Monday, February 14, 2005

Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts

The New York Times > Books >Christina Nehring offers a fine wrap-up review on the bevy of Heloise & Abelard books on the shelves.
The story of Abelard and Heloise hardly resonates with the spirit of our age. Not least, its origins in the classroom offend: teachers, we know, are not supposed to fall in love with their students. 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. Nobody who takes the veil on the command of her husband and swears ''complete obedience'' to him can hope to sneak into the bastion of feminism. Today, even the high romance of the couple's liaison strikes us as foreign: all that sacrifice and intensity! We live in a time of broad antiromanticism when teenagers, according to The Times Magazine, have given up on relationships altogether and adults write to the editor to salute their wisdom. ''Romance?'' scoffed one correspondent. It's just ''an excuse . . . to work off sexual energy.''

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. How else to account for the flurry of new writing on these two ill-fated 12th-century lovers?

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