In a culture that has surrendered the definition of heart to margarine manufacturers, Gail Godwin's book is a welcome recasting of a central concept. You could say she looks at the heart of the matter and exclaims, "I Can't Believe It's Not Better."
"We must develop a new consciousness of the heart," she urges in this idiosyncratic survey of "the ways we've imagined the heart through time in myth and art and popular culture."
Holding a stethoscope to contemporary life, she's concerned about what she hears. "Heart-knowledge - based on feeling values, relationship, personal courage, intimations of the ineffable, a passion for transcendence - tends to be mistrusted as impractical, profitless, or nonexistent. Where is 'the heart,' anyway, scoffs the bird-of-prey executive, trudging joylessly on his treadmill, except under your breastbone?"
Godwin is the perfect host for this quick tour of everything from cave drawings to Internet chat. She speaks with the cordial, smart voice of a professor who can summarize the most complex issues without intimidating, and explain the most basic points without condescending.
She starts at the first known representation of a heart, a picture of a woolly mammoth in Spain, drawn about 10,000 years ago.
When she moves to the epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest known story, she finds the heart already endowed with physical and mental characteristics, as a necessary muscle and the seat of human emotions.
She recounts the Egyptians' special reverence for the heart in the afterlife where it would be weighed on the scale with a feather of truth.
Though the Jews were the first people to conceive of "an abstract notion of God," she notes that "he is represented from the very beginning as having a heart like theirs: a central place in him that can be hurt and angered and softened - and changed."
Despite her own devout faith (Episcopal), she gives no special emphasis to Christian treatments. She almost favors the myths and traditions that are less familiar to her, where the joy of discovery pulses.
She describes the Upanishads of India (600-300 BC), which conceived of the human heart as the "great fulcrum of the cosmos," and the Hindus who attended to the chakras, seven energy points where body and spirit interconnect.
She provides an engaging discussion of the Koran, in which the heart is an organ of discernment, and of the Buddha, who seeks "the rare combination of a cool mind and a warm heart." (See related review p. 20).
Her witty reflection on the "Kama Sutra" alludes to Martha Stewart and decries the loss of real excitement and affection in today's commercialized eroticism.
The Chinese, she notes, can use the same word for heart and mind, while the Greeks began to push the heart down in favor of the head.
"Bowling through time," as she calls it, Godwin is a teacher who's not too pompous to mention Helen Hunt or too out of touch to know she must identify Chretien de Troyes (a 12th-century French poet who popularized the Arthurian legend).
The great divide
In the dissection lectures of William Harvey, a 17th-century English doctor, Godwin diagnoses the split between heart and mind that she sees so pernicious today.
When Dr. Harvey opened a cadaver and raised up a human heart for his awestruck audiences to see, this muscle became the "real" heart, and the palpable heart of older cultures faded into myth and metaphor.
"We who are living now," she writes, "remain the children of the Great Heart Split. We're not orphans; both our parents, mind and heart, are still alive, we visit them regularly, but they don't live together anymore. They subscribe to different values, and we have to be careful to respect the realities of the parent we're currently staying with.... Like all children from divided homes, we continue to dream ... of a future epoch when all of us can be together under one roof."
The book's second half turns to discussions of literature, from the passionate love in Shakespeare's sonnets to the fascinating heartlessness of Gilbert Osmond in "The Portrait of a Lady."
A lengthy exploration of the broken heart is arrested by the story of her brother's suicide. Here as elsewhere, Godwin resists the sentimentality that could have weighed the book down. She keeps to her steady rhythm, even if the agony she describes makes the heart skip a beat.
This is a voice of appreciation before analysis, a discussion that circulates through personal reflection and anecdote. With "Heart," Godwin has given CPR to the kind of literary criticism considered dead by modern theorists. She speaks with the smart enthusiasm that makes meeting or revisiting these texts truly hospitable.
Unfortunately, "Heart" provides a good opportunity to exercise that old maxim about not judging a book by its cover. From its garish dust jacket with reflective red lettering to its clunky, rust-colored subheadings and cutesy heart icons, the text is badly served by its appearance. And why, in a book so quotable, so filled with eclectic insight, research, and analysis, have we no index?
But these ailments are not Godwin's problems. She jumpstarts the imagination with new-old ways to think about one of the most prevalent concepts in our lives. I had worried she would turn me into that narrator from Edgar Allan Poe's story who's driven mad by the loud pounding in his chest, but in fact, this is a book that diffuses one's attention to the subtlest rhythms far beyond.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com.
By Gail Godwin William Morrow 308 pp., $24
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society