In a culture that has surrendered the definition of heart to margarine manufacturers, Gail Godwin's book is a welcome recasting of a central concept. You could say she looks at the heart of the matter and exclaims, "I Can't Believe It's Not Better."
"We must develop a new consciousness of the heart," she urges in this idiosyncratic survey of "the ways we've imagined the heart through time in myth and art and popular culture."
Holding a stethoscope to contemporary life, she's concerned about what she hears. "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?"
Godwin is the perfect host for this quick tour of everything from cave drawings to Internet chat. She speaks with the cordial, smart voice of a professor who can summarize the most complex issues without intimidating, and explain the most basic points without condescending.
She starts at the first known representation of a heart, a picture of a woolly mammoth in Spain, drawn about 10,000 years ago.
When she moves to the epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest known story, she finds the heart already endowed with physical and mental characteristics, as a necessary muscle and the seat of human emotions.
She recounts the Egyptians' special reverence for the heart in the afterlife where it would be weighed on the scale with a feather of truth.
Though the Jews were the first people to conceive of "an abstract notion of God," she notes that "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."
Despite her own devout faith (Episcopal), she gives no special emphasis to Christian treatments. She almost favors the myths and traditions that are less familiar to her, where the joy of discovery pulses.
She describes the Upanishads of India (600-300 BC), which conceived of the human heart as the "great fulcrum of the cosmos," and the Hindus who attended to the chakras, seven energy points where body and spirit interconnect.
She provides an engaging discussion of the Koran, in which the heart is an organ of discernment, and of the Buddha, who seeks "the rare combination of a cool mind and a warm heart." (See related review p. 20).
Her witty reflection on the "Kama Sutra" alludes to Martha Stewart and decries the loss of real excitement and affection in today's commercialized eroticism.
The Chinese, she notes, can use the same word for heart and mind, while the Greeks began to push the heart down in favor of the head.
"Bowling through time," as she calls it, Godwin is a teacher who's not too pompous to mention Helen Hunt or too out of touch to know she must identify Chretien de Troyes (a 12th-century French poet who popularized the Arthurian legend). …