In the eighth letter included in her literary corpus, the thirteenth-century beguine Hadewijch of Brabant charts a map of “fear” (vrese) within the country of “Love” (Minne). In other places in her corpus, Hadewijch enumerates as many as five regions of Love (for example, Letter 22 or Vision 8), but in this letter, she only touches upon Love obliquely, for her primary concern is the impossible space for Love located between two districts of fear.
How could Hadewijch associate Love and fear so intimately? Indeed, in the words of the Latin Bible known to her, “perfect love casts out (foras mittit) fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). Nevertheless, we could just as well read the Vulgate as implying instead that perfect Love “sends forth” (foras mittit) fear as its emissary, so as to bring those burdened by multiplicity back to the unity of Love’s self-identity. Fear, therefore, would ultimately help to foster Love. This would be a clever handling of scripture, if such a reading in fact stood behind Hadewijch’s seemingly audacious claims forwarded in the passage above. In this letter, however, Hadewijch isn’t really leading her readers down any familiar Platonic path of emanation and return. Fear in the standard sense serves no higher purpose on the way back to Love. Besides, as a woman in thirteenth-century Europe, Hadewijch would not have been allowed to touch so directly upon the scriptural text that would have made such a reading possible. Like Mary Magdalen after the resurrection, she could observe the Word only from afar (cf. Jn. 20.14–18). In the meantime, she had to keep to her seemingly peripheral place — Love’s place — spaced between two uncertain poles of fear.
Yet in keeping to her place Hadewijch manages simultaneously to trace out a profoundly utopian space for her readers. By means of her writing, we somehow find ourselves already included within this non-region of Love, without knowing if we are at one of the two poles of fear or even what one or the other of these poles might be. Peculiarly, however, as Love’s borders increase, so also — “at the same time” and “to the same extent” (altemet) — do the borders of the fiefdom of fear, even though love and fear are separated so absolutely by the scriptural text discussed above.
Nevertheless, it’s really no wonder that the fiefdom of fear is so radically implicated in this impossible region of Love. Unsurprisingly, the first fear that creeps into this utopian space of Love is the fear that one is not really “worthy” (werdech) of such Love to begin with. How can a person find herself loved and in Love when she has taken no steps to get here? Isn’t Love earned? Not so, at least in Hadewijch’s estimation. In point of fact, there would be little point in even asking how we enter into this non-place of Love, for if such a region exists at all, it exists only to the extent that we are already included within it through the familiar intimacy of Hadewijch’s writing.
Nevertheless, this non-place of Love, already by its very indication, borders on becoming yet another place among places. Indeed, in the first part of this letter, Hadewijch takes for granted a feudal politics of space that threatens to subsume even the space of Love. The first fear is the “noblest” (edelst) in the land, promising all kinds of riches — freedom, clarity of thought, purity of conscience, wisdom, a unified memory, and so on— if only we allow this lord to “assign us a place” (steet) within what only seemed like the region of Love.
Thanks to Hadewijch’s duplication of fear at the beginning of this letter, however, we now learn of a completely “other” (ander) fear that immediately calls into question the prior, altogether subservient taking-place of Love — or what was presumed to be Love. Now fear itself aims to place itself firmly outside any feudal politics of space. A person with this second kind of fear “fears that Love does not love her enough.” Paradoxically, Love is now given a second lease, for what of Love began to become confined within a familiar feudal politics of space now becomes once more situated within a non-place. She who submitted herself so obediently under the yoke of her feudal lord now “fears” — in a way related to the first fear in name only — that the prior place of Love was not in fact the utopia for which she was longing. A person fearing in this strange way continually expands the borders of Love’s non-country, for nowhere is ever “enough” or “sufficient” (ghenoech). Nothing “satisfies” or “pleases” (ghenoeghen) her: here only is something that is not Love or is an oppressive kind of Love. It torments (bendet) her how confined and confining such sham Love is, “always burdening” (altoes verladet) her without lifting a finger to help. A person with this second, alternate kind of fear thus cannot help but entertain a dangerously subversive notion — that she alone loves and she loves alone. Indeed, such a person defiantly creates her own non-place of Love, something Hadewijch herself effects (werken) in the form of this intimate letter.
This impossible utopia that Hadewijch traces out for Love first breaks loyalty (trouwe) and annuls the oath required by feudal fear. The subversive fear of ever placing Love is disloyal and untrustworthy (ontrouwe) at its root, for it has the audacity to think itself higher (hoghere) than the loyalty that always stays obediently in place at the base (gront) of the mountain. Indeed, we now learn that the non-place of Love has elevation, a topographical feature previously unnoticed by eyes always seeking to place Love. The loyalty that works the land and stays below (trouwe gront) lets itself be subdued under the feudal yoke and, in so doing, lets itself be satisfied (ghenoeghen) even now without the slightest inkling (sonder bekinnen) of something or somewhere else. This “ground loyalty” also lets itself be satisfied with its own estimation (ieghen- werdecheit), with being esteemed in general, because feudal fear only comes into its own (ieghen) through fear of too little estimation or worth (werdech).
By means of this subversive gesture, disloyalty itself becomes “noble” (edele), and abolishes its own borders, acquiring an “expansive” (soe wijd) consciousness. And this continual refusal to settle down in any one place makes a person have such intense Love — unlike the sham Love confined within borders — that she assumes that she has lost her senses and gone out of her mind. “Her heart sighs, her veins continually stretch and rupture, and her soul melts.” Nothing is ever enough for this continually expanding disloyalty, for even if a person loves Love this intensely, noble disloyalty still cannot feel (ghevoelen) or establish trust (trouwen) with Love. Love is no where to be found. Desire (begherte) convinces disloyalty that there is yet more, that this is not the time nor place, that the boundary of its lands must never be closed off.
At the same time, however, disloyalty unsettles desire. Unlike the groveling “ground loyalty” that lets itself settle for less, a noble disloyalty never lets desire stay for too long (gheduren) in any one place to establish trust with (trouwen) and subject itself to an object of desire (ghere). Disloyalty continually (altoes) calls desire into question (mestrout), for as its engine of expansion disloyalty has the utopian fear that perhaps a person is never loved enough (ghenoech). There is never enough ground in this non-place of always evasive Love. The borders can never be closed off with the false presumption that a person has finally attained to a Love worthy of loyalty (trouwe), for any Love one finds is always lower than the Love by means of which this second, strange kind of fear is cultivated. But this alternate fear no longer knows one from the other of the two fearful poles mentioned at the beginning of the letter. Now disloyalty is so high (hoghe) that it does not know what, whom, or where to fear at all. Is a person to fear that she does not love enough or that she is not loved enough? The question has become redundant, for Love has already impossibly taken place.
Only now, after writing oneself out of the the all too easily attained place of feudal Love and fashioning the continually elusive non-place of utopian Love is a person able to shift focus from her own esteem (werdech) to Love itself. Such a person now fears that she does not love enough — and that she is not enough loved — instead of fearing that she is not “worthy” or “sufficient” for Love. By the subversive fear that a subservient Love might not ever be enough, a person enters into a different, non-locatable kind of Love. Here is an infinite spacing, continually expanding, where no one is worthy and nothing is ever enough, for Love loves and is loved undeservedly and excessively. Always higher and beyond our reach, always wider and beyond our horizon, the only way to enter into the non-place of Love is through a kind of restless utopian desire. And in this very non-attainability — the impossibility of Love — a person becomes herself a working of that Love that always seems evasive.
Columba Hart, trans. Hadewijch: The Complete Works. Classics of Western Spirituality. Macwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.