The organ of romance

A History of the Heart
September 28, 2007

Ole Høystad's A History of the Heart is about far more than the changing representation of this most charismatic organ. Indeed, the ease with which the central storyline opens into a wide-ranging intellectual history of Western culture is the book's chief delight and major achievement. Since it has clearly been published with an educated general readership in mind, this scope - which indexes Mesopotamian, Greek, Christian, Islamic, Norse and Aztec cultures, together with authors as various as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Goethe and Nietzsche - makes it something of a scholarly bargain.

The publication of this beautifully presented volume coincided with The Heart , an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London that ranged "from cardiology to Valentine's Day cards".

The centuries-long tussle between art and science with regards to the "meaning" and representation of the heart is one of the many narratives that Hoystad monitors, and his cross-cultural overview makes clear that, while the heart today is synonymous with emotion, this is by no means its only articulation. Moreover - and here we see the advantage of Høystad's beginning his survey 2,000 years BC - "emotion" in the 21st century is lived and expressed very differently than it was in, say, Homer's time.

The non-translatability of thought systems across history and culture is something Høystad reminds readers of regularly and is clearly indicative of his methodological commitment to think laterally wherever possible. Ranging so widely across texts, thinkers and disciplines has inevitably occasioned shortcuts and compromises, however, and disciplinary specialists may balk at the sparsely referenced accounts of large swaths of literary/cultural history; similarly, the non-specialist may falter when faced with the potted summary of (for example) Foucault's key concepts. This said, for a study whose foremost disciplinary allegiance is European philosophy, the close textual readings of Shakespeare's King Lear and Conrad's Heart of Darkness are accessible and inventive.

Equally impressive is Høystad's account of that seismic moment, sometime in the 12th century, when romantic love was "invented". The literary, cultural and religious movements that gave rise to what is commonly referred to as courtly love are, in truth, exceedingly complex and paradoxical, and Høystad does well to guide the reader towards an understanding of how erotic and spiritual love became sharply separate yet powerfully interdependent forces, and how passion and suffering became integral to the sublimation of desire.

At this critical point in the history of the heart, Høystad also identifies what remains, for me, one of the most useful ways of understanding love: its capacity to blast the individual beyond the limits of the ego and lose themselves in "an/other" to the extent that they are permanently and positively transformed. Although this is only one of several paradigms recognised (through, in particular, the story of Heloise and Abelard), it proves a vital counterpoint to the final chapter focusing on the "disenchantment" of Nietzsche, and resurfaces with thinkers such as Levinas, whose "ethics of encounter with the Other" have empowered a new generation of social and cultural theorists.

One figure strangely absent from Høystad's history is Sigmund Freud. Although mentioned once or twice in passing, psychoanalysis is sidelined in preference to the philosophical tradition. In many ways, this is refreshing; yet to account for the "irrationality" of the heart without recourse to the unconscious would seem to miss one of the most popular means by which we now attempt to make sense of the heart in all its contradictions.

Lynne Pearce is professor of literary theory and women's writing at Lancaster University and author of Romance Writing (Polity, 2007).

A History of the Heart: Ole M. Høystad

Author - Reaktion
Pages - 256
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9781861893116

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