Carol Symes

title.none: Levitan, Abelard and Heloise (Carol Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.008 08.11.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, University of Illinois ,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Levitan, William, trans. Abelard and Heloise: The Letters and Other Writings. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007. Pp. xli, 356. $37.95 (hb) 978-0-87220-876-6 (hb). ISBN: $12.05 (pb) 978-0-87220-975-9 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.08

Levitan, William, trans. Abelard and Heloise: The Letters and Other Writings. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007. Pp. xli, 356. $37.95 (hb) 978-0-87220-876-6 (hb). ISBN: $12.05 (pb) 978-0-87220-975-9 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
University of Illinois

William Levitan's new translation of the famous correspondence between Abelard and Heloise is welcome for a number of reasons. First, it will satisfy the very wide audience already familiar with the standard Penguin translation by Betty Radice and will replace it on shelves everywhere; but it also surpasses this version in its beauty, faithfulness to the Latin originals, and scholarly apparatus. Second, it includes not only the letters exchanged between Heloise and Abelard, beginning with the open letter containing Abelard's account of his calamitous career, but also the introductory letter appended by Heloise to the forty-two questions she addressed to Abelard on the interpretation of Scripture (the Heloisae Problemata), the confession of faith that Abelard sent to Heloise after his condemnation at the Council of Sens in 1140 (the Apologeticus, passed on by his student Berengar of Poitiers), the correspondence between Heloise and Peter the Venerable, and a selection of songs and poems by Abelard (some accompanied by music), thoughtfully translated by Stanley Lombardo and Barbara Thorburn. Generously, Levitan also gives readers a satisfying introduction, in which he analyzes the very different Latin prosodies cultivated by Abelard and Heloise, briefly but accurately sketches the history of the letters' transmission and reception, offers suggestions for further reading, provides a map of northern France, traces a chronology of events in the lives and afterlives of the protagonists, and undergirds the whole with a series of lucid, helpful footnotes that illuminate these writings' historical contexts, explain difficult concepts (e.g. universals), and outline key controversies in recent scholarship. There are, moreover, two appendices that pursue the letters' legacy. The first provides an example of one of their fictitious offspring in the modern era, excerpts from "The Letter to Philintus" by the English poet and critic John Hughes (1677-1720). The second contains selections from the correspondence that may represent a medieval imitation, the "Letters of Two Lovers" copied into a fifteenth-century manuscript and edited by Ewald Knsgen in 1974, a corpus whose association with Abelard and Heloise is currently a matter of intense debate.[1]

Obviously, this will be a marvelous teaching text, and it deserves to enliven the syllabi of many, many courses. But it will also energize scholars. Levitan's presentation of the letters and their companion pieces helps them to slough off some very old and unwelcome baggage, including the anachronistic division of the correspondence into "The Personal Letters" and "The Letters of Direction," and thus enables readings that cross artificial boundaries. At the same time, the volume as a whole constantly calls attention to the complexity of the interpretive layers that have accrued over eight and a half centuries, since the letters were first brought together. It thus highlights and embraces these texts' entanglement in the visceral responses of generations of readers.

Perhaps most fruitfully, Levitan's fresh translations administer a series of productive shocks to the system. Nothing looks or sounds the same. Each interlocutor's distinctive vocabulary and style are as visually striking as they are tangible on the tongue and audible to the ear, since Levitan lays bare the letters' metrical structures on the page. In Abelard's opening narrative, therefore, the reader can see and hear how moments of violence or emotion are mirrored in explosive incantations: rhetoric artfully unleashed, and then as artfully reined in. This, in turn, further heightens the contrast between his carefully prosaic letters and the sustained lyrical cursus of Heloise (her first two letters are, essentially, in verse); his short replies come like a punch in the gut--or like the missives of a man who has lashed himself to a mast in order to withstand the Sirens. Eventually, she learns how to play the game, breaking off her song in the fifth letter to discuss the daily concerns of the Paraclete, its rule, and its rituals. By the time one has read through the volume, one understands why Levitan has only to say that "it is difficult to ascribe the fragments" of the other "Letters of Two Lovers" to Abelard and Heloise (315); the force of his argument lies in the stark divergence among the personae evoked by his translations, differences apparent to an expert philologist but invisible or inaudible to many working-day Latinists.[2] Here, they are made accessible to non-Latinists, too.

As Levitan observes, the letters of Abelard and Heloise are always "sharply conscious of the audience, large and small, for whom they were fashioning their appeals" and their effects "depend on the dynamics of the living voice." (xxvi). His demonstration of their techniques makes this clear; in fact, these texts constitute highly- skilled performances. But for whom? In an important article published in 2000, Morgan Powell argued that these letters, preserved alongside the Historia calamitatum in the oldest surviving manuscript (Troyes, Bibliothque municipale 802) were collected and possibly even composed for the nuns at the Paraclete, to dramatize--literally--the story of their abbess's worldly life and religious conversion, while "reaching out to her community and including it" in that story.[3] One does not have to embrace all the implications of this thesis in order to recognize--with Levitan's help--that the letters were meant to be heard, and may have facilitated readings within the community that kept and copied them. I have attempted to make a similar case from time to time, through performance of Heloise's first two letters. It would be fitting if this new translation could take us even closer to a contemporary audience's experience of listening, by becoming an audiobook.[4] Why not? The letters have already inspired countless re- enactments. Maybe that was the intention all along.

-------- NOTES:

1. Epistolae duroum amantium. Briefe Abaelards und Heloises? Mittellateinisches Studien und Texte, 8. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974. Levitan contrasts Knsgen's hesitant attribution with the more recent assertions of authorship made by Constant Mews in The Lost Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth- Century France (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999).

2. Jan Ziolkowski, "Lost and Not Yet Found: Heloise, Abelard, and the Epistolae duorum amantium. Journal of Medieval Latin 14 (2004): 171-202.

3. Morgan Powell, "Listening to Heloise at the Paraclete," in Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman, ed. Bonnie Wheeler (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 255-286 at 257.

4. Stanley Lombardo's narrations of his Iliad and Odyssey, also published by Hackett (in 1997 and 2000, respectively) and underscoring his collaboration with Levitan, show how well this can be done. The recordings were produced by Parmenides Audio in 2006, and are accompanied by introductions read by Susan Sarandon.