The Heart: An Appropriately Irrational Examination

September 15, 2014 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales, Sociology

Petit Livre d'Amour, Pierre Sala, 16th century

Petit Livre d’Amour, Pierre Sala, 16th century

“The knowledge of the heart is in no book and is not to be found in the mouth of any teacher, but grows out of you like the green seed from the dark earth.” Carl Jung, The Red Book


Right now in your chest there is a muscular fist of tissue beating away, contracting and expanding, singing a pulsing song, which you’re probably rarely aware of. We notice the thump of our heart mostly when it’s forced to beat ferociously, whether through exercise, stress, high emotions, or disease. But, while the normal beating of our heart all the day in and day out, rarely has our full attention, we figuratively call on our hearts all time: we’re heartbroken, our heart is in our throat or in the clouds or in our belly. We gave someone our heart, we spoke from the heart, we have murder in our heart, we heartily agree. Our hearts leap and fall, sigh and cry, sing and shout. We are good-hearted or bad-hearted, sometimes even heartless, or perhaps we’ve hidden our heart, guarded it, frozen it, melted it, lost it, put it on the table, sent it in letter, mended its bruises and tears…

The heart, since the earliest records of human history, has been proclaimed the seat of the soul, the home of wisdom and our spiritual life force. In art, the heart more than any other part of the body has been imagined widely and unendingly, most commonly described and pictured as the sun, a book, house, rose, drum, well, cave, mirror, chest, jar, pine cone, or shrine.

“How long has the human heart been the seat of the soul? Longer than human history is recorded. The fist of electric elastic ebullient endless energy in your chest was the distilled essence of character and spirit for the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Thracians, the Romans, the Mayans, the Aztec, the Australians, the Celts. “ Brian Doyle, The Wet Engine

From the very first scientist to cut open the chest, pull out the heart, and examine it, to the most recent scientists to conduct this same procedure, they all say something to this effect: It’s only flesh and blood, an organ like all the others. I see no soul here. And yet the heart continues to be the domain of love and soulfulness, as persistent in its importance today as it was long before we had a working understanding of human physiology. The physical reality of the now exposed heart simply cannot deter our irrational and yet unshakeable belief that there is more to the heart than meets the dissector’s eyes.

Oronce Fine's Cordiform (Heartshaped) map of the southern hemispheres, c. 1536.

Cartographer Oronce Fine’s cordiform (heart-shaped) map, c. 1536.

“I always assumed that somewhere in the dim untraceable past, earlier than writing, love and the heart had become irretrievably associated in the human mind—but that is because I have been brought up rational, and encourage to think that everything happens in the mind. Now, having read what the greatest (and lowest) minds have had to say over millennia on the subject of the heart and love, even my rational mind is inclined to think that love does genuinely belong to the heart—we didn’t put it there; we found it there.”
Louisa Young, The Book of the Heart

A belief in the heart’s spiritual and emotional qualities is perhaps rightly irrational, as there’s never been a place for reason in the realm of the heart. It’s been said a thousand ways, but I think the character Ulysses Gill, from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), said it best: “It’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” The heart defies logical understanding, in love, feelings, and spiritual matters, vexing greatly those who wish to explain all mysteries away and intoxicating those who wish to emote and “fill the world with silly love songs.”

My own heart defies even my attempts to reason with it, dragging me into a world of sensations which at times I would prefer to avoid. The heart can ache, oh how it can ache, and this is not a figurative description, as anyone who has suffered a severe loss or trauma can attest. It can beat so hard in your chest that it feels as though a wild horse is kicking against your breast. When I experienced heartbreak for the first (and thankfully only) time I felt my pulse beating, breaking, throbbing incessantly against my finger tips, temples, and chest for weeks. It had a war tempo: a cruel, demanding rhythm that whipped me into frenzies of emotions, till I exhaustively wished for it to be calm for just a single moment (“oh, damnit be still my beating heart!”).

“As imaging studies by the UCLA neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger show, the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active when someone feels brutalized by love. That’s why rejection hurts all over the body, but in no place you can point to… Whether they speak Armenian or Mandarin, people around the world use the same images of physical pain to describe a broken heart, which they perceive as crushing, crippling, a real blow that hurts so bad they go all to pieces.” Diane Ackerman, The Human Age

Pierre Sala leaves his heart in the flower marguerite which shares his lover's name, Petit Livre d'Amour, Pierre Sala, 16th century

Pierre Sala leaves his heart in the flower marguerite (which shares his lover’s name), Petit Livre d’Amour, Pierre Sala, 16th century

And when you fall in love, oh how frighteningly wonderful, your heart feeling as though it were a flower blooming open, or sprouting wings to fly into your beloved’s keeping, ready or not. Oh yes, it’s not me who controls my heart, not like I can cajole my thoughts or arms and legs. Oh no, it’s my heart that cajoles me, often despite myself. What does any of this mean? Not much to the mind, but it all makes sense to your heart I’m guessing.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” C. S. Lewis

We swear oaths by putting our hands over our hearts, and if truth could be promised to arise from any part of our being, the heart would be it. Our hearts will murmur truths, that we may well consciously avoid, with each contraction and release. In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the heart of a murdered old man drives his killer to confession simply by beating, beating away beneath the floor boards where his body was hidden.

The metaphors we apply to a person’s heart are revealing: is their heart cold or hot, open or closed, soft or hard, large or small, light or heavy, deep or shallow? These descriptions illuminate our deepest understanding of an individual’s character, and even perhaps their soul. The Egyptians declared the heart to be the final evidence of the goodness or badness accumulated in the span of a lifetime:

“Four thousand years ago when a man or woman or child in Egypt died, his or her ba, the soul, traveled through the underworld through fire and cobras, to the halls of the jackal god Anubis, who weighed your heart against maat, the feather of Things As They Should Be. If your heart was too heavy or too light, it was eaten by monsters and you were doomed to sleep until the end of time. If your heart was evenly balanced, you were sent on into the light, where you could enjoy the love of the living.” Doyle

Hieroglyph depicting The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani, created c. 1300 BC

Hieroglyph (circa 1300 BC) depicting the weighing of the heart described in The Book of the Dead of Ani.

The brain interrupts at this point and demands the question be asked: Is the heart simply an organ that’s been afforded special privileges based on whimsy and nonsense through the ages of human history, or is there actual proof of these deeper dimensions of the fleshy engine that drives our body? But this is not a trial, dear mind, and the heart continues to pump away, unconcerned with any verdict, sending our precious salty liquid of life in ever-moving streams through our body. Whether treated as just an organ or as the seat of the soul, the heart has mysteries still to boggle scientists and romantics alike. But for the sake of balance and curiosity, next post we’ll explore the corporeal qualities of the heart.

The following books informed this post:
The Wet Engine, Brian Doyle
The Book of the Heart, Louisa Young

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