The heart, that wretched thing, that effigy to which we take all our torch songs, the ones we quote from endlessly, the ones we listen to furtively, with earphones. Here’s Neil Young searching, a miner for a heart of gold (but does he possess one himself – can he give the thing he wants to receive?). Here are the Backstreet Boys, aching with an agony both pure and puerile; let me show you the shape of my heart.
Show it to us then. Here’s Christ himself holding his sacred heart before his chest like an apple, blazing like original sin – here’s Hanuman, taking things a step further, literally tearing his chest open with his bare hands and revealing its contents. The gesture may be stylized, sanitized, but it’s immediately recognizable: who among us hasn’t done the same?
Inevitably, barbarism. “The heart is a lonely hunter,” wrote Carson McCullers. The heart hungers, like every hunter. And the hunter is always armed – but with what? Look at the tip of the vel, look at the shape of the space for the eyes and mouth on a barbute helmet.
Here you are with your heart a deflated balloon, an overflowing chalice, a reservoir.
Here I am with my current favourite metaphor: heart a mosaic, resurrected and re-resurrected, cannonball after cannonball. This is what it means to love someone to pieces – your own life turns to tesserae.
Here it is in nature: the original Valentine of the silphium seed. Here the procession of magenta lamprocapnos spectabili, here the swaying vine of cordate pepper leaves. The former are called bleeding-heart flowers, the latter cling and cling like nothing but a thing in love. (Here is U2’s heart as a bloom, shoot[ing] up from the stony ground).
Here is Poe’s tell-tale heart, pounding out justice. Here the I [heart] New York icon, so ubiquitous that the [heart] is now shorthand. In films, we’ve [heart]ed Huckabees, been “wild at heart”, and even sensed “the beat that my heart skipped”. Whose is the mighty heart about which Mariane Pearl wrote – her slayed husband’s, or her widowed own?
How many metaphors we find for a thing that is, itself, a metaphor – heart as the source of our joy, heart as the location of our ruin, heart as the centre of the world. The idea of the heart as a place – Elvis and Whitney Houston checked into the Heartbreak Hotel; the idea of the heart as a thing that be named and therefore contained – I’m gonna lock my heart and throw away the key crooned Billie Holiday (unchain my heart, countered Ray Charles). The metaphysical heart that has implied proxies in the corporeal realm: the left breast over which a palm is placed in promise or allegiance, the abstract seat of the anahata chakra.
“The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of,” wrote Blaise Pascal. “The heart”, confirms the Bible, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Not us, perhaps, but trust it we must – trickster, torturer, truth-teller.
The ancient Mesoamericans practiced heart-extraction because theirs was a passionate cosmos, it needed blood to keep going. We too need the heart to keep going, and so we follow it, appeasing its hungers, rearranging its disorders, in faith that it will lead us somewhere where we can be whole, pulsing with life, transfigured by love.
An edited version appeared in today’s Times of India, Chennai (World Heart Day supplement).