Printer Friendly

Sincere hypocrisy and the authorial persona in the letters of Heloise.

READING the letters of Heloise might be compared to coming face to face with a basilisk. The text, like that mythical beast, both fascinates and paralyzes us, holds our gaze even as it resists our attempts to gain the upper hand. (1) That mixture of enthrallment and frustration, tempered with the crippling inability to attain a concrete meaning, is probably familiar to many readers of this famous 12th century French intellectual's correspondence with her husband and former teacher, Peter Abelard. It is also, at least to some extent, the result of a specific rhetorical strategy on Heloise's part. As Peggy Kamuf has demonstrated, Heloise's letters stage a "breakdown of [the] structure of opposition" on which both language and logic are based (44). Heloise creates extended metaphors and builds arguments around opposing pairs of concepts, only to destabilize or destroy the putative differences on which these oppositions are based. Self-fulfillment and self-destruction, marriage and concubinage, chastity and licentiousness, religious devotion and blasphemy, are just a few of the opposing pairs that, as Kamuf shows, Heloise blurs, "displaces" or "reverses" in her letters (13). Kamuf's insight is particularly apt because it reminds us that logic--the medieval "art of speaking truly" is structured around a cluster of basic oppositions. (2) As the prize pupil of the most important logician of her day, Heloise would have been acutely aware that oppositions are the building blocks of reason, and indeed of meaning.

This article will examine Heloise's use of what is for her a particularly crucial opposition, that between hypocrisy and sincerity. (3) In her letters, Heloise repeatedly examines her own sincerity and hypocrisy, ultimately refusing to decide between the two and embracing the identity of the "sincere hypocrite." Heloise's dismantling of the sincerityhypocrisy pair is an example of the rhetorical strategy that Kamuf has described, but I believe its particular interest lies in the light that it can shed on the construction of Heloise's authorial persona. By simultaneously calling attention to her own sincerity and casting it into doubt, Heloise also privileges and interrogates the link between self and words. Her discourse of sincere hypocrisy draws readers towards an imagined author even as it suggests that this seductive figure may be unreliable and illusory. In this case, the basilisk facing readers of Heloise's letters turns out to be the paradoxical authorial persona of Heloise herself.

Heloise the sincere hypocrite emerges clearly from a passage that seems to have troubled more than one of her readers. This is the point, midway through her second letter to Abelard, at which she declares that her apparent piety is all a sham because she is not truly chaste--she is still unable to repent of the delights of the flesh that she once shared with Abelard:

Castam me predicant, qui non deprehendunt ypocritam; munditiam carnis conferunt in virtutem: cum non sit corporis sed animi virtus, aliquid laudis apud homines habens, nichil apud Deum mereor, qui cordis et renum probator est et in abscondito videt. (Hicks 67)

People declare me to be chaste, who do not perceive [that I am] a hypocrite. They ascribe purity of the flesh to virtue, but since virtue is not of the body but of the soul, I have some praise from men but do not deserve any from God, who is the judge of heart and entrails and sees what is hidden. (4)

These are the very words that seem to have led J.T. Muckle, editor of the letters in the 1950s, to doubt that Heloise could have written her letters. As he puts it:

Her letters picture Heloise as leading a double life: that of a religious superior bound by vows, and as a woman of sensual mind, serving Abelard and not God, or as she herself puts it, being such a hypocrite as to fool even Abelard himself. On the other hand, Heloise enjoyed a good reputation among the religious leaders of the time from the Pope down ... which was that of a sincere, able and holy religious and a worthy abbess. (Muckle 67)

Muckle concludes that the Heloise of the letters must be a fiction because he wants the real Heloise to be "sincere"--or, as he says, because she had the "reputation" of being "sincere." Yet Muckle's observations about Heloise's good reputation only serve to corroborate what Heloise says in this letter; indeed, one source of Muckle's information is likely the letter collection itself.

Muckle is not the only one of Heloise's readers to have found this passage memorable. Abelard also comments on it, raising issues similar to those that bother Muckle but drawing very different conclusions. Near the end of his life, in a didactic poem addressed to his son Astralabe, he remembers Heloise's self-proclaimed inability to repent in words that echo her own: (5)

Sunt quos delectant adeo peccata peracta Ut nunquam vere peniteant super hiis, Ymo voluptatis dulcedo tanta sit huius, Ne gravet ulla satisfa[c]tio propter eam. Est nostre super hoc Heloyse crebra querela, Qua mihi que secum dicere sepe solet: "Si, nisi peniteat me commisisse priora, Salvari nequeam, spes mihi nulla manet. Dulcia sunt adeo commissi gaudia nostri Ut memorata iuvent que placuere nimis." Qui dicit verum non hoc dicendo laborat: Fingere falsa prius nititur, inde loqui. (Dronke 43)

Yet there are those whose past sins still so allure them that they can never feel truly penitent. Rather, the sweetness of that bliss remains so great that no sense of atoning for it has force. This is the burden of complaint of our Heloise, whereby she often says to me, as to herself, "if I cannot be saved without repenting of what I used to commit, there is no hope for me. The joys of what we did are still so sweet that, after delight beyond measure, even remembering brings relief." For one who tells the truth there is no strain in telling--it is feigning that's the effort, before one speaks. (Dronke 15)

These verses highlight the issues of truth and untruth, sincerity and hypocrisy, that also form the crux of Heloise's self-accusation for Muckle. On the one hand, Abelard admits that Heloise is not "truly" (vere) penitent; on the other, he concludes his rendering of her complaint with the comment, "for one who tells the truth (dicit verum) there is no strain in telling...." Given the context, the "one who tells the truth" without making any effort at "feigning" (fingere falsa) seems to be Heloise. Abelard is then lauding the honesty with which Heloise is willing to admit that she is still unrepentant. (6) In other words, while Muckle reads Heloise's hypocrisy claim as proof of insincerity--and thus rejects it as itself a forgery--Abelard sees it here as the ultimate expression of sincerity. (7)

These two opposing readings serve to highlight the paradoxical rhetorical workings of Heloise's confession itself. In addition to the series of explicit distinctions that Heloise's statement sets up--between physical chastity and spiritual virtue, man's perception and God's, body and mind, external appearance and inner reality--there is an implicit distinction, one that is none the less effective for being essentially invisible within the passage in question. This is the distinction between the hypocritical self about whom Heloise speaks, and the truthful self whom the passage asks us to believe to be speaking. If we admit Heloise's overt claim that she is a hypocrite, we have also, necessarily, admitted her covert claim that, despite her hypocrisy, she is now speaking the truth: that, by admitting to the vast and shameful difference that exists between her virtuous outer self and her lustful inner self, she is allowing that inner, purportedly sincere, self to speak out at last. In other words, as soon as we agree that Heloise is a hypocrite, we have also--and perhaps without realizing it ourselves--agreed that she is, at least for this moment, sincere. In this way, her self-accusation of hypocrisy functions subversively, even insidiously, as proof of her own sincerity.

One way to understand how Heloise's confession of hypocrisy can take advantage of such a logical loophole is by comparing it to the "liar paradox," an "insoluble" logical puzzle that, while not contemporary with Heloise and Abelard, was much discussed by logicians from the late twelfth century onwards. If someone says, "I am speaking falsely" (ego dico falsum), the problem runs, are his words false or true? Some medieval logicians argue that the paradox inherent in this statement arises from its status as a self-reflexive speech about speaking. According to them, what makes the liar's proposition paradoxical is the fact that it purports to say something, not just about truth-telling, but about the truth of the liar's own utterance, as he is uttering it. (8) Like the liar's, Heloise's speech is self-reflexive: her discussion of hypocrisy allows her to make a claim about the truth of her letter. The underlying conceit of her confession is that this letter is an intensely personal document in which she is able to speak sincerely, telling Abelard what she has never dared reveal to anyone else.

