It’s Time to Resuscitate “Heart”
by Rob Neufeld
For example, there’s “Heart,” Gail Godwin’s story-telling work of philosophy and heartfulness. It’s out-of-print.
In “Heart,” Godwin roams the classics and her experiences to re-establish heart as a state-of-mind and a core philosophy. Her case is compelling.
Scientific thinking has trumped wholeness in our time, she shows, though the counterbalancing approach has an impressive history.
Gilgamesh, Buddha, the sacred heart, and the heart that William Harvey held in his hand in 1628 come to light (or, in Harvey’s case, dark) in the first of three parts of Godwin’s tour, along with others and much else. She then moves to a personal and thematic section; and finally to a conclusion, which introduces a practical new focus.
“Heart” is the subject of Book Discussion X at Accent on Books, May 10.
To get copies of the book, readers can go to libraries and used book stores, where they will also unearth Elizabeth Bowen’s 1938 novel, “The Death of the Heart.”
“I find myself reading ‘The Death of the Heart’ every three or four years,” Godwin writes in a chapter titled, “Heartbreak.” “Like all great books, it becomes a new book each time.”
Godwin’s five-page essay on “The Death of the Heart” illustrates the value of reading classics. The book connects with her in many ways: its honesty and high quality of writing; the English boarding house experience, which Gail had known and has written about; its characters with exposed hearts; and the religious good-heartedness of the housemaid.
Finally, there’s Bowen’s example of turning the pain of open-heartedness into personal growth.
“Elizabeth the disappointed lover,” Godwin writes, referring to Bowen’s autobiographical inspiration, “has made the summer heartbreak of 1936 into a story that still speaks to the hearts of the Portia’s and Annas of today.”
Growing up in Asheville in the generation following Thomas Wolfe’s death, Godwin has said she’d wanted to “capture the whole history of the human heart.”
You can see her developing her art to follow this calling in “The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963” (Random House, 2006).
Almost forty years later, Godwin’s longtime and recently late agent, John Hawkins passed an editor’s idea before her: why not write “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.”
Godwin’s survey does more than catalog and illustrate. It composes a heart religion and demonstrates its progress through landmark events in human consciousness.
After Gilgamesh, the Sumerian despot, discovered the grace of caring about others in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Abraham in “The Torah,” and then Ezekiel and Jesus after him, establish for people a personal relationship with a single God who represents heart in its largest sense.
“An invisible God with a heart,” Godwin notes, “was a moving and radically new concept.”
“Also meet cool-minded, warm-hearted Buddha,” she writes in another part. He gives us “the Eightfold Path,” a practical guide to achieving purity of heart.
There is a vital link between heartfulness and hopefulness in personal lives and good literature, Godwin reveals. One proof: the great stories she tells.
For instance, the landmark development of courtly love in the 1100s, epitomized by Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere, came about because the English lords were off fighting the Crusades, leaving troubadours the opportunity to worship unattainable ladies.
Reading Andrew Capellanus’ “Rules of Courtly Love,” written for Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th century, Godwin confesses, “I began to feel uncomfortably at home. Then I realized this advice was right out of my mother’s Court of Love tutorials just before I started going out with boys. ‘Be hard to get.’”
Journey through darkness
In some parts of “Heart,” Godwin gets scientific; for science has progressed from Harvey’s dissected heart to an understanding of the heart’s range of governing functions. In other parts, she shares some of the most personal episodes in her life.
The chapter on heartbreak includes her grappling with her brother Tommy’s murder-suicide in Asheville. (She explored this fictionally in “A Southern Family.”) Heartbreak can kill, we see over and over.
Conversely, the “desire for interpersonal fusion…is the force which keeps the human race together,” Godwin quotes Erich Fromm. “The failure to achieve it means insanity or destruction.”
From heartbreak, Godwin takes us on a journey through examples of heartlessness and the heart of darkness, and then changes of heart and the heart in love, before moving to the final section, “Hospitality of Heart.”
“Now after all these months spent in the School of the Heart,” Godwin relates, “I realize my course of study has led me somewhere, after all…I did arrive at an idea of what we need to train for next if we are to develop more consciousness of heart. And that training school is the School of Hospitality.”
It had been a long time since young Gail Godwin had devoted herself to knowing the history of heartfulness, and she has succeeded in moving the body of thought ahead another notch.
Yet, in 2001, despite several glowing reviews, the publisher failed to pump promotional blood into “Heart,” and it has become buried under a mountain of new works.
Godwin’s third volume of journals, a work in progress, which I am editing, opens just as “Heart” is being debuted and she begins to develop her 2006 novel, “Queen of the Underworld.”
On June 3, 2001, her journal records, she had a dream about going into a book store to buy a copy of W.H. Hudson’s novel, “Green Mansions.” The store’s selection was limited, and a set of special editions turned out to have passages cut out of them.
The day before, in real life, Godwin had learned of a reprinting of C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”—“without the Christianity.”
In the dream, Gail starts oozing fluid from her chest, and tries to leave as she apologizes for the inconvenience. She heads into a dark exit tunnel.
“Take heart” is her waking philosophy. It applies, it seems, to our need to preserve, read, and appreciate classics.
Heart: A Personal Journey through Its Myths and Meanings by Gail Godwin (William Morrow hardcover, 2001).
Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life by Gail Godwin (Perennial/HarperCollins trade paper ed., 2002).
Book Discussion X discusses “Heart” by Gail Godwin, 7 p.m., May 12 at Accent on Books, 854 Merrimon Ave. Call 252-6255. Visit the website “”The Read on WNC” at TheReadonWNC.ning.com.