Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Stealing Heaven: A Remembrance


Tomb of Abelard and Heloise
 Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

It is a challenge to review a movie one fell in love with years before, and only recently rediscovered on Amazon Video. The challenge is not to dwell on irrelevancies that occur in the film and which are not fact-based, and do not occur in any of the narratives of the history of the romance… I immediately bought the video and have watched it a dozen times. I have not yet read Marion Meade’s novel of the same title   it has not to date arrived in the mail – but I suspect that the film and Meade’s novel diverge at certain points. So I cannot pass judgment on the novel, though I doubt it will disappoint me.

Abelard was Heloise’s highest value, and she never let it go. In her letters to him, she reluctantly revealed that God was his only rival.
  
The emotional, intellectual arguments that comprise the contents of their letters, in the film are scant and brief, with no hint near the end that they had been in correspondence, no hint of the depth in which they were morally and psychologically immersed the  “self-isolation” in their monastic environments.. The introduction states that, ” The letters of Abelard and Heloise were written in Latin about the year 1128, and were first published in Paris in 1616.” Heloise was less concerned about her “repentance” than was Abelard about his (in fact, to judge by his letters, he was consumed by the “duty,”  that he had not repented enough to satisfy God);  his consciousness of his passion for Heloise grows dimmer and dimmer by the sentence, until, in his last letter to her, he asks her not to contact him again..

WRITE no more to me, Heloise, write no more to me; ’tis time to end communications which make our penances of nought avail. We retired from the world to purify ourselves, and, by a conduct directly contrary to Christian morality, we became odious to Jesus Christ. Let us no more deceive ourselves with remembrance of our past pleasures; we but make our lives troubled and spoil the sweets of solitude. Let us make good use of our austerities and no longer preserve the memories of our crimes amongst the severities of penance. Let a mortification of body and mind, a strict fasting, continual solitude, profound and holy meditations, and a sincere love of God succeed our former irregularities.

Abelard was the lesser of the pair. He was completely committed to God, whereas Heloise hated having to be a nun and living in the Paraclete abbey, and at night would have dreams about being close to Abelard. As I remarked before, Fulbert's castration of Abelard "knocked the wind" out of him, that is, erased all desire and capacity to have "earthly" values, not just loving Heloise, and he went on and on to her about his and Heloise's need to "repent" for having "offended" God. Heloise did not back off an inch, and ached to have a letter from him as a means of being with him again. 

Abelard's intent to "repent" wiped out all desire to even remember his passion for her. Heloise never forgot her passion for him, and kind of forgave him for losing his for her. The first scene of her tossing the crucifix against the wall underscores her hatred for the Church and substantiates what she said in her letters to Abelard.  She wrote at one point that he was no longer a "man," just a "person," a "man' being  her tactful, delicate reference to his castration.

While Heloise and Abelard are out walking in the country, she captures a feather from a startled dove. In the film, she tells him, “This will be my holy relic.” It foreshashadows her future, a lonely, isolated life in the Paraclete abbey, long after Abelard has died and was buried in the abbey’s grounds. The dove’s feather, which is the focus of the first scene in the movie, is removed from the pedestal of a crucifix by Heloise on her death bed. "This will be my own holy relic." She had had secreted it in the pedestal,  decades before she took her vows of chastity. Then she tosses the crucifix against the wall, in a violent rejection of Christianity and of the morality which separated her from Abelard, and whispers, rather mysteriously, “I understand.”

Abelard and Heloise Surprised 
by Abbot Fulbert,
by Jean Vignaud, [1819]
Towards the end of the film, Abelard seems to have reconciled his necessity to “repent” with remembering his joy with Heloise. That change of mind  is not in the record. The film’s denouement is so much better than the record. On a Christmas Eve in the new abbey Heloise says to him, “You owe me something.” He replies “It’s practically the law,”  he replies, remembering their days together in Paris. And he kisses her.

Inconsequently, my own tossing of a crucifix occurred when, at the age of 16, I told my adoptive parents that I was an atheist. The result was my being interviewed by the parish priest –  a useless “talking to” –  and then by the parents, who were Catholic, burning my small collection of books, which included science and history titles. I did not “repent” and did not entertain any thoughts of it. I was willing to face whatever would happen after I made my declaration.

But, that’s another story.