Alongside this rhetorical paradox, Heloise further entwines sincerity and hypocrisy on an ethical level. The sincerity of Heloise's love for Abelard is what dooms her to religious hypocrisy. This conundrum emerges artfully from the metaphorical structure of Heloise's confession: after setting up a series of oppositions in which "inner" qualities are taken to be sincere ones, while "outer" qualities represent the hypocritical, Heloise significantly refuses to locate her desire for Abelard where we might expect it, in her libidinous body. Instead, she mentions "the purity of [her] flesh" (munditiam carnis) as a merely outward aspect of her hypocritical piety. Her love, by contrast, persists in her "mind" (mens) and "soul" (animus). Heloise's love dooms her to hypocrisy precisely because that love is itself so sincere, entrenched in her inner self. That is, she is sincere because she is a hypocrite, and she is a hypocrite because she is sincere.

As this analysis shows, Heloise's hypocrisy claim is organized around what might at first seem to be a facile set of analogies between the external and the hypocritical, the internal and the sincere. True to form, however, she inverts this paradigm elsewhere in her letters, lending a new dimension to the concepts involved by destabilizing the metaphorical structure that might appear to support them. When she demonstrates the sincerity of her love in her first letter, she does so by characterizing it as oddly external to her self. Based on "veritas manifesta" (Hicks 50), her love's "truth" is an external one, "manifest" and known to all the world. The proof of this "truth," she goes on to argue, lies somewhat counter-intuitively in the excellence of the beloved (Abelard) rather than in the emotions of the lover (Heloise). Her love is true insofar as it exists in him: "my love would exist that much more truly in you" ("tanto verior in te meus amor existeret," Hicks 50). Concomitantly, Abelard and not she is the best judge of the sincerity of her intentions in love, because her emotions and her soul (animus) reside in him rather than in her.

Quem autem animum in te semper habuerim, solus qui expertus es judicare potes. (Hicks 51)

What feelings I always had for you [literally, what soul (animus) I always had in you], you alone who know it by experience can judge.

The frequency of the prefix "ex" throughout this section of the letter ("in te meus amor existeret," "expertus es") emphasizes the externalized quality of Heloise's love as she portrays it here. In this last passage, the sincerity of Heloise's intentions is equivocated with her externalized soul or self, which has taken up residence "in" Abelard. That is, the externalized nature of her love and her self is directly linked with the sincerity of both. At the culmination of this letter, Heloise cites the "emptying out" of her self as the ultimate proof of the sincerity of her love. (9) She points to her entry into the monastic life at Abelard's command, stating that it was at this moment, in casting her individuality aside most completely, that she loved most fully: "I did not keep anything for/of myself " ("nichil michi reservavi," Hicks 52). According to this line of reasoning, Heloise is at her most sincere when she is completely annihilated, existing not just outside herself, but nowhere: "if my soul is not with you, it is nowhere" ("si tecum non est [animus meus], nusquam est," Hicks 52). Conversely, one could argue that she is at her most hypocritical when she continues, stubbornly, to exist "within herself "--to cherish an "interior" at all. While the sincere Heloise of this letter is an ethereal being whose very existence is postulated on self-destruction, the hypocritical Heloise, with her libidinous body and rebellious thoughts, is characterized by her refusal to give up and go away.

Heloise returns to the issues of sincerity and hypocrisy one final time in her third letter. There she subjects her written words to a process of "emptying out" similar to that which she describes her self undergoing in her first letter--and, as before, the process is undertaken out of obedience to Abelard. But this time the focus shifts from the sincerity of Heloise's emotions to words' ability to represent their authors' concerns: as it were, from sincerity to the representation of sincerity.

Verbis etiam immoderati doloris tue frenum impositum est jussionis, ut ab his michi saltem in scribendo temperem a quibus in sermone non tam difficile quam impossibile est providere. Nichil enim minus in nostra est potestate quam animus, eique magis obedire cogimur quam imperare possimus. Unde et cum nos ejus affectiones stimulant, nemo earum subitos impulsus ita repulerit ut non in effecta facile prorumpant et se per verba facilius effluant,--que promptiores animi passionum sunt note, secundum quod scriptum est: "ex habundantia enim cordis os loquitur." Revocabo itaque manum a scripto in quibus linguam a verbis temperare non valeo. Utinam sic animus dolentis parere promptus sit quemadmodum dextera scribentis! (Hicks 88)

The curb of your commandment is imposed on [my] words of immoderate sorrow, so that I may temper, at least in writing, that which is not so much difficult as impossible to restrain in speech. Nothing is less in our power than our soul: we are forced to obey it rather than being able to command it. Thus, when its affections prick us, no one is able to resist its sudden impulses but that they break forth easily in actions and even more easily flow out in words, which are the ready signs of the soul's passions, as it is written: "the mouth speaks from the overflowing of the heart." I will, then, call back my hand from writing those words from which I am not strong enough to temper my tongue. If only the soul of the sorrowing one were as prompt to obey as the writing hand!

In this passage, Heloise reinstates the primacy of the soul (animus) as representative of the inner person, governed by impulsive and passionate emotions. She further claims that the inner person expresses emotions directly and sincerely through an outflow of words, which "are the promptest signs of the soul's passions." In this way, she insists on a link between the inner person and her utterances, between the soul or heart and spoken words: "the mouth speaks from the overflowing of the heart." Yet she does all of this only in order to emphatically divorce the words that she will now write from both her soul and her speech. Tantalizingly, Heloise continues to entertain the possibility of a sincere voice while simultaneously lamenting her own voice's failure to translate into written words. She establishes a structure for sincere self-expression, then deliberately eschews it.

While this passage does not amount to an announcement that the letter that follows will be hypocritical per se, it does have the effect of cutting the reader off from an implied author who has, up to this point, seemed seductively present in the text. Once again, though, this effect is double-edged: like the liar of the paradox, we find Heloise interrogating the truth of her utterance as she is uttering it, seeming to reveal the very "overflowings of the heart" that she has stated she will now no longer reveal. And, even as she details what she claims will be the soullessness of the letter that follows, she also, as if in passing, validates the sincerity of her earlier two letters, implying that they are the site of the emotional outpourings described here, and which Abelard has insisted that she now stem. In this way, she does not so much demolish the figure of the sincere author as remove her. As in her account of taking the veil at Abelard's request, the sincere Heloise here ends up being the one who has already disappeared.

Heloise's portrayal of herself as a sincere hypocrite, and the resulting evasiveness of her authorial persona, might prove relevant to another issue that has, at least until recently, caused some trouble for scholars. This is the 200-year-old authenticity controversy surrounding the letters of both Abelard and Heloise, but in which Heloise's letters have generally come under more scrutiny than Abelard's. (10) We have seen how Muckle latches onto the paradox of the sincere hypocrite in order to use it as leverage for an argument against Heloise's authorship of the letters. This type of argument is all too typical of a debate in which Heloise's identity as modern critics imagine it has constantly been at stake. As Barbara Newman has shown, instead of basing their doubts about Heloise's letters' authenticity on external evidence, scholars have tended to draw their arguments from the contents of the letters themselves, maintaining that the historical Heloise either would not or could not have written them. (11) To distill just a few of the many examples that Newman cites, John Benton contrasts the "sensual" Heloise who emerges from the letters with the historical Heloise, who "must have been an outstanding person" (cited in Newman 124). On the other side of the coin, D.W. Robertson characterizes Heloise as "a vain and amusingly unreasonable young girl" who, while she may have eventually matured into a "respected abbess," would not have written anything as "literary" as the letters attributed to her (cited in Newman 126). In short, whether because the historical Heloise was too morally upright to have written so pruriently, or too intellectually inferior to have written with such learning, for these readers Heloise's letters seem inauthentic because they clash with an independently formed vision of Heloise herself. Yet it does not take a very advanced logician to see that, given the dearth of other information available about her, these readers must base their ideas of the "real" Heloise in large part on the very letter collection whose authenticity they question so stringently.

At this point, the authenticity controversy does not bear reviewing in further detail. As a number of scholars have already shown, the evidence for the letters' forging, while initially intriguing, ultimately fails to stand up to close scrutiny (Dronke, Marenbon, Mews 47-53, Newman). Barring new information, the simplest and most plausible solution is still to attribute the letters to their stated authors, those remarkable historical people, Abelard and Heloise. (12) However, studying Heloise's discussions of her own sincerity and hypocrisy in her letters reveals just how much of the anxiety surrounding the letters' authenticity can in a sense be attributed to Heloise herself. (13) When, in her last letter, she states that her written words do not reflect either her animus or her speech, she also becomes the first to question the authenticity of her own voice. As J.T. Muckle understood all too well, that voice's authenticity may be further undermined by the fact that it is partly established through a hypocrisy claim functioning as a claim of sincerity.

