[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Essay: Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts

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Essay: Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts

Books Discussed in This Essay

By James Burge.
HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95.

By Antoine Audouard. Translated by Euan Cameron.
Houghton Mifflin, $24.

By Constant J. Mews.
Oxford University, cloth, $74; paper, $24.95.

Translated With an Introduction and Notes by Betty Radice. Revised by
M. T. Clanchy.
Penguin, paper, $14.

Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France.
By Constant J. Mews. With Translations by Neville Chiavaroli and
Constant J. Mews.
Palgrave Macmillan, cloth, $75; paper, $24.95.

    ALMOST a thousand years ago, a teacher fell in love with his student.
    Almost a thousand years ago, they began a torrid affair. They made
    love in the kitchens of convents and in the boudoir of the girl's
    uncle. They wrote hundreds of love letters. When the girl bore a
    child, they were secretly married, but the teacher was castrated by
    henchmen of the enraged uncle. At her lover's bidding, the girl took
    religious orders. He took the habit of a monk. They retreated into
    separate monasteries and wrote to each other until parted by death.

    The story of Abelard and Heloise hardly resonates with the spirit of
    our age. Not least, its origins in the classroom offend: teachers, we
    know, are not supposed to fall in love with their students. Heloise,
    moreover, is no feminist heroine, despite having been one of the best
    educated women of her age and writing some of its most affecting
    prose. Nobody who takes the veil on the command of her husband and
    swears ''complete obedience'' to him can hope to sneak into the
    bastion of feminism. Today, even the high romance of the couple's
    liaison strikes us as foreign: all that sacrifice and intensity! We
    live in a time of broad antiromanticism when teenagers, according to
    The Times Magazine, have given up on relationships altogether and
    adults write to the editor to salute their wisdom. ''Romance?''
    scoffed one correspondent. It's just ''an excuse . . . to work off
    sexual energy.''

    Small wonder, in this climate, that the anguish Abelard and Heloise
    suffered for each other renders them even more suspect. What with safe
    sex, prenuptial agreements and emotional air cushions of every stripe,
    we have almost managed to riskproof our relationships. The notion that
    passion might comprise not only joy but pain, not only
    self-realization but self-abandonment, seems archaic. To admire, as an
    early-20th-century biographer of Abelard and Heloise does, the
    ''beauty of souls large enough to be promoted to such sufferings''
    seems downright perverse.

    And yet there's a grandeur to high-stakes romance, to self-sacrifice,
    that's missing from our latex-love culture -- and it's a grandeur we
    perhaps crave to recover. How else to account for the flurry of new
    writing on these two ill-fated 12th-century lovers? How to explain the
    publication here, within just a few months of one another, of a French
    novel (''Farewell, My Only One,'' by Antoine Audouard), a British
    biography (''Heloise and Abelard,'' by James Burge) and an
    intellectual study from Australia (''Abelard and Heloise,'' by
    Constant J. Mews)?

    To be sure, Abelard wasn't just Heloise's suitor; he was also one of
    the most notable philosophers of his day. But as anybody who has tried
    to slog through his theological arguments can attest, they no longer
    raise many eyebrows. Theories that got him condemned for heresy in his
    own century -- about the relative power of each member of the Trinity
    -- are not what nail us to our seats today. Try as an admirable
    scholar like Mews might to render these disputes colorful -- and try
    as Abelard himself did to formulate them for posterity -- ''what will
    survive'' of Abelard, to borrow Philip Larkin's line, ''is love.''

    And what a love it was. Until recently, we could read it directly only
    in eight letters discovered in the 13th century and composed long
    after the lovers' entry into monastic life. The first, from Abelard,
    isn't even directed to Heloise. Written for an unnamed monk, it's what
    a medieval reader would have called a ''letter of consolation,'' meant
    to comfort a troubled friend by convincing him that your problems are
    greater than his. This early variant of schadenfreude, the so-called
    ''Historia Calamitatum,'' is how we learn of Abelard's first arrival
    in Paris, of his growing renown as a teacher and his encounter with
    the well-educated young Heloise. Here too we learn of Abelard's rash
    decision to move into her uncle Fulbert's home and become her tutor,
    of their love and her pregnancy, of Fulbert's rage, Abelard's attempt
    to pacify him by proposing marriage and Heloise's resistance -- at
    least in part because of the damage it would do to her lover's
    reputation. We learn that Abelard prevailed over his pupil, that the
    wedding was initially kept secret and that Fulbert ordered a terrible
    act of vengeance. Days after thugs broke into Abelard's bedroom at
    night and castrated him, the newlyweds took vows of celibacy and
    repaired to their respective religious institutions.

