Love Objects – Beroul, mainly

Shipwreck porcelain fused with coral

Shipwreck porcelain fused with coral

For various reasons, I’m thinking right now of the last book of Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship, which I (mis?)remember as featuring Aelred and a few select monks scurrying from the attention of their colleagues, hoping to keep their friendship and conversation free of the clutter of untrustworthy, unsympathetic, unpalatable others. Aelred knows that friendship, and by extension, love have their limits.

Both are limited by whether we want to be friends with our fellows, of course, but also by the limits of our existence itself. Because nothing can be everywhere, because everything that is has only so much space, attention, and time, only so many ways of grasping or engaging or connecting, we, whatever we are, can’t love everything. Unless you assume a fundamental oneness connecting us all inextricably–and I just don’t–our being at all limits our love. Whatever direction we take excludes the others we might have lit up with our love. Whatever direction we take leaves the others to themselves.

The same, maybe not incidentally, goes for eating.

Also, various reasons drive me to think of a scene in Beroul’s Tristan:

After sunset that night, when it had grown quite dark, Tristan set off with his squire. He knew the lie of the land well. They rode to Lantyan. He dismounted and went into the town. The watchmen were giving loud blasts on their horns. Tristan slipped into a ditch and went along it until he reached the hall of the castle. He was in great danger. He came to the window the king’s chamber and called him, taking care not to speak too loud. The king awoke and said:

‘Who are you, coming at this time? What do you want? Tell me your name.’

‘Sire I am Tristan. I am bringing a letter for you which I will leave on this window ledge. I dare not talk to you for long. I am leaving the letter behind, I dare not stay.’

Tristan turned to leave. The king sprang out of bed and called out three times: ‘For God’s sake, fair nephew, wait for your uncle!’

The king picked up the letter. Tristan had gone. He dared not remain and slipped away quickly back to his waiting squire and jumped on his horse.

(translation from Alan S. Fedrick; for a probably unreliable edition of the French, see here, beginning at “Anuit, après solel couchier”)

“Por Deu, beaus niès, ton oncle atent!” Mark wants the family back together. He wants Tristan to accept his love. And Tristan, feeling the obligation, flees, fleeing this love and this duty to hew to others.

Yet Tristan doesn’t flee Mark’s love entirely. Just imagine Tristan’s disappointment, or ours, had Mark read the letter, seen his nephew fleeing, and only shrugged. Beroul wants his hero. He needs to show us a desirable Tristan, but there’s more going on here than that. All at once, we see Tristan’s abandonment of his uncle and his family; we see how he abandons it all for love; and we see the other side, what Tristan’s choice inflicts on a terribly wronged uncle, who for whatever reason foolishly longs to reunite the family. We see how Mark’s been left miserably to himself.

Or, as elsewhere in Beroul, we see this story from the perspective of Tristan’s enormous, heroic self-regard, who here wants to believe that his uncle would call after him, even if he professes to want nothing to do with him. We see Tristan wanting the love he doesn’t want.

Art, medieval and otherwise, tends to take the perspective of the frustrated lover, eventually rewarded. It tends to want to make us sympathetic to love. I don’t know of any medieval narratives of being stalked (except maybe?), nor any of someone or something trying to exempt itself from God’s charitable regime. Beroul gives us something rare, then, when he presents a King who wants what he shouldn’t want and won’t get, and a nephew embarrassed by love he doesn’t want, desperate to be let alone so he and Isolde can love on their own terms, but desperate too to keep his hold on Mark.

One more thought, just as incomplete as the others: We tend to like love and we love to talk about it. No surprise. But with all due apologies for a dialectical reversal, I’m citing Žižek: in The Parallax View, he writes “finding oneself in the position of the beloved is . . . violent, even traumatic: being loved makes me tangibly aware of the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which stimulates love.” The feeling of being loved, particularly when it’s unwanted, is “why me?” “please, not me,” “you’ve got the wrong one,” or even “who, me?”

Being loved can be annoying, dangerous, or estranging. To try to put this in the language of object-oriented philosophy, the feeling being loved is of discovering some mode of apprehension you didn’t know you had, of discovering something unknown reaching out from yourself to attract another, of discovering that some other wants to take you into its orbit. You feel yourself an object for another and, disturbed by your own attractiveness to that object, you feel yourself estranged from yourself, as if looking down into your own depths to find stored modes of apprehension and attraction that you perhaps hope had never been activated.

(picture from the Seattle Art Museum, by Alison Kinney)

Nature Against Itself? A Human Burden?

Here’s another story from the Aelred volume I’ve just read, here taken from his Life of Ninian:

A certain man among the folk had a pitiable son, born of his own wife. He was a sorrow to both of his parents, a source of astonishment to the people, and a horror to those who looked at him. Nature had formed him contrary to nature, with all his members turned awry. The joints of his feet were turned backward, his heels were extended forward, his back met his face while his chest was near the back of his head, and his arms were twisted so that his hands touched his elbows. What more shall I say? This pathetic figure, who had been given useless members and a fruitless life, simply lay there. With all his other limbs useless, his tongue alone remained; with it he bewailed his wretchedness and moved those who saw him to grief and those who heard him to tears. He was an unremitting sorrow to his parents, whose sadness increased daily.

At length there came into their minds the most holy Ninian’s majesty, which they had quite often experienced. Full of faith, they took up that wretched body. Approaching the relics of the holy man, they offered “the sacrifice of a contrite heart” (Ps 51:19) with floods of tears, and they persisted in their prayers faithfully until evening. Then, laying that disfigured carcass in front of the saint’s tomb, they said “Accept what we offer, O Blessed Ninian; a loathsome gift indeed, but one well suited to proving your power. We who are feeble, we who are fatigued, we who are afflicted with sorrow, we who are overcome with anguish present this to your loving-kindness. If it is a gift, surely grace is due us who offer it; if it is a burden, you who have greater power to relieve it are more capable of bearing it. Here, then, let him die or live, let him be healed or parish.” These words, or some like them, they accompanied with tears, and leaving the sick boy before the sacred relics they departed.

And behold, in the stillness of the dead of night, the wretched boy saw a man coming towards him, shining with heavenly light and resplendent with episcopal insignia. Touching his head, this man ordered him to stand up whole and to give thanks to God, his healer. When he had departed, the poor boy awoke as if from a deep sleep. With an easy movement, he twisted each limb into its natural place, and when he restored them all, he went back to his home whole and unharmed. After this he gave himself wholly to the church and to ecclesiastical discipline. First tonsured as a cleric and afterward ordained a priest, he finished his life in the service of his father. (59-61)

Sadly, CUNY gives me no online access to the PL or the CCCM, so there’s no way for me to check the translation. Nor do I have anything sustained to say about this, which represents my own weak entry into the forthcoming discussion of disability on this blog, which also bears witness to my perversity in including a “literary” example before the (welcome!) flurry of legal examples I hope to see from our guest.

First, I direct our readers to Greg Carrier’s discussion of the problematics of the “invisibility” of his own deafness. Certainly there’s no invisibility here! We have quite a different set of problems:

  • Nature, which does something against itself: can we understand this peculiar situation as an instance of debates about the naturalness of miracles?;
  • the “fruitless life,” which suggests that life has no value in itself, but that it rather attains value through being instrumentalized. But is the horror that he summons, and the self to which he gives witness, not a kind of “fruit”?;
  • the strangeness of the gift, or the burden, of the disabled child;
  • The complete abandonment of the child: “let him die or live, let him be healed or parish”;
  • the furtiveness of the healing;
  • the odd admission that this story is, charitably speaking, a reconstruction: “these words, or some like them…”;
  • the absence of his parents from the narrative after the child is “restored”: he returns home, but to what?

Really, I can only offer this to you and ask you, if you like, to engage with it in some way. In so many ways, this is just another miracle story, but the more I read it, the stranger and sadder it seems (and by ending with this word, “sadder,” I may be participating in the lachrymose history of disability, apt I believe for twelfth-century England–especially given the sad fate of the madman elsewhere in this volume (79) left to die by a riverbank–but this sadness is certainly not the whole story!).


Volume 195 of the PL has Aelred.

The Ninian life might not be in the PL; it’s certainly in Alexander Penrose Forbes’s Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern (Edinburgh, 1874), and also in Pinkerton’s Lives of the Scottish Saints (1889, using a 1789 edition. The list of the CCCM editions for Aelred look unpromising: in the first volume, Ascetic works, and then two volumes of sermons, then sermons on Isaiah. The last volume listed appeared in 2005, so perhaps there’s been more since then. – See more at: