1996-01-14: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (Abelard 1079-1142, Heloise ~1095-1164)

Tr. by Betty Radice (1974)

This collection includes Abelard’s Historia calamitatum, four personal letters between Heloise and Abelard, three letters concerning direction (one summarized), and five other letters concerning Abelard.

The letters and their story are interesting for the contrast between three realms of experience. The love story between Abelard and Heloise is firmly in the biological realm. The conflict between Abelard and his rivals, and others whom he offended is entirely in the social realm. The final phase of the relations between Abelard and Heloise is largely in the reflective realm. The mere fact that two people led such intense lives in three realms is unusual enough to commend their story. The individual stories of each realm individually are also interesting in themselves. Even though the formalities of medieval letter writing interfere to a certain extent, the personalities of Abelard and Heloise are strong enough to make them interesting as persons.

Perhaps a modern reader cannot help analyze the psychological makeup of two such protagonists. Certainly Abelard had certain flaws, not least of which was pride. In many ways, Heloise seems the more attractive personality. I think my overriding impression is of waste. That two such people should have such a love, and such talents; and must lose the love to the jealousy and hatred of others unworthy to understand them, and must spend their talents in so restrictive a realm of activity as the mediaeval monastery is a great statement on the nature of their times.

I read this work on the recommendation of Rexroth. Here is some of what he had to say:

Not only are the protagonists cast in molds more heroic than almost any creatures of fiction, not only are the motivations and issues of tragic love probed more deeply and exposed more candidly, but simply as a literary work the documents in the case of these two lovers surpass the talents of Flaubert, Stendahl, or Choderlos de Laclos.

I cannot vouch for the authors he mentioned, but otherwise must agree.

[Choderlos de Laclos] attempts to describe actors who defy Socrates’ rule, and, perfectly conscious of the good, choose evil. Unless one is an incorrigible optimist, this is not really a difficult task. Life provides the novelist with plenty of examples. Héloise and Abelard struggle with a far deeper problem. They are equipped with more powerful intelligences than are common amongst the writers of literature. They have a capacity for analytical psychology and insight into their own motives unknown until modern times, and then certainly practiced largely in reference to others and seldom on oneself. Driving them from sentence to sentence is actual, not fictional, passion – the memory, but the living reality in memory, of an insuperable physical and spiritual love. It is this which gives to their words a terrible impetuosity and glamour so that each sentence partakes of a dramatic intensity.

… His prose is amongst the finest of the Middle Ages, whatever he is writing about. It is surpassed only by Héloise’s in the then unique subject matter of their letters.

Again, I can only agree with Rexroth, and I must recommend the remainder of his essay. I cannot improve upon it.

At the risk of being pedantic, let me address the aspect that Rexroth could not know: the memetics of Abelard and Heloise. Abelard was born into a high social position, and might have succeeded to his father’s estate, but for his love and talent for study. He formally gave up his rights as eldest son. This story is unusual enough, and involves the adoption of a personal value (amplified from his father) placing position in the social realm in lower esteem than progress in the reflective realm.

Once embarked on his chosen field of study, his talent soon placed him above his teachers, and his fellow-students, arousing envy and hatred in some, and resulting in his persecution. As he surmounted every obstacle, his pride and self-absorption grew. Eventually he came to feel the desire to surmount the challenges of the biological realm, and lust grew in him. Apparently cold-heartedly, he selected as the object of his desire the one woman who was suitably attractive biologically, and (perhaps naturally, for him) presented a mentality that could interest him.

Their affair was thoroughly biological, and evidently gave both of them great pleasure. The relationship between them, evidently both broad and deep, inevitably grew into Love. Carried out under the roof and nose of her unsuspecting guardian, their affair eventually became known and aroused the hatred of Héloise’s family. The reaction of the family began in the social realm, with restrictions on their interaction. When this failed to stop them, it moved into the biological realm. While this could have involved any form of injury, or even death, for either participant, the actual fact was the most tragic that can be imagined, ending their biological relationship in the most effective way possible.

Their immediate reaction was again in the social realm, though the motivation was entirely Abelard’s. Héloise was in a (social) position such that she could scarcely choose any other course of action, a position she knew to be unwise, but in which she followed Abelard’s wishes.

The remainder of their lives were spent in the church. For Abelard, much of this time was spent in the social realm, in conflict with various authorities. However, much of it was also in the reflective realm, as he attempted to influence theologists, abbots, monks, and others to adopt his understanding of the teaching of the scriptures. For Héloise, apparently much of this time was spent in the social realm, trying to live up to Abelard’s opinion of her greatness, but not truly repenting their previous life together. Her reflective struggle against Abelard ended with apparent acquiescence, but in word only; she kept her thoughts to herself.

Eventually, Abelard was forced to lower his voice in the realm of theology, and he escaped from persecution into meditation. Certainly his career influenced many in the reflective realm of the church, but it also raised great suspicion. I cannot judge the ultimate effect he had in that realm.

Such a story cannot help being attractive. However, faced with two such powerful personalities, I cannot help but shrink back a bit; they are too daunting. Nonetheless, though I might have quailed at meeting either of them, I am glad to have the evidence of their lives and thought.

 [see Lost Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise]

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