Sunday, August 30, 2009

Abelard

Abelard.

As a kind of side track to the FIlm conversation.
( I should confess I find him fascinating. The relationship with Heloise I always thought was a minor issue that wasn't that interesting. Oh well.)

If he has any role in History it’s as “the invincible arguer” (the phrase is Kenneth Clark’s). At a time when faith and a willingness to bow to authority were all that was required, no matter how daft they seemed, along comes Abelard and argues that reason must be used to support faith. (Come to think of it, the Bernard’s still rule the world.Or at least the educiational one).

The one thing he couldn’t do was avoid an argument. Castrated, publically humiliated at the council of Soisson, and in no position to do anything but keep his mouth shut and attempt invisibility, he still managed to offend almost everyone, including those looking after him, by worrying away at the truth.

There’s a debate about when our idea of “individuality” first appears in European art and literature. The 11/12th century being one candidate. Abelard appears as an individual, not because of the letters, but because of the Historia Calamitatum and only because the genre cracks under the pressure of the story the writer is telling.

He claims that:

“Since therefore I was wholly enslaved to pride and lechery, God’s grace provided a remedy for both these evils, though not one of my choosing; first for my lechery by depriving me of those organs with which I practised it, and then for the pride which had grown in my through my learning-for in the words of the Apostle “Knowledge breeds conceit’-when I was humiliated by the burning of the book of which I was so proud.”

So there are to be two stories: the story a relationship (lechery) and the story of a scholar’s pride in his own reason.

His version of their relationship can be read then not as a honest confession of the facts but as his conscription of the events to fit his stated moral and narrative design. When he decides to seduce someone (and the decision is presented in those terms) he first describes Heloise as ;” In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.” He then writes:

“I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love”. Which I think puts the mockers on the idea that this is a great love story. It’s either painfully honest in its arrogance…if you have decided it’s time to seduce someone, why settle for less than the most intelligent best looking woman available ?…or it could be read it as simply the topos of pride coming before the fall?

His castration and separation from Heloise are his first punishment (for the sin of lechery) and he accepts it in keeping with the overall aim of the Historia.

It’s the second castration that breaks the plan and gives us a sense of Abelard as a man. He can tell the story of his affair with Heloise to fit the pattern; he is proud and vain; he seduces her; he is punished. But he cannot subdue his outrage at his treatment at the council of Soissons to his stated purpose. Accused of Heresy he attended the council ready to argue his case. And the stacked “jury’ knew that no one was going to win an argument with Abelard. So they basically castrated him again: his book was burnt and to prove he was a good Christian he was forced to read the creed. He wasn’t allowed to state his case in his own words; he was forced to read a formula. For a man whose career had been based on the essential role of individual reason in support of faith, and on his ability to verbalise that reasoning in public, it must have been terrible.

He was outraged. You can still hear it. He may have set out to write about his punishment for pride, but you don’t show that by proving the Judge was theologically unsound, or comment after the council:

“all the grief and indignation , the blushes for shame, the agony of despair I suffered then I cannot put into words. I compared my present plight with my physical suffering in the past and judged myself the unhappiest of men. My former betrayal seemed small in comparison with the wrongs I now had to endure and I wept much more for the injury done to my reputation than for the damage to my body, for that I had bought upon myself though my own fault, but this open violence [the burning of his book] had come upon me only because of the purity of my intentions and love of our Faith which had compelled me to write”.

That last, long sentence, doesn’t sound like someone accepting a justifiable punishment to me?


(I can’t read Latin so quotes are taken from Betty Radice’s translation. I also know that it’s quite possible that both the Historia and the letters are forgeries…)

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