Monday, April 07, 2008

Anatomy of a slightly less depressing weekend

So following on the heels of last weekend’s depressing themes, this week was supposed to be slightly happier. It was not.

This weekend I finally finished The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century personal correspondence between the abnormally educated nun and her theologian/logician ex-lover/husband, who seduced her while she was his student and whom her uncle had castrated because their secret marriage wasn’t made public after their son was born. (Yes, it all really happened. They were two of the most brilliant minds of their time.)

To recap briefly: I learned the story in high school French class (minus the torrid details revealed in their letters), and because it surfaced as a backstory in the Sharan Newman medieval mystery series I’m also reading, I decided to make use of my historian nerdiness and read the primary source itself. Or actually, technically secondary source, because the letters were translated….

At any rate, the letters are fascinating. They start off with both Abelard and Heloise espousing very self-pitying thoughts about the bizarre events of their lives. Heloise, however, is the only one to cling to notions of love. But because Abelard as abbot technically has jurisdiction over Heloise’s convent (he founded it), the roles are rather messed up. Abelard, understandably, had a very different thought process in coming to terms with their fates; his early letters are full of reiterations of how he reconciled “my mutilation” to some larger plan of God’s, and how he and Heloise need to adjust to their new roles as brother and sister in Christ. Unlike Heloise, he never mentions “love,” only “lust” and “sin.” Gradually Heloise gets the point, drops the “I still love you” sentiments, and communicates solely an administrator should to her regional director, asking for clarifications of rules and practices for the operation of her building. Abelard’s letters then get even longer, as he finds Biblical justification for how the nuns under Heloise’s care should live every detail of their lives.

Men telling women how to be “better” women (in either God’s or men’s eyes) always infuriate me. I had to stop reading for a while. Men telling women how to be “better” women (in either God’s or men’s eyes) do not usually depress me, though, so eventually I went back to reading it . . . .

Abelard, from his letters, has a hugely inflated ego. He was one of the most famous and intelligent debaters and logic instructors of his time, and he knew it (he says so repeatedly.) Logic and debate in the 12th century consisted mainly of theological questions -- in a weird parallel to my Legal Reasoning class, Abelard was kind of like a lawyer whose laws were anything recognized by the Church. So instead of citing cases and precedents and majority opinions, he referred to scriptures and papal writings and other religious documents and histories. At great length.

Both he and Heloise also had many classical references in their letters -- in one sentence they would frequently mention both a biblical allegory and one from Greek or Roman myth. To me, it illustrated how two obviously brilliant people were limited by the fields of knowledge and the political and religious structures of their time to convey their thoughts. Any two people in any time are, of course, but I thought The Letters of Abelard and Heloise illustrated it particularly poignantly. And sometimes agonizingly.

The letters did have their moments of hilarity, however. The two open their letters frequently with salutations like “You who were formerly dear to me in the flesh, now dear to me only in Christ.” The early letters especially had pretty scandalous references -- I couldn’t stop laughing at one paragraph in one of Abelard’s early letters where he tries to explain to Heloise that they deserved God’s wrath for all of their occasions of uncontrolled fornication, but especially for the one time “in a corner of the refectory.”

But once Heloise gets Abelard’s not-so-subtle hint to stop harping on her fond memories of their pre-castration activities, the majority of their correspondence focused on the role of women in the church. The letters do not end on a happy note -- they end on a rather somber and extremely lengthy reflection on why and exactly how nuns should deprive themselves of most of the comforts of life. So the plan for happy weekend did not get off to a good start….

The walk for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center went well, of course. But perusing BARCC’s Clothesline Project near the staging area wasn’t necessarily in keeping with the “happiness” theme, though I definitely support the project and think it's very empowering. The Clothesline Project, modeled after the AIDS quilt, lets rape/abuse survivors and the people who love them create a visual testimony to break socially-imposed silences; the 5K walk was a fundraiser to keep much-needed prevention programs and counseling services in operation.

Federal funding is, of course, repeatedly threatened by He Who Shall Not Be Named. Another not-so-happy reality.

After the walk, brunch at Sound Bites with a friend was excellent… and I thought The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert would be a happy continuation to the weekend. The story: three drag queens take off on a road trip in a bus across the Australian desert to do a show in a podunk town. They laugh and cry along the way, meet scary locals and interesting locals, and manage to make it to their destination despite the bus predictably dying.

My rationale for choosing to watch it was that the road trip genre is typically a happy one, full of friendship and bonding. And it was. But unlike its American pseudo-remake, however, Priscilla emphasized homophobia and potential violence a lot more. (And I won’t even get started on the Love-You-Longtime Asian dragon lady, one of the minor characters. That is not a happy place. I know because people tell me I froth at the mouth when ranting about stereotypes of Asian women.)

The film did end on an uplifting and hopeful note, though: the son of one of the characters thinks being gay is normal and doesn’t treat anybody differently based on their sexual orientation. Oh, children. They are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. . . .

But for now, however, all is gray and bleak. Bleak . . .

Like the weather.

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