“Craft and Conviction: Gail Godwin’s History of the Heart,” by Kerstin W. Shands

Gail Godwin

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

Gail Godwin’s Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life stems from a moment in time when Godwin had just re-read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. She had been thinking about a new novel regarding “a woman’s journey into a heart of darkness where she would have to confront her shadow” when, with surprising synchronicity, her agent called with a proposal for a nonfictional book about the heart (8).

Godwin’s consciousness was soon flooded with images of the heart from art, myth, and literature along with a multitude of metaphoric heart-phrases so ingrained in our language as to have become “dead” metaphors. She decided to take on the challenge and delve into images and understandings of the heart through time and space, from literary, spiritual, and historical perspectives, while also pumping fresh life-blood into worn and pallid metaphors.

The Heart in History and Spirituality

In Heart, Godwin’s first nonfiction book, we enter “the heartscape through recorded time” in order to make reflective stops along the routes of history, philosophy, and literature—and perhaps be able to “pinpoint by comparison our present heart location” (19). Central questions will be: “What have we gained since the cave artist painted a red heart on an elephant? What have we lost since the Industrial Revolution?” (19).

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Departing from ancient art and myth, such as a mural painting of a mammoth with a heart painted in a Spanish cave about 10000 BC and The Epic of Gilgamesh, Heart embarks on a tour of the human heart and its meanings in different cultures throughout history, exploring the literal, medical, and metaphoric aspects of the heart as both life-sustaining center in our physical bodies and metaphoric site of our emotions. The first stop is ancient Egypt, where the heart played a central role in after-death ceremonies. A deceased person’s heart was examined, then and there, through a “negative” confession of everything he or she had not done. The heart was weighed, the result giving access to eternal life with the gods or to the heart being eaten by a monster.

Composed between 600 and 300 BC, the Upanishads “mark a dramatic breakthrough in human consciousness,” writes Godwin, because this is “where the enlightened individual self as container of the cosmic consciousness—God at home in you—begins to play a noticeable role” (43). There is less focus on gods and goddesses and “more on the God to be discovered within the depths of one’s being, as well as the necessary disciplines to approach it” (43-44). In other words, there is a vision of an interior place possible to reach though spiritual and physical disciplines “where each of us can meet the ineffable source of being” (44).

In the Judaic tradition, the heart has always been central, and the Hebrew word for heart, lev, refers to wisdom, emotion, and the right attitude. Initially, God had a heart just like that of human beings, and he could have strong feelings: “although the Jews were the first people to arrive at an abstract notion of God and thus forbade images of him, 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” (34).

In the Bible, there are over a thousand references to the heart, with the Book of Psalms, for example, showing an astonishing variety of metaphoric meanings for “heart.” Underlining the centrality of the heart in Christianity, Godwin takes as an example the passage in Matthew in which Jesus argues that washing one’s hands before a meal, the custom according to Jewish purity laws, was less important than having a clean heart, since the kingdom of God was located inside a person.

The main question posed in this survey of major world religions, and certainly a question for further consideration, is whether there is “a wisdom of the heart that all religions share” (319).

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In personal and spiritual development today, many teachers point to the importance of resting in and accepting the present moment just as it is. From Godwin’s account it becomes strikingly obvious just how strongly influenced by ancient spiritual traditions contemporary spirituality actually is. Contemporary spiritual recommendations to meditate and seek stillness recall the creative quietude of wu wei, the “yielding up of our striving conscious wills to the resources of a deeper self in tune with tao,” as recommended in the Tao Te Ching: “Do you have the patience to wait / Till your mud settles and the water is clear? / Can you remain unmoving / Till the right action arises by itself?” (quoted by Godwin 65).

In her discussion of Buddhism, Godwin suggests that it is not desire per se that is the root of all human suffering. Rather, it is a desire for one’s own fulfillment at the expense of others that leads to a sense of being separate and cut off, and this becomes a source of suffering.

Similarly, in the Confucian tradition, there is an orientation toward community and humanity suggesting that one should strive to be like an ideal host, someone who does not think about what he can get from others but how, in “the social grammar of right behavior,” he can accommodate them (63): “Hospitality of heart calls for a special kind of imagination that concentrates on how another creature might be feeling” (282).

In the Confucian tradition, everything begins with righteousness:  “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there will peace in the world” (quoted by Godwin, 63).

Romantic Hearts and Heartbreak in Literature

Stories about the heart abound in literature. Godwin gives fascinating glimpses from literary and spiritual writings, one example being her discussion of the metaphors of the heart in French medieval poetry. She shows how the troubadours in the period of courtly love focused on the heart in new ways and understood how to keep desire alive.

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Shakespeare’s love sonnets have a special place in Godwin’s discussion, in particular Sonnet 116 about love as “an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken,” a theme Godwin links to the touching story of Philemon and Baucis, originally from Ovid, later used by Swift and Goethe.

With great sensitivity and discernment, Godwin shows how modern and classical writers have “used” personal experiences of heartbreak in their literary works. Examples are George Bernard Shaw, Elizabeth Bowen, and C.S. Lewis, all of whom have written eloquently about the grief of loss of love.

Absence of heart is another matter. There are, on the one hand, mechanistic conceptions obsessed with “facts” and characterized by the utilitarian ethos of the industrial revolution as depicted in Dickens’s Hard Times, and on the other hand, the thematic and symbolic “hearts of darkness” as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “If heart is the symbol of the inmost sanctuary of personal being, and darkness a symbol for the unconscious, the unknown, evil, ignorance, death, and the underworld, as well as for the dark of germination and potential new life, you get an astonishing range of meanings when you put the two images together” (195, italics in original).

Other “hearts of darkness” may be the underworlds depicted in ancient myths and tales: “You journey into darkness in order to find someone who knows the truth—or to confront the truths hidden in your own heart” (200). Inanna, Persephone, Eurydice, and Psyche all went down (or were sent into) the underworld, but only Inanna, whose story Godwin focuses on at length, returned as her full self.

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“Invalids of eros” is a term Godwin takes from the psychologist Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig to designate the often charming, stylish, and socially ambitious persons who are marked by emotional or moral heart deficiencies. Gilbert Osmond in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady could be one of those, as could a variety of psychopaths and sociopaths in literature and in real life. These are heartless types who see others as commodities to use in their own worldly journeys.

In Godwin’s own experience many years ago, there was an “X,” an initially interesting and “inscrutable” but in the end heartless and manipulative acquaintance. From this and other experiences, Godwin has formulated a pertinent piece of advice:  “love when possible; when not possible, settle for empathy; when empathy fails, fall back on courtesy; when courtesy fails, stay true to purpose and don’t hang back from the necessary toughness!” (192).

Personal Heart Stories

Heart is not only an erudite treatise; it is also a personal memoir with stories and reflections from Godwin’s life. There are beautifully rendered and deeply symbolic anecdotes about cats, flowers, and people. The cats come alive in the telling, as do trees and plants. There is a touching story of how generosity and synchronicity in the form of an unexpected but remarkably well-timed bouquet of nasturtiums saved a woman’s life.

The most poignant story in Heart is about Tommy, Godwin’s brother. Certainly, the pain she experienced at his death in 1983 is impossible to describe. Nonetheless, there it is, conveyed to the reader, a deep and dark loss accompanied by an unspeakable pain that turns up in nightmares about total and fatal abandonment. The circumstances around Tommy’s death, the prelude of the heartbreak he suffered, and the incomprehension in the face of the fateful events—these are the baffling components of a drama that can never be resolved, transcended, or understood. Years after the actual events, this grief is still present, sometimes with unexpected flashes of insight that shed sudden new light on scenes in the past and conversations with Tommy. Despite Godwin’s unceasing attempts to understand her brother and his final act of despair, his “troubled nature” will never be fully understood: “I’m never going to sum him up, track him down, figure him out. He’s the family mystery, never to be solved; all I can do now is cultivate the enigma of Tommy in my heart” (158).

Why did Tommy go under when Godwin and her other brothers and sisters did not? Could one thing that made a difference have been work, the fact that they had pursuits they could give their hearts to? For Godwin, writing has been life-saving. “Words,” she affirms, “are the most available material for creative repair work” (168). Marvelously, this creative and life-saving repair work is not reserved for writers alone: “where does one draw the line between writer and nonwriter? Is there such a human creature as “‘a nonwriter’?” (168).

Heart-Writing and Heart-Reading

Godwin’s writings have enabled her to be part of “the force which keeps the human race together,” a force that constitutes “the most powerful striving” and “the most fundamental passion,” according to Erich Fromm, who reckons that “[t]he failure to achieve it means insanity or destruction—self-destruction or destruction of others” (The Art of Loving, quoted by Godwin 151).

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Being blessed with a “facility to describe” also means being blessed with a community of readers: “The moment you begin to shape words and images into an utterance, you have summoned an interlocutor. Now you can be the one who asks and then listens in the silence for the kind of answer that might never speak for itself out of your own lonely void” (155, 170).

Responding to Godwin’s “facility to describe,” feeling uplifted and maybe even saved by her work, Godwin’s readers would perhaps characterize her fiction as a form of “heart-writing,” which could also be a creative mode of composition: “Utterances written down without left-brain censorship, in ‘shapes’ rather than lines, as they pulsate out from the intuitive trusts of heart-knowledge? And later, gone back to and harvested (if you live long enough) into noyaux of compatible fragments to make a combined effort of heart and head?” (125).

There is “heart-reading,” too, and Godwin has an interesting suggestion as to how to approach a text:

When confronting texts from other times and cultures, read for a while with the mind—and then let your mind take a rest and see what in the material leaps out at you on its own, makes you smile, startles you with a contemporary recognition, ignites your imagination. Chances are that something in the material has spoken heart-to-heart to you from then to now (45).

Looking back at her “enrollment” in the “school of the heart,” Godwin finds that, before writing Heart, she had been a “head person”: “Like most people of my era, I am fond of making lists and ‘prioritizing’ things in order of excellence, preference, whatever. I have grown up trained in the habit of grading everything, including myself” (242).  The process of writing this book transformed her into “a head person aware of the preeminence of heart” (316).

Godwin Country

You sense at once when you enter Godwin country. There is a distinctive, deep and warm tone here. Enveloped as if in longstanding friendship, the reader finds herself in the company of someone whose ability to create stories and communicate insights in rousing and graceful form is remarkable.

Godwin touches upon the Confucian ideal to be like a gracious host, and both in terms of the author’s attitude to herself, her readers, and her subject and in terms of her work method, an atmosphere of hospitality reigns in Heart. Certainly, despite the fireside coziness, the subjects discussed are neither simple nor unchallenging. Godwin turns toward something greater, toward a sense of meaning and an understanding of complex and far-ranging inner and outer worlds.

In her chapter on Japanese culture, Godwin tells us that an ideal haiku (apart from its specific form) must have “amari-no-kokoro, a heart-soul quality that reaches beyond the words and leaves an indelible aftertaste” (73). With its compelling craft and conviction, with its compassion and spirituality coupled with daring, directness, and precision, Heart has precisely that: a particular “heart-soul quality” that leaves “an indelible aftertaste.”

Heart is work of great scope. It is a learned treatise delving into a range of discoveries in ancient myth, history, literature, and religion in an exploration of the heart as a seat of emotion and wisdom. Given the enormous range of material covered, with many items a reader might want to return to, it is commendable that the publisher decided to add an index to the paperback edition.

Godwin travels down many different paths, following trails of light and shadow and listening to the subtle echoes of a fundamental (and for this text so important) sense of rhythm and duality that reminds us of the rhythm of the heart itself, of the seasons, and of music beyond clock-time and calendar-time. Rhythms are important, and from her “heart-companion,” the composer Robert Starer, Godwin has learned about tempo giusto, a rhythm that parallels the human pulse.

The book ends with a question that propels the reader right back to the present:

“Right now it is __/___AM./PM., and I am at __________(location). Where is my heart?” (320)

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Work Cited

Godwin, Gail. Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print

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