Saturday, March 05, 2005

Time Captured! Love Lost!

Okay, give me a moment to boast. After more false starts than I can remember, I recently finished reading Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and am now recovering from a post-reading madeleine-induced literary hangover. Coincidentally, on the same day I finished reading the final pages of “Time Regained”, I ran across this article in “Slate” about troubles facing the recent Penguin translation. (Incidentally, I read the 1981 revised translation.)
But while following the adventures of the obsessed Marcel and his high society friends, I’ve let a few other reviews fall by the wayside. I’ll try to get most of them placed in this spot over the next few days, starting with this:

Like many people, my knowledge of the story of Abelard and Heloise was limited, brief - and largely incorrect: Gifted medieval teacher falls in love with student; Angry family members force them to separate and punish the teacher by castrating him. She goes into a convent, he to a monastery. End of story.
The details, as revealed by James Burge in “Heloise & Abelard: a new biography” are much more complicated and compelling than the shorthand version that simply places the pair on the list of Western cultures Great Doomed Love Affairs. Abelard was a prodigious philosopher and, according to Burge, the most famous man of his time (at least within the world of French religious philosophy). Heloise, his star pupil, was nearly his equal. And despite the scandal and misfortune, Abelard continued to have a prosperous career, at least until his own egotism brought him into disfavor with better-placed figures within the church. Despite the relatively sparse information available about them, their intense love affair and later efforts to reconcile their indignation over personal tragedy with the demands of religious life upholds the story’s reputation. In Burge’s account, one gets a sense not only of historical perspective but of a personal drama reconstructed from a respectful distance but passionate nonetheless.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the story is that after years of separation (Abelard appears to have forced Heloise into convent life after their marriage, even before being assaulted by her relatives) the pair actually ended up living and working together. But rather than reaching a peaceful and happy ending to their story, Burge’s account reveals a recognizably modern sense of frustration in the couple’s history. Abelard comes off as a bit of a self-righteous prig, while the ever-faithful Heloise, rising to prominence within the cloistered life, seems almost desperately looking for some confirmation that their romance was the most meaningful experience of their lives. Alas, it was never to come. Burge’s book gives us a new perspective on the oft-told story, giving us a version that is neither romantic nor tragic (although it contains traces of both) but unexpectedly modern, a story about a displaced and unattainable desire.

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