Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 759: HELOÏSE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 759.

Today, a story about passion, logic, and creative self-mastery. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

So what became of Héloïse? We read much about her husband Abélard -- the great 12th-century philosopher. We read how Héloïse's uncle's men emasculated Abélard as punishment for keeping their marriage secret. We know they became monk and nun -- then abbot and abbess. Abélard's greatest worldly distraction had been eliminated. But what about Héloïse?

Here's a letter by this brilliant analytical scholar. She's thirty-two. It's thirteen years since she took the veil. She's now prioress of a new cloister -- one that Abélard established.

She and Abélard have been out of touch. She's just read about his first turbulent years as a contentious monk. She writes him. The letter is shocking and uncompromising. She entered the cloister out of love for Abélard, not the love of God. He hasn't written in years. She lives in an agony of sexual frustration. She dissects the situation with logical detachment.

"Talk to me," she cries. "If you can't ease my pain by worldly means, at least write to me." Abélard is rightly jolted. It seems he has no corner on suffering. He writes back. At long last he comes to grips with what has happened to her.

After that, they quickly settle down to business. Now their letters deal with management, the exchange of text material, theological issues. They speak of their love with objective candor. It is a disarming fusion of head and heart.

If Héloïse's first letter makes us wonder what she was doing in a cloister, we miss the point. Héloïse and Abélard hewed to a philosophy of near-Vulcan logic. Each had an eerie ability to face facts. Both were powered by furious emotional forces.

The letters flowed for nine years -- until Abélard's death at sixty-three. Héloïse lived twenty-one years more. She also died at 63. During those years she built the cloister up. She set its philosophical underpinnings. She juggled complex boundary disputes and legal questions. She became an engine of human compassion. The cloister is still there. Héloïse had become an important intellectual leader in the Medieval world.

And in her we meet the hard edge of creative motivation. Which of us doesn't need a lens to focus our intentions? A locus of emotional intensity, however painful, can open our minds to possibilities we'd miss in a more settled world.

Héloïse was an exemplar of candor, directness, logic, and compassion. She mastered pain by meeting it head-on. She empowered herself to heal others. She showed us how we can master ourselves -- if we can just let heart and head serve one another.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Radice, B., The French Scholar-Lover: Héloïse. Medieval Women Writers. (K.M. Wilson, ed.) Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, pp. 90-108.

HELOÏSE TO ABELARD

To her master, or rather her father, husband, or rather brother; his handmaid, or rather his daughter, wife, or rather sister; to Abélard, Héloïse.

Not long ago, my beloved, by chance someone brought me the letter of consolation you had sent to a friend. I saw at once from the surperscription that it was yours, and was all the more eager to read it since the writer is so dear to my heart. I hoped for a renewal of strength, at least from the writer's words which would picture for me the reality I have lost. But nearly every line of this letter was filled, I remember, with gall and wormwood, as it told the pitiful story or our entry into religion and the cross of unending suffering which you, my only love, continue to bear. ...

It is always some consolation in sorrow to feel that it is shared, and any burden laid on several is carried more lightly or removed. And if this storm has quietened down for a while, you must be all the more prompt to send us a letter which will be the more gladly received. But whatever you write about will bring us no small relief in the mere proof that you have us in mind. ...

... God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to called not his Empress but your whore. . . . Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.

Tell me, I say, if you can -- or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it it everyone's. There is nothing personal or private about it. . . . I wish I could think of some explanation which would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you hold me cheap.

... And so, in the name of God to whom you have dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your presence to me in the way you can -- by writing me some word of comfort, so that in this at least I may find increased strength and readiness to serve God. ...

(tr. by Betty Radice)

For Abélard's autobiography, see the website,

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/abelard-histcal.html

And for more on Abélard, see Episode 583.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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