Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life

Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life

by Gail Godwin


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What is the heart? We know it as not only the beating thing in our chests that sustains life, but as the wellspring of all faith, hope, and love. In this remarkable book, critically acclaimed author Gail Godwin takes us on a breathtaking journey that spans the history of human civilization, combining myth, art and religion to understand how humans have conceived of the heart through time. From the first valentine to the first stethoscope, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Buddha, from the heart of darkness to heart-to-heart talks, Godwin weaves her own stories of heartbreak and hope through it all.

Inspired by the richest of lore, Godwin ultimately arrives at what every culture must discover anew: we cannot let the head alone rule our lives. In this colorful history of the organ of life itself, she discovers a template for a more heart-filled life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780380808410
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/05/2002
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,213,668
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Gail Godwin is the author of ten novels, three of which were nominated for National Book Awards. A Southern Family and Father Melancholy's Daughter were both NYT bestsellers and Main Selections of the Book of the Month Club. She has been translated into 12 languages. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and letters. She holds a doctorate in Modern Letters from the University of Iowa and has taught in the Iowa writers Workshop, Vassar and Columbia. A native of Asheville, N.C., she now lives in Woodstock, N.Y.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the chronicle of our species, ever since we acquired speech and symbols, the imaginative place accorded to the heart can tell you a great deal about how a people defines itself and what it holds sacred.

When the Aztecs cut open captive enemy warriors and offered their bloody hearts to the sun god, they believed the heart was the body's sun and the more hearts they sacrificed the more power they were returning to the sun. Before the enemy warrior was killed, they painted him with stripes, tied him to a rope, and gave him a blunt wooden sword; Aztec warriors, armed with real swords and shields, fought him. The longer "the stripe" held out, the braver and more "nutritious" was deemed the meal offered to the sun.

When primitive peoples ate the hearts of particularly brave enemies or animals they had killed, they believed they were ingesting the strength and courage of the owner of that heart.

For the alchemists in the Middle Ages, the heart represented the image of the sun within a human being, just as gold was the image of the sun on earth. Later they understood that their undertaking was also an outward and visible sign for purifying the heart.

For the disciplined practitioner of Buddhist Tantric yoga, the "heart level" represents that advanced achievement of consciousness in an individual where, for the first time, "a light is lit in the heart."

From this point on, one is no longer dependent on reflected light, but can at last see directly for oneself.

For Aztecs, alchemists, and Tantrics alike, the heart-sun-enlightenment connection is paramount in value, though the means of expressing that value evolves fromvisceral to chemical to symbolic. As our consciousness becomes more differentiated, "what is outside" becomes known as "also inside."

It has been said by many thoughtful people that our era, or the era we are just completing, has represented the nadir of the heart. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, we have lived in a culture that increasingly worships decisions of the head alone. The head without the heart is much better equipped to make empirical, technical, product-oriented decisions.

In his unusual and extremely readable autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, dictated and written when he was eighty-one, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung describes his encounter with the Native American chief of the Taos pueblos in New Mexico in 1932.

"I was able to talk with him as I have rarely been able to talk with a European," Jung recalls. "To be sure, he was caught up in his world just as much as a European is in his, but what a world it was! In talk with a European, one is constantly running up on the sand bars of things long known but never understood; with this Indian, the vessel floated freely on deep alien seas. At the same time, one never knows which is more enjoyable: catching sight of new shores, or discovering new approaches to age old knowledge that has been almost forgotten" (Vintage, p. 247).

Chief Ochwiay Biano, which means Mountain Lake, must have sensed a kindred spirit in the Swiss doctor, because he was devastatingly candid with him.

Chief Mountain Lake: "See how cruel the whites look, their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad."

When Jung asks why he thinks they are all mad, Mountain Lake replies, "They say they think with their heads."

"Why of course," says Jung. "What do you think with?"

"We think here," says Chief Mountain Lake, indicating his heart.

After this exchange, Jung fell into a deep meditation. The Pueblo chief had struck a vulnerable spot. Jung saw image upon image of cruelties wreaked by his forebears: the Roman eagle on the North Sea and the White Nile, "the keenly incised features of Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, and Pompey...Charlemagne's most glorious forced conversions of the heathen...the pillaging, murdering bands of the Crusading armies...the peoples of the Pacific islands decimated by firewater, syphilis and scarlet fever carried in the clothes the missionaries forced on them."

Chief Mountain Lake had shown Jung the other face of his own civilization: it was "the face of a bird of prey seeking with cruel intentness for distant quarry...."

What makes this dialogue reported by Jung so relevant is that it is a living encounter between a representative of the unconscious "heart thinking" of the ancients and a modern man of science and pioneer of consciousness who understood that the wisdom of the heart must catch up with our overdeveloped "thinking heads" if we are to survive. We have to preserve the gold in the age-old "knowledge of the heart" and keep making it ever more conscious if we are to protect our growing human possibilities from the keen-featured bird-of-prey mentality that circles above. We must develop a new consciousness of the heart.

In our contemporary bottom-line society, 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?

The heart has been reduced once again to the visceral, but this time without any sacred connection to the powers of life and light. No longer do we literally cut our enemies' hearts out and feed them to an out-of-date sun god: we do it the bloodless, sophisticated way, without a flint knife, and feed them to the contemporary god of "market value function," which leads to money and power. Already, back in the 1950's...

Heart. Copyright © by Gail Godwin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

No other part of the human anatomy has permeated every aspect of life - religion, mythology, literature, art, music - like the heart. Words and expressions involving the heart have worked their way into everyday language without us giving them a second thought. What if we sought to consciously understand how the heart affects the human condition?