    The letters written after the ''Historia Calamitatum'' are the
    richest, containing the rash, ringing, reckless and altogether impious
    declarations of love for which Heloise will always be known. Here is a
    voice that refuses to stay in the Middle Ages; it reaches through the
    centuries and catches us at the throat. ''Men call me chaste,'' she
    writes. ''They do not know the hypocrite I am.'' Even during the
    celebration of Mass, she confesses, ''lewd visions'' of the pleasures
    she shared with Abelard ''take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that
    my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be
    groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what
    I have lost.'' She asserts the primacy of desire, boldly professing
    the amorous, sacrilegious motives that drove her into the convent:
    ''It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to
    accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone. . . .
    I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I
    have done nothing as yet for love of him. . . . I would have had no
    hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding
    to the flames of hell.'' Her bravado, her defiance, her ruthless
    honesty and her apotheosis of eros over morality are everywhere
    apparent -- and still today they are shocking.

    Love is Heloise's religion, even when she's wrapped in the robes of a
    nun. And in the practice of this religion, she is as uncompromising as
    she is unconventional. For her, love has no business with the law or
    money or social safety nets. It is for this reason, more than any
    other, that she opposes Abelard's desire to wed: ''I never sought
    anything in you except yourself. . . . I looked for no marriage
    bond.'' Indeed, she proclaims,''if Augustus, emperor of the whole
    world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth
    on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me
    to be called not his empress, but your whore.''

    The dust will not settle on such words. At once intrepid and
    idealistic, transgressive and submissive, taboo-busting and
    sweet-natured, noble and naughty, they have seduced scholars for
    centuries. This woman, this prioress, who was prepared to sacrifice
    not just earthly reputation but heavenly salvation for the sake of her
    secular love, is a literary original. Petrarch couldn't read her
    without scribbling exclamations in the margins; the three letters to
    Abelard that have come down to us from her monastic confinement have
    sufficed to make her name as a writer.

    Only recently -- and miraculously -- has a new cache of material
    turned up, fragments of 113 letters that many scholars believe Abelard
    and Heloise exchanged before Abelard's castration. Copied in the 15th
    century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria, discovered in 1980 by
    Constant J. Mews and finally published as ''The Lost Love Letters of
    Heloise and Abelard,'' these short but eloquent missives present two
    people vying -- with no coyness or gender typecasting whatever -- to
    outdo each other in expressions of adoration. ''To a reddening rose
    under the spotless whiteness of lilies,'' the woman addresses the man.
    ''To his jewel, more pleasing and more splendid than the present
    light,'' the man addresses the woman. The letters have unleashed a new
    storm of interest in the couple; it is to this that we owe the British
    filmmaker James Burge's biography, ''Abelard and Heloise.''

    Burge spends much time glossing the new correspondence --
    unfortunately, trivializing rather than illuminating it. ''This sounds
    to modern ears like a promise of sex,'' he tells us at one point, then
    rushes to explain: ''The question of when exactly they first
    consummated their love awaits more assiduous scholarship.'' Given that
    scholars are still arguing about Heloise's birth date (she's been put
    between 15 and 27 years of age at the time of her encounter with
    Abelard, who would have been in his late 30's), you shouldn't hold
    your breath waiting for this golden factoid. But what's really missing
    in Burge's biography is an ear for the lyricism of his subjects'
    correspondence, a feel for the mystery of their bond.

    Antoine Audouard's novel ''Farewell, My Only One'' doesn't draw
    explicitly on the new letters, but it's substantially truer to their
    spirit. It also has an ingenious narrative scheme: the story is told
    from the point of view of a wandering student, William, who falls in
    love with Heloise at the same time that he becomes Abelard's disciple.
    When he has outlived both, at the end of the tale, we discover an even
    closer connection.

    Audouard, a former director of the French publisher Laffont-Fixot,
    evokes in gritty and poetic detail the streets of 12th-century Paris
    (where the narrator tells us he ''stumbled over a pig''). He's also
    very good at conveying the process of infatuation: William falls for
    Heloise when she loses consciousness in a crowd: ''I am not strong. I
    have never carried a woman,'' he marvels. And yet he does, and even
    lunges after the flower that has fallen from her hair. ''A few crushed
    petals'' are all that remain, though, when he opens his ''clenched
    fist'' -- a foretaste of what happens when we grasp what we love too

    But Audouard spends too much time alone with William -- building
    churches, cleaning grates, making friends -- and we resent being taken
    away from the lovers. Then again, anyone writing about Abelard and
    Heloise must compete with their own eloquence. The early letters are
    so clear and beautiful they can be read alone, without anachronistic
    glossing or fictional superstructures. Like the later letters --
    recently reprinted in a volume edited by the British medievalist and
    Abelard biographer Michael Clanchy -- they glow. Together they
    preserve the myth of a shining couple, persecuted by authority and
    hounded by circumstance but true to each other, ready for all
    sacrifice, passionate even to the grave.

    It's a potent myth and a necessary one -- but it is a myth. The
    reality of Abelard and Heloise's story may be no less moving, but it's
    less than perfect. You could argue, first off, that their relationship
    was already on the decline by the time Abelard was castrated. And that
    Fulbert's vengeance was taken because Abelard was insufficiently,
    rather than excessively, close to his niece. Heloise already lived in
    a convent at the time of Abelard's mutilation -- not as a nun, but
    nevertheless under the protection of the nuns. Ostensibly this was a
    tactic to preserve the secrecy of their marriage; to Fulbert, however,
    it may have suggested that Abelard was planning to get rid of his
    wife. Is this what it meant to her? The arrangement, in any case, was
    neither ideal nor particularly gallant, and Abelard's visits were
    decreasing in frequency: ''You sadden my spirit,'' Heloise writes in
    the last of her early letters.

    Is it possible that Fulbert's crime saved rather than sank the lovers'
    passion? That by turning Abelard into a romantic martyr at the very
    moment his interest was flagging, Fulbert reinvigorated Heloise's
    loyalty and gave Abelard an excuse to ignore her without blame?

    This is, in fact, what he did for the next 12 years. It wasn't until
    Heloise had become abbess of her own convent and stumbled upon his
    ''Historia Calamitatum'' that she was able to draw Abelard back into
    communication with her. And even then religion had changed him; the
    passion and warmth of the early letters had fled.

    In the later letters, Abelard has become pious and self-centered. When
    Heloise entreats him to take pity on her loneliness, he sends her a
    set of prayers to say for him. When she serenades their love, he moans
    about the trouble he's having with the other monks at his abbey. Never
    an easy man to get on with, he has made blood enemies of men whose
    well-being he is supposed to preserve: they are, he assures Heloise,
    relentlessly trying to poison him. Therefore the refrain, ''Pray for

    It is Heloise's tact and generosity that allow the dialogue to
    continue and even attain exemplary dimensions. Seeing that her beloved
    is no longer capable of the language of passion, she smothers her love
    song (''the loss,'' as Burge states, ''is history's'') and addresses
    him on the only terms he still knows and values. Like the star student
    she once was, she begins to quiz him on every biblical, monastic and
    moral question she can think of. In doing so, she inspires much of the
    most valuable -- and satisfying -- work of Abelard's life. Disdained
    by his own monks as well as by the Vatican (he was twice condemned for
    heresy), he found an enthusiastic audience in Heloise and her nuns. It
    is for Heloise that he undertakes what one scholar has called ''the
    most substantial writings of the 12th century on women's place in
    Christianity''; it is for Heloise that he writes countless sermons,
    hymns and disquisitions on spiritual themes. Heloise's convent
    becomes, in some sense, the couple's joint project, their spiritual
    child. Their cooperation struck onlookers as a dazzling example of
    friendship between a man and a woman.

    If Heloise didn't get what she most wanted from Abelard, she got the
    very best he had to give. His reflections, his confidences and his
    final, all-important confession were addressed to her; his most urgent
    worldly plea was to be buried where she would be near him. Is their
    story a fraud because Abelard, as Mews has written, was ''tagging
    along behind'' Heloise in matters of the heart?

    The love stories that touch us most deeply are punctuated by human
    frailty. Look at them up close and you see the fault lines,
    compromises and anticlimaxes. At the beginning of Shakespeare's play,
    Romeo is just as intemperately in love with a girl called Rosaline as
    he is later with Juliet. Tristan and Isolde's passion could well be
    the fruit of substance abuse, of a love potion they drank unknowingly.
    And Abelard and Heloise? They weren't equally strong or passionate or
    generous. Still, they put their frailties together and begat a perfect
    myth, as well as something perhaps even more precious -- a surprising,
    splendid, fractured reality. ''There is a crack,'' the Leonard Cohen
    lyric goes, ''a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in.''
    Books Discussed in This Essay HELOISE AND ABELARD A New Biography. By
    James Burge. HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95. FAREWELL, MY ONLY ONE By
    Antoine Audouard. Translated by Euan Cameron. Houghton Mifflin, $24.
    ABELARD AND HELOISE By Constant J. Mews. Oxford University, cloth,
    $74; paper, $24.95. THE LETTERS OF ABELARD AND HELOISE Translated With
    an Introduction and Notes by Betty Radice. Revised by M. T. Clanchy.
    Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. By Constant J.
    Mews. With Translations by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant J. Mews.
    Palgrave Macmillan, cloth, $75; paper, $24.95.

    Cristina Nehring writes regularly for The Atlantic. She is the author
    of the forthcoming ''Women in Love From Simone de Beauvoir to Sylvia
    Plath: A Feminist Defense of Romance.''

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