My first book for 2006. So good that it caused me to sit up to the wee hours for several nights, and actually sob within myself at the end. I came to deeply love these two people through this book: "Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography," James Burge, (HarperSanFrancisco 2003).
Read about it on James' website at: http://jamesburge.co.uk/a_e/index.htm
This is what it looks like:
Why this big splash about just another book? Because I had told the story of these two ill-fated lovers on this site, but in such a way as to not evoke much empathy with either of them. This book evoked empathy and caused my heart to break, I wept inwardly (you get this sensation of water flowing beneath your cheeks and your jaw becomes jelly and your nose runs) as I read portions of it, and especially the end. Through this book I came to appreciate these two extraordinary people, and their love, in a much more complete and much more complex way.
It is interesting how something unexpected comes along that leads you to open your subconscious 'eyes' and later make an equally unexpected new discovery, is it not? Serendipity is alive and well.
James Cowan, the author of several books that I respect, even revere, in reviews on this web site (see my reviews of his "A Troubadour's Testament " and "A Saint's Way" for just two examples) sent me some notes on what may or may not at some future time become a fictional portrayal of Heloise and Abelard's story. He is just exploring at this point.
But this got me to think again about this pair, whose story, and burial place in Paris I devote several pages to on this site.
That was over a month ago, but it is no doubt this recent stirring up thoughts regarding these two lovers in my subconscious that caused me to walk up to a shelf of books and stop my heretofore unfocused gaze directly at the book cover portrayed above. I was fated to read this book!
So what, you may ask?
Well for one thing I came to see many, many more dimensions to the lives of both of these two lovers. And I came to see that Heloise for one was struggling with the same surprising relationship between sexuality, sensuality, and spirituality that is has been my pleasure to contemplate over the years. Intellectually, as Burge notes on page 205 and elsewhere, she knew that in her religious culture it was assumed that holiness meant resisting even sexual and sensual thought, let alone actions. Yet she celebrates her sexual encounters with Abelard over and over in her mind and refuses to repent of this (excerpted from a longer citation on Burge's page 205):
In my case the pleasures of lovers that we shared have been too sweet--they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts. . . . Everything we did and also the times and places are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you. . . .
Burge discusses the meaning of Heloise's lament here in some detail and shows that Abelard tried to redirect her love and affections to her new spouse, Christ, since she had taken vows. She makes clear (se Burge's page 209) that instead she will maintain her memories with pleasure and settle for a smaller place in heaven. She did not feel damned for who she was and whom and how she loved. I found this very comforting. Her inward suffering over this was limited by her health self-image. Her 'intention' was to continue to love the man she loved, and married. This was not evil.
I appreciated Burge's exploring the issue of sexuality/spirituality quite fully, showing there was ambiguity in the way that the union of Christ and the Church was portrayed as a wedding with all its attendant pleasures (as suggested in the Song of Songs, for example). I was completely unaware that in the final works that Abelard and Heloise created in a cooperative way, in the hymns Abelard wrote for the nuns of abbess Heloise's convent, they invoke this divine wedding imagery in such a way that Burge is left to think, or at least to wonder, whether-- for these two alone-- these verses celebrated both the union of the brides of Christ with their Lord at their wedding, and the past and future union of these two amazingly true lovers.
I was unaware until I read Burge's book that Abelard became a historian of and champion for the continuing importance of women in Christianity. This was at a time that the trend was rapidly moving in the other direction. Had she lived several decades later, Burge suggests, it is doubtful this woman would ever have become an abbess. Burge makes this case quite compellingly. He is looking at the closing in of a conservative storm that chokes off the light from the nations of Europe for several centuries after the brief period of enlightenment in which our characters lived out their celebrated, but truly tragic, lives.
Burge's use of the newly discovered letters from the earlier, clandestine days in the lives of these two lovers illustrates a depth of commitment between the two, including a few lovers' spats, that I had not realized was there before. The new letters explain the mutual devotion and loving yet at times very tense tone of the lovers' latter letters which were published less than a century after their deaths.
But it was not the facts in Burges' book that compelled me to shed water internally and sob a little here and there. It was the spirit of the times and of these two very personal and very passionate people that he captured and conveyed that had me close to external tears at several turns in their life stories. Abelard was not a likable fellow, very often, but in love with Heloise he was quite lovable himself. He changed after his castration, became more attuned to the more normative notions of spirituality and tried to get Heloise to change also, to refocus her love on Christ, but she refused.
But towards the end of his life he worked with her and was a true friend to her. True friend, meaning he devoted time and energy, himself, to meeting her needs and the needs of her nuns. In my world-view that made them lovers again, in every way but physical. Burge's ending is that if this were truly the case, this great love story has a fitting ending after all. Of course it is so! Why else was I melting inside as I finished this book?
OK, was there anything in this book I did not like? Just one thing. Those of you who know of my fondness of everything to do with courtly love will not be surprised at my not feeling in total harmony with Burge's assertion that Heloise and Abelard's correspondence does not fit into that genre (on his page 49):
. . . To us courtly love is mannered and artificial -- masking feelings rather than expressing them, rarefying the dialogue of love to such an extent that it loses its necessary link with the physical realities of a sexual relationship. Heloise, however, is evidently more than equal to the challenge of maintaining that link:
For I often come with parched throat longing to be refreshed by the nectar of your delightful mouth and to drink thirstily the riches scattered in your heart. . .
Do I take issue with this assertion? Not as it applies at this particular moment in the lives of these two lovers, before their separation and Abelard's forced castration, when they were consummating their passion for each other sexually on a frequent basis.
But after this tragedy, and after their long separation when they again became correspondents and true friends, they resumed being lovers in the best sense of the courtly love ideal: they brought out the best in each other culminating in her success as an abbes and some of his best work, both in terms of philosophy and his musical accomplishments. They were fueled in part by the power of true, yet unrequieted, love. In my opinion, this later stage in their love-life was a form of courtly love. So there.
But if out of 280 pages he only raised my mental eyebrow once, and only on page 49, I am in an unusual state of agreement with the content of this book!
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