Tainted Love

What is done out of love is beyond good and evil.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

They developed an ethics of pure intention and true love; but their own affair was born from lust, and collapsed in physical and spiritual anguish. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise reveal two personalities of Shakespearean grandeur, great even when they won’t be good. Their story is unmistakably twelfth-century — and yet equally unmistakable is its relevance to our own time, in which the names of love, conscience, and devotion are marshaled to hallow every sin.

When the teacher met his greatest pupil, their reputations already glittered. Peter Abelard had become famous for his ability to debate on philosophy and theology. Heloise too was renowned for her learning; though likely in her late teens, she had already become one of the few women whose genius was acknowledged in her lifetime. Abelard describes her this way, in his History of My Adversities: “In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.”

He didn’t love her for her mind, though. Abelard is unsparing in his recollection of the true nature of his feelings for her: “I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh.” Her guardian, an uncle, granted him complete control of her education, even allowing him to inflict corporal punishment. In his second letter to Heloise he writes, “Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows.”

And yet she fell in love. When she learned that she was pregnant, she wrote to him not in shame but in an ecstasy of joy. He took a more practical view of the situation. He proposed to marry her secretly, in order to placate her enraged uncle.

At this point Heloise showed the nature she would manifest throughout their correspondence: an unflinching combination of philosophical rigor and amorous idolatry. In the words of the Song of Songs, she was “as terrible as an army with banners.” Abelard recalls that she argued that their marriage “would be nothing but a disgrace and a burden to me.” It would mire him in domesticity rather than in the clear cool air of philosophy. “Heloise . . . argued that the name of mistress instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honorable for me — only love freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie . . . .” Later, when Heloise had a chance to read his History herself, she took him sharply to task not for revealing her immoral pleas, but for overlooking the full extent of her moral thought: “But you kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains.”

Still, Abelard was unmoved. He insisted on the marriage, and she submitted. And then, as she writes, “When we amended our unlawful conduct by what was lawful, and atoned for the shame of fornication by an honorable marriage, then the Lord in his anger laid his hand heavily upon us . . . .” Heloise’s uncle sent men after Abelard; he was ambushed, castrated, and disgraced. Abelard decided that the two lovers — now husband and wife — would enter religious life; he asked her to go before him, in a sign of mistrust she never forgot.

Abelard becomes a much-persecuted monk, Heloise a well-respected abbess. Yet her letters to Abelard are suffused with passion and rage. She thinks lustfully of him at Mass; she accuses God of injustice and perverse cruelty; she insists that she has acted out of obedience to Abelard, not to God.

You alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort . . . . 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. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. . . . My heart was not in me but with you, and now, even more, if it is not with you it is nowhere; truly, without you it cannot exist.

Heloise is consistent. She is also deeply willful, the least submissive self-proclaimed doormat in human history. Her abnegation is its own form of self-aggrandizement, a serpentine Mobius strip of pride. Even Etienne Gilson, whose sympathy for both lovers comes through on every page of his terrific study Heloise and Abelard, finds himself forced to note, “One hesitates to say this, but the passion for spiritual grandeur which is the secret source of their life story seems never to have been completely pure.” Gilson portrays her, believably, as a woman whose thirst for heroism was her tragic flaw. Better to serve Abelard in Hell — where she can find no reward, and thus face no accusation of self-interest, her heroism shining brightly and alone — than to serve God in Heaven.

When I first read the Letters, I found it hard to sympathize with the lovers. I was an undergraduate, so I was very hard on Heloise’s melodrama — people enmeshed in melodrama themselves tend to judge other players very harshly. Abelard came across as creepily detached and self-absorbed: She pours out her anguish, he replies with the gas bill and the grocery list.

This time around, I approached them more tenderly. Heloise is shockingly lonely, having followed her love for Abelard — the one piece of herself she clings to — into a desolate plain where neither lover nor God can be found. Meanwhile, Abelard fumbles through his responses and attempts to efface himself from their correspondence as completely as possible. He throws himself away with both hands. She never surrenders; he never does anything else. He was prepared to love God by his prior love for Heloise, his superior in so many ways. She had no similar preparation, since idolatry, devotion to what is less than oneself, is the opposite of love of God.

Her letters hone philosophy to its sharpest edge. “Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it is done.”

But how can we accurately describe our own intentions? How well do we know why we do things, and to what extent must we incorporate judgment of the act itself into judgment of the intention — in other words, is there a category of “you should have known!”, by which some acts are wrong no matter how well-meaning the actors believe themselves to be? How do we know which acts are self-deceiving, or what love requires? Given that the category “love” can be misunderstood by individuals and their culture, does it really make sense to say that love purifies all actions? Does what Gilson called the “ethics of pure love” dissolve into an ethics of self-misunderstanding and semantics?

These questions are at least as relevant to us as they were to Heloise. Distorted echoes of her ethics can be heard everywhere today: “I’m a good person, there’s no way what I said was racist.” “I’ve searched my conscience and I really don’t see how torture can be wrong if it’s necessary to protect our country.” “I love my partner, and we’re faithful to each other, and I don’t think God would ever be against love.” “I love you so much, and that’s why I can’t let you stay in this house as long as you say that you’re gay.” And sentences beginning, “I’m a devout Catholic,” always end with proclamations of dissent from the Church’s moral teaching.

Perhaps the aspect of Heloise’s writing most applicable to all of us is her need to sacrifice. She plunged through the world seeking a pyre to die on. She could have been a great hero of Christian faith, facing lions with equanimity. But instead God called her to sacrifice precisely her heroism, the insistent and individual glory of her love, and this she would not do — at least not in the letters we have.

It’s a hard lesson, and Heloise learned it with more suffering than many of us: The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the sacrifices God wants from you.

By

Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com and http://evesjournalismandstuff.blogspot.com. She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU