Letters

A "hodgepodge of stoner logic," or a great story of Christian eroticism? Readers respond to "Lust, Revenge and the Religious Right in 12th Century Paris."


Salon Staff
December 22, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Priya Jain's review of James Burge's biography of Heloise and Abelard is the most absurd hodgepodge of stoner logic that Salon has ever published, and its clumsy attempt to like totally draw parallels between that major tight ass Bernard of Clairvaux and George W. Bush does a disservice to Burge's efforts. Jain rages against the "anti-intellectual" movement (they are like totally medieval in their thinking, man!), smugly assuming she is one of the intellectuals being shoved aside. Jain's review, however, places her squarely amid the howling bozos she derides.

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Jain begins: "Since the morning of Nov. 3, that old saying about being doomed to repeat history has never felt so urgent. Nary a whisper about the past can float by without those of us still reeling over the "moral values" vote wondering what earlier times have to tell us about our own ... If we really want to know the history we've been doomed to repeat, we have to return 900 years, to medieval Paris."

The absurdity of this beginning aside -- what is a "whisper about the past"? and have you heard one recently? -- what history, according to Jain, are we doomed to repeat? Are a man and a woman going to have an affair, be parted by forces beyond their control, and then write letters to one another? The modern parallel is still a bit foggy, Jain.

Wait a minute, here it is: "While the era's worldview was dramatically different from our own, its political battles were strikingly similar. The reform movement, which you might call the religious right of its day, believed that not only sex but also sexual fantasies were inherently evil, and enforced chastity was high on its agenda ... Burge puts the controversial love story of Abelard and Heloise squarely in the middle of this movement, and the result is a riveting study of faith and sex, set against a conservative uprising so familiar it will make you gasp with recognition."

Jain's ridiculous generalization -- ever caught an episode of "Desperate Housewives," "Oz," "The Sopranos," or seen a Britney Spears video, Priya? Can you honestly argue that the sexual fantasies of Americans are underrepresented? If only -- she's further undercut by her contradictory claim that while shockingly similar, the worldview of medieval Paris and downtown San Francisco are "dramatically different." Different but very much the same? But why dwell on the differences when we can dig into the similarities that Jain works so little to create.

And so we come to the gasp-inducing evidence Jain provides for her belief that Bernard of Clairvaux and George W. are medieval contemporaries. He writes: "...Bernard used the logic of preemptive war to persuade the pope to condemn Abelard and his friends: "They have each drawn their bows and filled their quivers with arrows; now they lie in ambush ready to fire at unsuspecting hearts."

The logic of preemptive war? sounds more like an extended metaphor to me. But why trifle with accurate representations of language when you can follow up one misrepresentation with this doozy: "Bernard would eventually persuade Europe to launch the second crusade -- a military expedition in the Middle East, built on an abstract moral idea, that would result in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Sound familiar?"

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No, actually, it doesn't. It sounds like an irresponsible, anti-intellectual leap made by a propagandist in training. It sounds like a lot of the mindless crap masquerading as thoughtful editorial Salon is posting lately.

According to Jain, Burge wrote "an excellent study of medieval thought, but it doesn't go far enough." Is it possible to go further than that? Maybe Jain should aim so high, instead of settling for a ham-fisted attack on George W. Bush. If you want to write about the war, Jain, write about the war.

-- Flannery Dean

Priya Jain attributes the coinage of "theology" to the 12th century monk Abelard. I'm not sure where that attribution came from, but it's off by about 16 centuries.

According to the 3rd edition Danker-Bauer Greek Lexicon, the combination of "theos" and "logos" dates back at least to Aristotle. It was used in something like the modern sense by the Jewish apologist Philo prior to the Christian era.

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-- Rev. J. Andrew Scott

I find Priya Jain's review of James Burge's new biography of Abelard and Heloise a bit maddening. At various times, the reviewer seems to recognize some of the many misconceptions that hold sway in our own times regarding the so-called Middle Ages: Even the notion of those centuries as a "middle" time, in which little of import happened, philosophically or culturally, comes in for a good, albeit brief, critique. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter, a comparison is made between Bernard of Clairvaux and George W. Bush. Next, it is claimed that Abelard somehow represents "faith with reason" while Bernard represents "faith without reason" and that, with the condemnation of Abelard, the faction backing faith without reason "won" somehow.

