Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Heloise (1101-1164)

Sierra Club


Riches and power are but gifts of blind fate, whereas goodness is the result of one's own merits.


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Abelard (1079-1142), the perfector of nominalism, the basis of modern empiricism, was arguably the first modern thinker. He was recognized as the most brilliant man of his time; students flocked to his lectures. Heloise (1101-1164), his junior by 22 years, was an unusually well-educated young woman, the pride of her uncle Canon Fulbert. Abelard, attracted by her reputation, made use of his own to persuade Fulbert to let him give her lessons, and then to persuade his pupil to turn these lessons into a more agreeable form of activity (We exchanged more kisses than learned propositions; my hands returned more often to her bosom than to our books.) The uncle was not happy on discovering their relationship, which led to a child named Astrolabe. Although they married--against Heloise's will, for she preferred the title of lover to that of wife--Abelard kept the marriage secret and sent Heloise off to a convent; this was the time when a church career was becoming incompatible with marriage. Interpreting this situation as a disgrace for his niece, Fulbert sent his men to perform on her husband the painful operation.

Abelard and Heloise were in their own world a star couple; each knew the other by reputation before they met, and if Abelard claims to have planned in advance to seduce Heloise, in her part of their correspondence she speaks of her pride in attracting this man who held an irresistable attraction for women, attributable to his talent as a composer of love-songs, one of the many strings to his bow. The most insistent theme in the letters they exchanged is the status of women. Heloise claims that women are inferior to men and require their protection; Abelard insists that, on the contrary, God hears women's prayers more readily than men's; both cite numerous biblical passages as evidence--Heloise mostly from the Old Testament, Abelard, from the New Testament.

Abelard and Heloise, for all their limitations, engaged in the first modern love affair. Unlike the fictional Tristan and Isolde, whose relationship still reflected the love=curse mentality of archaic myth, they enjoyed each other both sexually and intellectually. Yes, theirs was essentially a teacher-student relationship--a phenomenon not exactly unknown in universities today. In its early stages, it was not even devoid of sexual harassment: Abelard claims to have beaten Heloise to force her to cede to his advances, although her letters express an unabashed sensuality that will surprise those who think female orgasm was discovered around 1950. But in this relationship, for arguably the first time, the intimate world of heterosexual affection becomes of comparable significance to the public masculine one. As a counterweight to the nascent bourgeois society that would generate ever more resentment, there would grow up the private world of mutual love. Although they never lived together as husband and wife, it is indeed significant that the couple did marry and have a child (albeit not in that order). Abelard and Heloise, their love all too literally cut short, deserve to be called the creators of the modern ideal of marriage founded on the voluntarily shared tenderness of a couple who shelter each other from the harshly competitive world of the marketplace. [Adapted from Chronicles of Love and Resentment]

Books from Alibris: Heloise

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