Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Heloise went on to the risks I should run in bringing her back, and argued that the name of friend [amica] instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honourable for me--only love freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie, and if we had to be parted for a time, we should find the joy of being together all the sweeter the rarer our meetings were.  But at last she saw that her attempts to persuade or dissuade me were making no impression on my foolish obstinacy, and she could not bear to offend me; so amidst deep sighs and tears she ended in these words: 'We shall both be destroyed.  All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been.'  In this, as the whole world knows, she showed herself a true prophet.

It used to be that Abelard and Heloise were as famous as Romeo and Juliet as paragons of doomed love.  I guess that we prefer our love stories to be secular ones these days, but that's a shame, because the story of these two is so shocking and heartbreaking that it's hard to believe that it is true, and that we are fortunate enough to have these letters that passed between them.

Abelard begins by recounting the story of his life in a document called the Historia Calamitatum: The History of My Calamities.  He tells of how he was once a famous philosopher and logician, renowned but arrogant.  He carries on an affair with a young girl named Heloise, who became pregnant.  They marry in secret, and he hides her away in a convent, but her family, incensed at the scandal, breaks into his room late one night and castrates him.  Humiliated and disgraced, his disfigurement causes him to devote his life to Christ, and he becomes a monk.

Heloise, now a nun and a renowned writer in her own right, reads the Historia Calamitatum and writes a letter to her estranged husband, whom she has not seen in years.  What follows is a series of letters between the two, reflecting on what they have lost, each trying--and often, it seems, failing--to find solace in their religious communities and duties.  Heloise's letters are amazingly raw, and give a portrait of a woman still heartbroken over the loss of Abelard:

You know, beloved, as everyone knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you... God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.  I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours... God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Years later, Heloise confesses that she still yearns for Abelard sexually, that she cannot repent of their actions because she still wants to possess him in a way that is no longer physically possible:

Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my prayers.  I should be groaning over the sins that I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.  Everything we did and also the times and places where we did it are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite.

In turn, Abelard tries to make Heloise see their sufferings as a gift.  He has come to see his disfigurement as a blessing:

And so it was wholly just and merciful, although by means of the supreme treachery of your uncle, for me to be reduced in that part of my body was the seat of lust and sole reason for those desires, so that I could increase in many ways; in order that his member should justly be punished for all its wrongdoing in us, expiate in suffering the sins committed for its amusement and cut me off from the slough of filth in which I had been wholly immersed in mind as in body.

It's startlingly strange to be able to pry into the intimate lives of two people who lived 900 years ago and see how profound their suffering is.  The later letters are considerably duller, as they concern Abelard's prescription of a rule for nuns (like the Benedictine rule that governs monks) at Heloise's request, but it is certainly more interesting with the subtext of their long and bitter history.

Abelard died first, and legend has it that when Heloise died, they opened up his tomb so that they could place her body in it, and his skeleton reached out and embraced her.  Your move, Shakespeare.


Brittany said...

Sounds like a fantastic read! What compelled you to pick it up?

Christopher said...

Oh, I had to read it for class.