Fifteen years after the disastrous ending of their romance, the 12th-century French nun Heloise d’Argenteuil wrote a number of letters to the husband from whom she had long been separated, philosopher Peter Abelard. The two had fallen in love when Heloise’s uncle, a Paris church official named Fulbert, hired Abelard to tutor his brilliant niece. The lovers managed to keep their affair secret until Heloise became pregnant, and then they got married to assuage the uncle’s outrage. To protect Abelard’s career, however, the marriage too was kept secret from the general public (it was assumed that university professors don’t have time for families—a truth still universally acknowledged, I believe). But the secret marriage did nothing to assuage Fulbert’s public indignity, and he continued to stew. Finally, his anger prevailing, he had two of his thugs break into Abelard’s room one night and castrate him.
In her letters, written years later, after she had become a nun and Abelard a priest, Heloise still declares her undying love and passion for Abelard, even to the point of expressing her contempt for God for allowing Abelard to be so horribly disfigured.
In her first letter, Heloise — arguably the smarter of the two and by far the better writer — talks about what she calls the “sacred delusion” of marriage: a husband must sincerely believe his wife to be the best of all possible wives, and a wife must sincerely believe her husband to be the best husband in the world. And it may be a delusion, but it’s a sacred one, holy and essential to a loving marriage. Heloise goes on to note that, in her case, of course, it wasn’t a delusion at all: Abelard really was the best of all possible husbands.
I first read these letters many years ago and have occasionally taught the wonderful English poem that they inspired, Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” but it’s only lately that I begin to fully appreciate Heloise’s genius.
My wife is the best wife any man ever had. Absolutely. Hands down.
And those words may sound like rank hyperbole, soggy with sentimentality and delusion, but seriously, would you really trust a spouse who didn’t feel that way?
In one of his later love songs, Bob Dylan sings: “I’d go crawling down the avenue/ To make you feel my love.” I know that a lot of people think Dylan isn’t a good singer, but I have no truck with such nonsense. He’s the best in the business. He can put a spin on a syllable as it leaves his lips that gives the words an edge, a sense of irony or urgency, that turns the lyrics into poetry. He doesn’t slur his words; he hyper-enunciates. Listen to “Lay, Lady, Lay” again and hear what he does to the last word of each line.
In the song “Make You Feel My Love,” Dylan sings the lyrics straight, with utter sincerity, without any hint of an irony that might wink at his listeners as if to say, “of course, this is all merely hyperbolic, but you know what I mean.”
He sings the lyrics straight because the words are not merely hyperbolic. Would he actually go crawling down the avenue? Of course, he would. I don’t have the slightest doubt. If I did, I would have to accuse Dylan of being dishonest. Now there are a lot of dishonest songwriters and poets out there, but Bob Dylan isn’t one of them. The way he sings this love song reflects a truth about love that Heloise identified almost a thousand years ago: we each believe our lover or partner or spouse to be the best companion ever, and for whom we would do anything — anything. And, delusion or not, it’s the truth.
My wife and I just passed our first wedding anniversary, the second anniversary of our first date — a “business” dinner, the kind of business dinner you never forget. And every time I look at the ring on my finger, I thank God for the best of all possible wives.
Because in my case, of course, it’s really not a delusion.
• A native of New Jersey, Jim Hale has lived in Juneau for 18 years and is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic Church.