An IWF Valentine tradition is to urge the return to the campus of Cupid–we much prefer the cute little fella with the bow and arrow to the playwright with the dirty mouth. We say: Down with V-Day productions of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” and up with Valentine’s Day and Cupid!
Romance, dates, and flowers–we think these are so much nicer that hooking up, getting dumped, and self-involved meditation on, well, not our navels but our vaginas. As unabashed fans of Valentine’s Day, we were pretty miffed that, on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, the New York Times book section chose to do a feminist reeducation piece on two of history’s greatest lovers, Abelard and Heloise, the star-crossed Valentines of the thirteenth century.
Interestingly, the feminist take on Abelard and Heloise appeared on the same day as The Other Charlotte’s terrific L.A. Times piece on feminism and the dearth of female intellectuals. “Where are the great women thinkers? Thinking so much about women has shrunk their minds,” the lead-in to her piece stated. Well, it’s clear that the feminist who reviewed five new books that are coming out on Abelard and Heloise just couldn’t get her mind around a love story that has been dazzling us for nearly a thousand years.
“The story of Abelard and Heloise hardly resonates with the spirit of our age,” Cristina Nehring, author of a forthcoming history of feminism and romance, wrote in yesterday’s New York Times. “Heloise, moreover, is no feminist heroine, despite having been one of the best-educated women of her age and writing some of its most affecting prose.”
Gee, the story has resonated for the past millennium or so, but not today: Just to recap the saga: When Heloise met Abelard, he was a philosopher and one of the most dynamic professors in Europe–students flocked to Paris to hear his discourse. Falling in love with Heloise was not a great career move for Abelard, who, while not a priest, was in minor orders, but they loved each other deeply, were secretly married and even produced a son. Not pleased, the canon Fulbert, Heloise’s powerful uncle, had Abelard castrated by his henchmen and forced both lovers to enter the monastery. They wrote letters to each other and Abelard continued his penchant for becoming embroiled in one philosophical dispute after the other.
What kind of woman was Heloise? Etienne Gilson, the great twentieth century theological historian, considered Heloise an intensely Christian thinker who did not want to marry Abelard because marriage would be a handicap for a philosopher, given the overlap of theology and philosophy in the twelfth century.
Heloise may not be a feminist heroine–it’s her obedience in entering the convent that disqualifies her–but Ms. Nehring nevertheless approvingly portrays her as somebody who has cast off Christianity in favor of something better: “Love is Heloise’s religion, even when she’s wrapped in the robes of a nun. And in the practice of this religion, she is uncompromising as she is unconventional. For her love has no business with the law or money or social safety nets [though in the twelfth century, she probably didn’t speak of social safety nets]. It is for this reason, more than any other, that she opposes Abelard’s desire to wed: ’I never sought anything in you except yourself….I looked for no marriage bond.’ Indeed, she proclaims, ’if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore.’”
Nehring can only see Heloise in the terms to today’s feminist dogma:
“At once intrepid and idealistic, transgressive and submissive, taboo-busting and sweet-natured, noble and naughty, [Heloise’s letters] have seduced scholars for centuries. This woman, this prioress, who was prepared to sacrifice not just earthly reputation but heavenly salvation for the sake of her secular love, is a literary original. Petrarch couldn’t read her without scribbling exclamations in the margins; the three letters to Abelard that have come down to us from her monastic confinement have sufficed to make her name as a writer.”
Well, no doubt Heloise felt she was risking her immortal soul, but I’m not sure that this is as much of a rejection of Christianity as Nehring thinks. After all, the Song of Solomon was pretty hot, too, and it doesn’t imply an embrace of the secular. Nehring simply has to refashion Heloise to make her, if not a feminist heroine, more acceptable to the twentieth century feminist. You almost expect her to compare Heloise’s love letters to Eve Ensler’s play!
It is undoubtedly true that Heloise and Abelard enjoyed theological discussions, and it is quite likely that this brainy woman helped her man in his philosophical pursuits. But Nehring, hewing to feminist stereotypes, presents Heloise as helpmeet to a pious and self-centered man, made cold by an interest in religion. She made him do his best work–you almost expect Nehring to claim Abelard’s best work as solely Heloise’s. But she doesn’t.
Let me suggest a reason for this: Within Nehring’s parochial feminist perspective, Heloise can be seen as a soul-risking, sex-crazed intellectual. She may have been too obedient to become a full-fledged feminist, but she is not without value. She’s Heloise on a hit tin roof. Abelard’s work, on the other hand, deals with ideas that may have animated philosophers of the past but are all but unknown to Ms. Nehring. He’s harder to fit into her parochial worldview:
“Abelard wasn’t just Heloise’s suitor; he was also one of the most notable philosophers of his day. But as anybody who has tried to slog through his theological arguments can attest, they no longer raise many eyebrows. Theories that got him condemned for heresy in his own century — about the relative power of each member of the Trinity — are not what nail us to our seats today.”
Even though I’ve always viewed Abelard as a sort of trendy philosopher of the twelfth century, he certainly deserves more credit than this. He established a system for disquisition and (pace Ms. Nehring) delved into ideas of enduring meaning for some of us.
The reductionist feminist perspective on Abelard and Heloise makes both less than they were.