This is exactly what Gail Godwin sets out to accomplish. Highly acclaimed as a novelist, Godwin demonstrates her love of language and ideas in this broad, sweeping overview of the heart through the ages. From pre-historic cave paintings through the Industrial Revolution, from ritual sacrifices to objects of worship, we come to know and understand the mysteries of the heart.

Part One explores The Heart Through Time. We meet the key figures in the evolution of both civilization and organized religion, and learn that there has been some notion of the heart since the beginning of time. Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Jesus of Nazareth, Muhammad - all share "heart-wisdom" in their teachings. We are able to explore subjects as disparate as Greek philosophy, origins of the Valentine, and the first stethoscope - all within the framework of a singular organ.

In Part Two, Heart Themes in Life and Art, Godwin adds depth and texture to oft-used expressions like "a broken heart", "absence of heart", "change of heart", "the heart of darkness", and "a heart in love". Whether sharing intimate experiences from her own life, drawing upon the classics like Shakespeare, Goethe's Faust, or George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, or engaging the reader by asking thought-provokingquestions, Godwin shows her profound insight and passion for one of humankind's most enduring symbols.

Part Three, Hospitality of Heart, blends intensely personal stories of Godwin's experience of losing her mother with glimpses of the lives of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Klee, allowing us to get to "the heart of things."

Amidst a myriad of self-help books about matters of the heart, filled with fluff and promises of transformation, Gail Godwin's Heart is an oasis - a serious and thoughtful book, brimming with intelligence, wit and passion - that allows us a refreshingly close look at what makes us most human.

Topics for Discussion

  • Contemporary society mistrusts "heart-knowledge" as impractical, profitless, or nonexistent [p. 18]. Do you believe this view to be more prevalent in some segments of society more than others? Which ones? Discuss the ways in which variations in age, education, socioeconomic status and gender might affect one's reliance on "heart-knowledge".

  • The kind of heart that Gail Godwin would like to have [p. 42] is "a new heart that will be able to walk accordingly with God and feel shame when it deviates." She struggles to understand what might stand in the way of attaining such a heart. What would it mean to you to have this kind of heart? What gets in your way?

  • Discuss the Shinto belief that man is not inherently evil, but in his pure heart, is divine [p. 69]. What do you believe to be the true nature of man? Of woman? Of humankind?

  • Some 2500 years ago, the Greeks began the process of differentiating the mind from the heart [p. 76] Given the "whole heart" visions of the ancient world before them, what might have motivated the Greeks to develop this new notion?

  • The image of a barn-raising is an example of a "communal heart" [pp. 84-86]. What other examples can you think of? What would it take to encourage more people to participate in activities of this kind?

  • The art of loving, according to Erich Fromm, "can be accomplished through discipline, concentration, patience, and a supreme concern with the mastery of the art" [p. 153]. Discuss the impact of both heart and mind on the art of loving. What obstacles stand in the way?

  • Even 20+ years after the fact, Godwin tries to make sense of her brother's death [pp. 152-155]. How would you attempt to explain why members of the same family, with shared life experiences, can have such different ways of coping? What role does the heart play in consoling someone's grief?

  • The question that Godwin posed to a book group [p. 168] might be a good one for your group to discuss as well. "Has writing ever saved you from despair, and if so, how?"

  • The chapter Absence of Heart ends with the line "It is as if heartlessness were a communicable disease" [p. 194]. Discuss some examples to illustrate this point, and some ways that this "disease" could be prevented.

  • Discuss Godwin's use of classical literature and authors like Henry James, George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad to cite examples of heartbreak and heartlessness. As prevalent as matters of the heart are in life and literature, why do you suppose the author chose these particular figures? Can you think of other references that would have served the same purpose?

  • In its own way, Godwin's decision to research and write this book, after a career as an acclaimed novelist, was an opportunity to further explore her own heart. What sections and passages in the book most directly applied to the author?

  • Godwin writes, "When I am fearful or melancholy, or petulant over something, I can take up a volume of Klee's paintings and drawings and. . . immediately enter a better place" [p. 291]. Describe your own "better place." Does the place vary depending on whether it's your heart, body, or mind that needs comforting?

  • How, if at all, has your "heart-consciousness" changed as a result of reading this book? How might you have been affected if, like the author, you had two years to immerse yourself in the topic?

  • A young editor had envisioned "a book about the heart … not a medical book, but the ways we've imagined the heart through time in myth and art and popular culture and what those images tell us about the human condition, then and now. It would be informative, but not scholarly. More of a lush, writerly, intimate book with a narrative arc" [p. 9] In what ways does this book meet the above criteria? How could it have differed? How would you have approached the subject if given the same assignment?

    About the Author: Gail Godwin was born in Alabama in 1937 and grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. In a speech she made to a group of authors, Godwin recounted powerful forces on her life, including her mother's passion for writing, the themes of her mother's writing, and her involvement in the theater.

    Godwin retrieved a play written by her mother while her mother was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It told the story of a girl who proclaimed herself an atheist but was persuaded to go to church in order to show off an orchid corsage - a young woman trying to strike out on her own gives in to society's wishes and demands. Another play was about two talented roommates, one an artist and the other a writer, who both fear never realizing success.

    In these plots, Godwin said, "I see the seeds of what has come to occupy me so much" - the struggles of an artist who is not sure she's going to make it. Quoting Carl Jung, Godwin noted her belief that each person's life is the result of "the particular fatal tissue in which one finds oneself imbedded."

    Yet Godwin has blossomed as a nationally bestselling author of two collections of short fiction and ten highly acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, A Southern Family, Father Melancholy's Daughter, and Evensong.

    Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and has taught at the University of Iowa, Vassar, and Columbia University. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 1981 Award in Literature from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She now lives in Woodstock, New York.

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