreover, they found it necessary to ensure that sacred texts would be inaccessible to women, who were enjoined to “stick to their distaff and rosary.” Seven years after Teresa’s death, in 1589, similar Inquisition types were urging that all her books be burned.

Having historicized the Inquisition’s hostility toward women, Jews, and advocates of “protestantism sensu latu,” Weber then turns to Teresa’s Libra de la vida or The Book of Her Life. Teresa’s Vida is, to Weber’s thinking, “clearly nonautobiographical” in that it was written not from a modern autobiographical motive but, rather, at the bidding of her confessors that she describe her technique of mental prayer. Linked to the rhetoric of humility, Teresa’s Vida emerges, throughout Weber’s Chapter 2, as a salutary response to the “double bind” she is pushed into: having to prove worthiness and humility at once. Weber usefully theorizes the double bind as “the illusion of choice within a relationship” of alternatives that exist on “different logical levels.” Teresa responded to the double bind by learning “to metacommunicate,” by replying with paradoxes of her own. Weber offers close evidence of Teresa’s manifestly dual messages throughout the Vida: of modesty topoi or affected self-abasement; of the rhetoric of concession, peppered with confessions of despicability; of speech acts whose force seems confessional, but whose effect is ultimately defensive; of acts of conventional deference; and of reiterated complaints that she is being misread by multiple readers who require her to defend an exalted evaluation of her character. In a striking passage, Weber rightly celebrates Teresa for these metacommunicative feats: “Under the most adverse and restrictive circumstances Teresa wrote prodigiously, in an attempt to find—or imagine—a compassionate and receptive reader; in an attempt to find a means of articulating, for herself, the conflict between authority and authenticity, guilt and self-acceptance.” Teresa’s conflict in many ways resembles that of Cervantes, another ironic writer marginalized from the dominant discourse. Because of Weber’s study, I now see Teresian tactics in the Prologue to Part I of Don Quixote, where Cervantes offers his reader “a tale as dry as a rush, barren of invention, devoid of style, poor in wit and lacking in all learning and instruction.”

Unlike the Vida, addressed primarily to male superiors, the Way of Perfection was written at the request of—and as “a gesture of solidarity” toward—Teresa’s female subordinates, the “beleaguered nuns of the early Carmelite reform.” For this audience Teresa used an informal “low-register, affiliative language”—a woman’s language. To show how a sense of affiliation can be promoted by irony, Weber borrows from David Kaufer’s theory of “audience bifurcation.” For Weber, The Way of Perfection is “replete with utterances that assume the intimate readers’ capacity or willingness to recover oblique meanings.” I would add that Teresa’s utterances, in their affective and communicative dimensions, resemble the kind of theory-resistant irony favored by Renaissance humanists like Erasmus, More, and Castiglione—an irony that assumed a consensus gentium. Weber’s multiple examples of Teresa’s self-depreciating remarks show them to be hyperbolically ironic, not meant to be taken literally. Yet another ironic device is Teresa’s use of direct discourse, mocking echoes of opinions she is implicitly rejecting.

As for those “delicious” diminutives that abound in her prose, Weber contests the traditional notion, endorsed by Fernando de Herrera, that they “make a language feminine, lascivious, and frivolous.” The semantic range of diminutives, Weber shows, is wide and can also connote “disdain, belittlement, condescencion, disgust, irony, sarcasm, euphemism, modesty, as well as affection and small size.” Teresa’s language exploits the diminutive’s “hard-hitting” pejorative connotations. Her use of “amorcitos“—Weber’s exemplary diminutive—shows far more repugnance than affection. Because Teresa went on, systematically, to tone down the irony in her revisions, we can see that her strategy was patently duplicitous, that she had consciously adopted an ironic rhetoric in order to reinforce the bonds of her female interpretive community. When that community grew to include men, she revised her duplicitous ways. Thus Weber persuades us, with eloquence as well as logic, that “we can no longer accept notions of a “deliciously” feminine style” in Teresa.

Teresa’s allegorical masterpiece and her most charismatic work, Las moradas del castillo interior (The Interior Castle), was similarly disguised as mere “women’s chatter.” Using a tactic of incompetence, Teresa denied repeatedly, as Weber shows, that she possessed “any literary skill, much less theological certainty or authority.” Written during a traumatic period when Teresa had been denounced to the Inquisition for immoral conduct and heresy, by a disgruntled nun, the text, which underwent few, if any, revisions, is distinguished by a rhetoric of obfuscation. Weber discusses the abrupt change of Teresa’s extended metaphor—from militaristic to the infantile, from the soul as soldier to the soul as suckling baby at its mother’s breast—audacious images, Weber claims, for Teresa’s day. In the final books, the soul, now metaphorized as a future Bride, comes dangerously close to the language of the Song of Songs, a language that could expose Teresa (as it did Fray Luis de Leon, who spent three years in prison for it) to the charges of interpreting Scripture. The “disorder” of The Interior Castle, in other words, was pragmatic: in the Spain of 1577, there was safety in obfuscation. Weber rightly laments the distrust of erotic spirituality in 16th-century Spain as a symptom of the increasing tendency, throughout Counter-Reformation Europe, to link sexuality with the demonic.

The last of Teresa’s texts to be taken up in Weber’s study is The Book of Foundations, which discloses the author as the frail but indefatigable “Mother Foundress” of 16 discalced convents, all stubbornly founded in poverty, without any endowments. Weber sees this text as especially marked “by a profound ambivalence to authority,” with one strand of Teresa’s writings embedded in the “picaresque” rejection of authority, and the other, in stories—indeed, “exemplary nouelle“—of filial surrender to authority. The “picaresque” element makes The Book of Foundations, for Weber, “quite simply Teresa’s most humorous book”: “Teresa, at odds against a collection of inept bureaucrats, waffling ecclesiastics and petty landlords, outwits hierarchical authority with ingenuity and determination.” Because Teresa could not, as a woman, assume the role of hero in an epic of reform, Weber argues that Teresa chose to be a pícara— “an antiheroine in a mock epic.”

A portion of this riveting chapter reveals Teresa’s change of heart, on the issue of arrobamientos or ecstatic trances, from her earlier writings—indeed, from her earlier self. Her move from a supernatural to a pathological basis for raptures—detouring the obligatory sexual phobias found in the age’s diabolical notions of ecstasy—aligns her with such late Renaissance theoreticians of depression as Johann Weyer, Reginald Scot, and (more remotely, considering his resolute stance against Papists) with that English anatomizer of melancholy, Robert Burton. Weber chronicles the beginning of Teresa’s theory of convent melancholy, whose precipitating factor she saw as “excessive ascetism.” Teresa’s ambivalence toward melancholy nuns—even her occasional “hard line” toward mimics of melancholies, who could quickly disseminate “the century’s favorite malady”—seems especially topical.

How did Teresa manage to distinguish herself from what one Jesuit contemporary called the plague of deceived mujercillas—”little women who have appeared in our day in the most illustrious cities of Spain; women who with their ecstasies, revelations’ and stigmata have upset and fooled many people”? Teresa must have “fooled” many people, too, but her rhetoric of feminine subordination allowed the censor of The Book of Her Life to pronounce her, categorically, as “not a deceiver.” In the end, what emerges from this study is the image of a woman who be-littled herself so artfully that her age considered her a giant. Apart from raising some far-reaching questions about the symbolic order of Counter-Reformation Spain, Weber’s dazzling contribution to Teresian scholarship discloses a powerful “rhetoric of femininity” of which Saint Augustine, that other great rhetorician of the Church—indeed, that master-teacher of rhetoric—never dreamed.


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