13 February 2005

Heloise & Abelard

Cristina Nehring makes some excellent points in her article on the infamous medieval lovers:

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.

I remember reading a column a few months ago that asserted, "The time to get out of a relationship is when things aren't fun anymore." I was dumbfounded that such a facile line could pass as good advice. The idea of self-sacrifice anymore seems linked to words like "repression" and "resignation," rather than "honor" or "selflessness." Or even "love."

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.

Another welcome find from the elusive goldmine of long ago. Anyway, it's a good article, in which she concludes, "There is a crack," the Leonard Cohen lyric goes, "a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."

The brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind draws on Alexander Pope's poem, "Eloisa to Abelard" for more than merely its title. The two complement each other, raising probing questions regarding the nature of love, time, memory, loss, and suffering. When is enough enough? Where is the line between hanging on and letting go?

In my unabashed opinion, if it doesn't transcend time and space, it isn't love. Or as good old Will wrote:

"Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom."

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