It seems to me more than misleading to name those in the camp of Bernard (himself the author of a fine commentary on the Song of Songs), as "faith without reason." Moreover it strikes me as completely senseless to say that they somehow "won" in the end. In the end of what, first of all, if the Middle Ages are in fact, as Jain notes, the beginning of the modern age? If those forces won, moreover, then one might well ask about the later ascendancy of "reason" in the form of neo-Aristotelian philosophy applied to theology in the 13th century (despite the Paris condemnations of 1277), the impulse for the Reformation -- which saw, in Luther's own words, the philosophy of the 13th through 15th centuries as "the mind set on the flesh [and] hostile to God" -- and even the need for the attempts at reformation (against widespread concubinage among clerics and monks, etc.), which preceded this Reformation -- from within the Catholic Church -- in the 15th century. Or what are we to make, for example, of the spiritualist movement among the Franciscans up to the time of William of Ockham, and the conflict between this movement and John the XXII, if those supposedly backing "faith without reason" won in any definitive way? It would seem that either we must conclude that they didn't win after all, or there was no such "they" to begin with.

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It is disappointing to me, as someone who researches the history of philosophy in this period, that after having made some incisive critiques of conception of the so-called Middle Ages as a sort of dark age, Jain seems intent on plunging them back into this tired old wineskin, just for the sake of some misguided (if not un-amusing) comparisons to our own time.

In reading this review, with its combination of insight and misleading characterization (and of course, some of the fault may be that of Burge -- I have yet to read the book), I was rather disappointed. Perhaps my expectations are too high, but it seems to me that one ought to refrain from too easy comparisons, even if it makes for a sort of politico-sexual "potboiler" of an article (which clearly the title intends). Certainly one doesn't expect a review of a popular book in a popular online journal to be a footnoted affair, as if it were a presentation at a scholarly conference, but one would hope that at least it would avoid misleading oversimplifications.

-- Daniel O'Connell

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It is curious that the article does not mention that according to previous scholars, Fulbert had some interest in his niece. It is that sense of betrayal that could explain the fury of his vengeance. Also, the article does not mention that the perpetrators of Fulbert's vengeance were chased by Abelard's neighbors and suffered the same fate as Abelard, only with the further disgrace of being blinded as well. The story of Abelard and Heloise was bloody, there is no doubt of that.

-- Arturo Dalmau

Quite possibly the most poignant treatment of Eloisa's sexuality comes from an unexpected direction, Alexander Pope's epistolary ode, "Eloisa to Abelard." Here's the moment when prayerful meditation in church becomes orgasm:

When from the censer clouds of fragrance roll,/ And swelling organs lift the rising soul,/ One thought of thee puts all the pomp to flight,/ Priests, tapers, temples, swim before my sight:/ In seas of flame my plunging soul is drown'd,/ While altars blaze, and angels tremble round. (271-76)

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No doubt the "real" Eloise does not have the doubts that Pope imagines elsewhere and that constitute the dramatic power of the poem. Nonetheless, the poem is a tour de force of psychological verisimilitude.

-- Alberto Cacicedo

Priya Jain's article on Abelard and Heloise is a great story of "a Christianity that can accommodate eroticism, a faith that doesn't preclude desire." Which is the hallmark of that era, not merely confined to two people. The 12th century was the time of the troubadour, of unrequited courtly love as passed down to us in the stories of knights and their ladies. Think about the love triangles of Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot and Mark-Isolde-Tristan. These relationships were metaphors for human relationships with God -- we could rewrite the triangle to be priest-us-God.

The typical metaphor is Christ playing the groom, and the church (or the people) in the role of his bride, where we are wedded to Jesus with all that implies -- subservience, faith, etc. In contrast, the 12th century saw the rise of an alternative way of relating to God, one that was outside societal control. Since God is so powerful, awesome and supernatural, a better metaphor would be a relationship of love outside marriage, that is, one not controlled by the state or church.

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Today we talk about a personal relationship to God, one-to-one, not mandated or regulated by the church. In the 12th century, this was heresy. But the church's control of the secular and sacred spheres was stifling the populace, and so, as Jung tells us, their unconscious desire makes itself visible -- in this case, a desire for a different relationship with God. And so the people created new myths that speak to their wants and fears.

Heloise, in her reluctance to be merely a "wife," was not only resisting the societal restrictions such a role involves, but also refusing the spiritual restrictions in place at the time. This does not diminish her position as a feminist icon, but adds to it another dimension, that of religious rebel.

It should also be noted the influence of trade with the Orient that was starting around this time as well. There are several stories of Krishna as an adulterous lover -- a key role for him, slipping into our world and seducing the wife of an unsuspecting fool. Which is what God does all the time, slipping past the eyes of the church officials, to remind us of what is important in our lives.

-- Matthew Radcliff

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