“As Abelard said to Heloise, don’t forget to drop a line to me please.”

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.

Love stories. I’ve been reading more love stories, I have a collection of them and they enchant me. Cole Porter’s titular lyric line above has been known to me for a few decades and I was only tangentially aware of who the two lovers were, but I finally I got around to reading their letters just recently. The illusion, or perhaps allusion, that I had was that here were two lovers in high medieval times separated, for whatever reason, and to keep their love alive they wrote letters to each other. I imagined that there were a lot of letters. In fact there were only five – and one of these, the first, is debatable as to whom it was written to.

Porter’s inclusion of ‘drop a line to me please’ is probably a reference to the length of the letters, they are long and descriptive and interesting on a number of levels.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the change in direction for BoW, and so far most of what I’ve thought about suggests that it is probably a good decision. I have considered the course notes about genre, where would it fit – under “personal journeys and fictional autobiography”? Probably. My single greatest concern though is whether I should purposefully leave me in the frame as an autobiographic account, or whether I should develop another narrative – about some other – which would also be, by its very existence, somewhat autobiographical

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French scholastic philosopher and the greatest logician of the twelfth century. He taught mainly in Paris where his fame attracted students from all over Europe and laid the foundations of the University of Paris. “From the letters of Abelard and Heloise” Penguin 1974 – introduction.

Describing his first impression of Heloise he notes in the first letter “…In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm…. I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at that time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love…” ibid p11

I’ve looked again at David Favrod, Johanna Ward and Lena Aliper (I have written to both Aliper and Ward and both have been very generous with information and time). At first I wondered how I could begin this work, I have this very vague notion that at the end will be a series of images linked with some situating text! However until a short while ago I had no idea how, or why, that work would appear. Ward notes, in her introduction to the piece “I shall say goodbye…” The story unfolds to reflect on love, land, morality and control, in a place where time is not linear and the past, present and future find themselves sharing uncommon ground; the beginning is not the beginning and the end is not the end, and like the filing away of our memories, order is in disarray. I have a very strong sense that I want my narrative to talk about love, maybe fidelity (in it’s wider sense) as well. So I decided to read:

Abelard develops a strategy to ‘bed’ Heloise, he approaches her guardian (the age of Heloise is not certain, though at least 10 years younger, maybe 20, also her guardian might be her uncle, it could possibly be her father and where she received her education prior to her being ‘chosen’ by Abelard isn’t recorded anywhere), Abelard convinces him that he would be an excellent choice to tutor Heloise privately, and in their the guardian’s home. This is agreed and Abelard set’s about his primary purpose: “ Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages;…. To avoid suspicion I sometimes struck her, but these blows were prompted by love and tender feeling rather than anger and irritation, and were sweeter than any balm could be. In short, our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more eagerly for our previous experience, and were the less easily sated.” ibid p12/13

These edited (high?)lights elicit imagery that I feel could be rendered, see here: “You know the depths of shame to which my unbridled lust had consigned our bodies, until no reverence for decency or for God…. Could keep me from wallowing in this mire. Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature. I often forced you to consent with threats and blows…” ibid p104

This rendering though is mine, despite Abelard’s admission above and his admission that he was “..(in) the slough of filth in which I had been wholly immersed in mind as in body.” Ibid p105. And this is without the overt racism detailed in the final letter!

Visual interpretations of this text, these motifs – perhaps the overriding one of power and control – come perhaps all too readily to mind. I need/feel the narrative should be less intense, smaller somehow. Favrod’s contemplation on the “Hikari” work “This work represents my compulsion to build and shape my own memory. To reconstitute some facts I haven’t experienced myself, but have unconsciously influenced me while growing up….Somehow, I would say that I borrowed their memories. I use their stories as source of inspiration for my own testimony.” This idea of purposefully constructing a narrative from the vestigial memory of both his grandparents testimony and his remembering of it during a single night’s conversation, whilst certainly more ephemeral, perhaps gets closer to a truth?

Lena Aliper’s introduction to the “Jack and Jill Story” is thus: “Jack and Jill Story is a mapping of personal deliriums bound up with being in love. The girl’s body is studied as it reinvents itself seeking to become an idealised image to be offered to her lover.” Is it Aliper’s body? And therefore an autobiography? Or is there another layer to the narrative that brings into play multiple personalities or people? And yet I can ‘see’ references to the letters of Abelard and Heloise, perhaps more easily those of Heloise in Aliper’s text (both visual and textual), for example in the complete work that Aliper provided me it is written: “A question that quite naturally rose: it is known how Jill fell in love with Jack, but is anything known about what happened on Jack’s part? Did Jack fall in love with Jill? And if Jack fell in love with Jill, how did it happen?” “Jack and Jill” pdf provided by the artist Lena Aliper 2014 p13. I’m also very interested in listening to Elina Brotherus soon as she talks about herself in the work she does with herself firmly in the frame.

The struggle I have is with the purposeful personal. The image above with it’s close physical association of lyric, ‘tunes’ the reader to consider all sorts of associations and projections. I like that, I am attracted to that and recognise it. However I am very wary of venturing into that territory and so will continue to consider the works of the artists mentioned above and my own motivations before setting forth. In a month I will meet up with Johanna and maybe that will help me to consider the navigable channels of the personal, but until then I will continue to read.


13 thoughts on ““As Abelard said to Heloise, don’t forget to drop a line to me please.”

    • Thanks Catherine, no, you are right of course, it isn’t an either/or; perhaps it has to be as as soon as the story is told any truth becomes mediated and therefore a fiction?

      • I think one can travel along that line between truth and fiction and stop anyplace – just so long as you know what that point is.
        Re Abelard and Heloise – wonder whatever happened to Astrolabe?

      • There appears little mention of him, other than he existedI wonder what might have happened had she not fell pregnant? Anyway after the five letters they apparametly didn’t communicate further

  1. I’ve read this post a few times John and I’m struggling to get my mind around what it is you want to communicate? Is it your response to a love story by someone else? Is it your response to universal questions of life and love? Or is it something altogether more personal? I wonder if trying to answer this question might help you think through what path to take. As Catherine said the personal could be presented as fictional so the boundaries are not clear cut. Using fiction as a device might shield you from the understandable fear of the autobiography.

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