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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Hayden

Love Letters

On my birthday last month, I visited the library. The heavy stack of books I lugged back to my car included, among others, The Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz; Letters to Milena (those written by Franz Kafka) and The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. I've been increasingly more interested in love letters of late. Perhaps because I am a writer I find epistolary romance to be among the greatest exchanges of love.

I've been back to the library at least thrice [sidenote: I've always loved the word 'thrice.' Thanks, Shakespeare] since then and have digested other books. In fact I've barely touching the aforementioned trio I had so eagerly checked out in April. But even from what I've read so far of these exchanges, I'm blown away by their devotion and candor, one that sustained over years and years. And not to mention the patience it took back then to send a letter and await a response.

The expressions I'm most enamored with as of now are those of Heloise to Abelard. In case you are unfamiliar with their story, I will quickly summarize:

In 12th Century France, Abelard was a philosopher and Heloise, already a very learned (albeit younger) woman, became his brilliant scholar. They fell in love, though this was forbidden. Heloise became pregnant. They got married in secret and she was was moved to a convent for protection. Heloise's uncle, who was her guardian, found out and Abelard was castrated. He became a monk, she became a nun, and they corresponded through love letters for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a dramatic film but this actually happened.

Below is an excerpt from a New York Times article (emphasis mine):

The letters written after the "Historia Calamitatum" are the richest, containing the rash, ringing, reckless and altogether impious declarations of love for which Heloise will always be known. Here is a voice that refuses to stay in the Middle Ages; it reaches through the centuries and catches us at the throat. "Men call me chaste," she writes. "They do not know the hypocrite I am." Even during the celebration of Mass, she confesses, "lewd visions" of the pleasures she shared with Abelard "take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost." She asserts the primacy of desire, boldly professing the amorous, sacrilegious motives that drove her into the convent: "It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone. . . . I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him. . . . I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of hell." Her bravado, her defiance, her ruthless honesty and her apotheosis of eros over morality are everywhere apparent -- and still today they are shocking. Love is Heloise's religion, even when she's wrapped in the robes of a nun. And in the practice of this religion, she is as uncompromising as she is unconventional. For her, love has no business with the law or money or social safety nets. It is for this reason, more than any other, that she opposes Abelard's desire to wed: "I never sought anything in you except yourself. . . . I looked for no marriage bond." Indeed, she proclaims,"if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore."

And I'm just reading this like...oh, shit. That's some powerful shit. All three of these books though have reminded me of love's potency, and of how beautiful I think it is when represented on the page. It also makes me feel fortunate that I can be privy to their stories, like I'm being let in on a little secret decades (or even centuries, in the case of A & H) later.

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