On an even more profound level, though, Heloise the sincere hypocrite presents her readers with a logical conundrum. By claiming that she is only sincere insofar as she obliterates herself, and that her stubborn insistence on having a will and opinions of her own--in short, on continuing to exist--is what makes her a hypocrite, she also implies that, if she is the author of her letters, then she is a hypocrite. Conversely, the ultimate proof of her sincerity might turn out to be her nonexistence - and concomitantly her non-authorship of the letters. Although those who have questioned the letters' authenticity on the grounds of their portrayal of Heloise may be wrong in historical terms, they are right about the choice with which the letters present us. We can choose either to believe in Heloise or to believe her letters; thanks to the elaborate vanishing act to which she subjects her authorial persona, we cannot choose both. We cannot have our Heloise and read her too.



Brown, Catherine. Contrary Things: exegesis, dialectic, and the poetics of didacticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

--. "Muliebriter: Doing Gender in the Letters of Heloise." Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages. Ed. Jane Chance. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. 25-51.

Dronke, Peter. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1976.

Hicks, Eric, ed. La Vie et les epistres Pierres Abaelart et Heloys sa fame. Paris-Geneve: Champion-Slatkine, 1991.

Kamuf, Peggy. Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Kay, Sarah. Courtly Contradictions: The Emergence of the Literary Object in the Twelfth Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Kretzmann, Norman, trans. William of Sherwood's Introduction to Logic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.

Marenbon, John. "Authenticity Revisited." Listening to Heloise: the voice of a twelfthcentury woman. Ed. Bonnie Wheeler. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 19-33.

Mews, Constant. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Muckle, J.T. "The Personal Letters Between Abelard and Heloise." Mediaeval Studies 15 (1953): 47-94.

Newman, Barbara. "Authority, authenticity, and the repression of Heloise." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22 (1992): 121-57.

Roure, M.L. "La problematique des propositions insolubles au 13e siecle et au debut du 14e, suivie de l'edition des traites de W. Shyreswood, W. Burleigh et Th. Bradwardine." Archives d'histoire doctrinale et litteraire du moyen age 1970 (37): 205-326.

Spade, P.V. The mediaeval liar: a catalogue of the insolubilia literature. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975.

Previous versions of this essay benefited from the comments of Helen Solterer, Marc Schachter, Ann Marie Rasmussen, Francis Newton, and Sam Findley.

(1) This image was first suggested to me by Catherine Brown in a conversation at Duke University in the spring of 2001.

(2) The basic unit of elementary medieval logic was the Aristotelian "square of opposition," which sets up a template of four opposing statements. All syllogisms are constructed from variations on these four statements. See Kay, who briefly traces the history of the square of opposition from Aristotle, via Apuleius and Boethius, to the Abelardian school (13-15). More generally, in dialectic or logical disputation, truth and falsehood define each other mutually through opposition; or, as Catherine Brown puts it, "dialectic teaches us how to manage contradiction, how to argue with, out of, and into contradiction" (Contrary Things 37). Logic is termed "the art of speaking truly" by William of Sherwood (fl. 1260) in his Introduction to Logic, where he states that grammar teaches us to speak correctly, rhetoric, to speak elegantly, and logic, to speak truly (Kretzmann 21). On this idea as a medieval commonplace, see also Brown, Contrary Things 37.

(3) Kamuf does not include this pair in her analysis. However, she does discuss Heloise's hypocrisy claim, stating that it "formalizes [the] instability without reducing it," in other words, that it embodies a contradiction of the type Heloise has been discussing all along, here in the form of an irreducible incongruity between appearance and reality (23). Kamuf's observation is accurate; however, as I believe this essay will show, much more can be said on the subject.

(4) Translation mine. Except where otherwise indicated, all translations of Latin passages will be my own.

(5) Dronke notes this echo, citing the passage in Heloise's second letter that most closely parallels these verses (35 n. 33). Dronke also notes that the attribution of these verses to Abelard has been questioned, but states that he believes they are in fact Abelard's (1516).

(6) Dronke shares this interpretation, stating that here Abelard, "at least by implication, assesses the truthfulness of Heloise in her complaints" (16).

(7) This represents a dramatic change from Abelard's initial reaction, in the letter answering the one in which Heloise confesses to hypocrisy. There, he permits himself to doubt the sincerity of her hypocrisy claim, saying skeptically, "let it be in your heart as it is in your writing" ("utinam sic sit in animo tuo sicut in scripto!" Hicks 76). As Catherine Brown puts it, Abelard here "accuse[s] [Heloise] of insincere insincerity" ("Muliebriter" 37). Abelard's doubts, however, are still based on an awareness of the fact that Heloise's hypocrisy claim functions subversively as a claim of sincerity. In this sense, his awareness of the rhetorical function of her confession is the same in this letter as in the verses cited above, although he regards her motivations less favorably.

(8) This view is evident in the following text from the early thirteenth century. "Vulgariter enim dicitur 'iste nil facit,' cum non faciat aliquid eo modo quo debet facere. Eodem modo rusticus respondet ad talem locutionem 'ego dico falsum' simpliciter 'falsum est,' quia hoc verbum 'dico' determinationem hanc quam debet habere non habet. Debet enim transire supra alias dictiones et non transit. Unde dicitur 'nil dicis' quia non dicis aliquid eo modo quo debes dicere." (It is commonly said, "he isn't doing anything" when someone is not doing something in the way that he should. In the same way, the uneducated man [rusticus] responds to a statement such as "I am speaking falsely" by simply saying "that's false," because the verb "to speak" does not observe the limitations [determinatio] that it should have. It should transcend other utterances, and it does not. Thus, it is said, "you are not saying anything," because you are not saying anything in the way in which you should.) (Spade 44; translation mine.) According to this passage, the paradox originates with the phrase's use of the verb "dicere." Since this verb is self-referential, it can be used to refer to the act of speaking as it is being performed; it is in this sense that it "transcends" language. Shyreswood, another 13th century logician, has a similar view: "le dictum 'je dis' se reflechit sur lui-meme ('je dis que je dis le faux'), et ... le dictum 'faux' se reflechit sur la proposition, en impliquant son opposee. Il s'ensuit ... une proposition vraie et fausse a la fois" (Roure 208).

(9) The expression "emptying out" is inspired by Catherine Brown. In a discussion of this same sequence at the end of Heloise's first letter, Brown refers to Heloise's "having emptied her 'self' completely" ("Muliebriter" 31), and later to Heloise's use of the "'self ' defined as ... empty center" ("Muliebriter" 32).

(10) See Newman 123-144 for a detailed discussion of why this has been the case.

(11) Newman states, "none of the usual grounds for contesting authenticity are in fact present in this case. Nothing in the letters contradicts any documented historical fact, and alleged internal discrepancies have all been satisfactorily explained. The manuscript tradition is late but solid" (131).

(12) "Both Heloise and Abelard ... are historically as well as psychologically more plausible figures if we accept the least problematic hypothesis about them, namely that the letters we have are essentially theirs" (Newman 122).

(13) Newman also makes this point, documenting what she describes as the "uncanny resemblance between the debate about the text and the debate within the text" (121). However, while Newman focuses on Heloise's relationship to authority, particularly misogynist authorities, I believe that her insight is also applicable to Heloise's treatment of emotional self-expression in writing.
COPYRIGHT 2005 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Romance Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Findley, Brooke Heidenreich
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Previous Article:Sobre las fuentes biblicas del locus amoenus en fray Luis de Leon.
Next Article:The picaresque school of learning: modernity and the critique of classical humanism in Guzman de Alfarache and the Ortografia castellana.

Related Articles
Abelard and Heloise.
Heloise and Abeland--love in the Twelfth Century.
The philosophy of love: medieval pair traded endearments, ideas in their famous letters.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters