01-07-2010 - Traces, n. 7


Only the heart knows
Usually, we speak of the heart as a metaphor that at best is good for evoking sentiment and diverting reason from (true) knowledge. But what really defines “that nature which pushes us to desire great things”? The MEETING OF RIMINI explores this question…

by John Waters

The heart is patronized, dismissed as metaphor.We hear it rhymed all the time with “art” and “part” in songs and poems that purport to lay bare the inner life of human emotion, but in a sense we do not really believe it truly is this compass of feeling. Instead, we merely unthinkingly place it on the lower extremity of an axis of reason, in which the head rules supreme.When we “think” of the heart, we think of an oily pump, to which we also, ironically, attribute this emotional function. For this latter purpose it becomes an effete graphic, a “love heart,” which summons up the passion, pain, and chaos of romantic longing and entanglement.
Our confused sense of the heart reflects our confusion about our own natures. On the one hand, we cannot escape the facts of this indispensible organ, engine, which keeps on pumping and firing at the–as it were–heart of everything.  But our rational mindset renders it increasingly necessary that we maintain at least two incompatible ideas of the heart. The idea that our emotional lives are connected to the more prosaic, power housing functions seems to be a cultural residue of a time when less was “understood” about this human “mechanism.” One day, we expect, if we go on the way we are going, we will have an electrical formula in which those things that disturb us–love, fear, desire, passion–will become comprehensible in terms of charges darting hither and thither in the circuitry of the human machine. Meanwhile, we proceed with our investigations as if these understandings had already become available, completing as we go the picture we have already more or less decided upon.
The mind, we have concluded, is a steady and reliable adviser, like an accountant or a lawyer. Rather, it seems, the mind has decided this of its own accord, which sounds suspiciously like a conflict-of-interest for which a lawyer or accountant would risk being struck-off.The heart, meanwhile, is a bit of a nuisance, tearing us this way and that, unable to make up its… mind.

Between our ears. There is a theory that the mind does not exist, or at least that it cannot be found. We take it for granted that it is seated between our ears, but still we cannot pin it down. The mind does not seem to exist in space, as a chemical or mechanical process. It cannot be weighed, or even heard or seen, and yet it seems to lead us all the time into these dead-ends of measurement and objectification. The mind cannot be observed, except from the inside or in terms of the effects of its workings projected onto outer screens and spaces.
Nowhere, between thought and deed, impulse and consequences, can the communication signals be found. In a way, the mind is more suited than the heart to becoming a metaphor and more liable to be patronized, because there is nothing to be found at the, well, heart of it that corresponds to its own sense of a world of mechanical operation.
The heart, which beats on, every moment–which pulsates inside, year-in, year-out–has become the primary victim of this separated thinking. On the one hand, it is understood “from inside” as a mechanical instrument, essential but somewhat workmanlike, and on the other it is rather airily and insincerely blamed for all these somewhat eccentric behaviors that often cause our minds to despair of understanding what it is the human being wants or needs. The heart is a kind of scapegoat for the mind’s incapacity to fully understand itself. Because the mind is coming to see everything deterministically, it defines both itself and the heart as deterministic systems, but disposes of the puzzling elements by a partly ironic finger-pointing. The mind blames the heart for leading it astray.

Who’s leading? If the heart has been written off as a mechanical, plodding entity and only somewhat humorously attributed the blame for those longings and seekings that the mind refuses to take responsibility for, then obviously it is a part of the human entity, rather than the whole thing, that is deciding on this direction and putting it into action. The mind has effected a coup in which the heart is retained for operational and symbolic purposes, but stripped of all authority concerning decision-making. The idea that the heart could “know” something that the mind could not is now regarded as an anachronistic hangover from a less enlightened past. We still “blame” the heart, but only half in jest. It is a bit of a mess, in which it is unclear what or who is “in charge.” Who is the “who” who “decides” all this? Where is the seat of understanding? Is there a central intelligence or something else? And can this central intelligence, if it exists, be at the same time responsible for things we do that make “sense” and those that do not, for intelligent and unintelligent responses, for rational and irrational behaviors? Is, in other words, what was once the “storm” of the heart merely a lazy way of describing far more complex, perhaps malfunctional properties of the mind?
And, as we apply ourselves to this question, what within us is “doing” this? Can the mind objectify the heart? Can the mind objectify itself?  How do we know? And, if we can know this, what “part” of us does the knowing?  There must be another way of looking at it.

A partial sense. There is: to lightly accept that the mind is not ours, that the heart is not ours, that both are given, that both are projections not from within, because they cannot be, because there is no traceable source on the inside, but from somewhere else; that our mechanistic models of reality, derived from an objectified sense of rationality implicit in the man-made world, does not make total sense if it is directed inwards, reapplied to man himself. Deceptively, it makes partial sense, and enables us to achieve a certain working “knowledge” of ourselves, or one by means of which, if we agree to behave like the machines we have “created,” enables us to achieve a manageable theory of reality and our habitation of it.
This, really, appears to be what Giussani has been trying to get at when he told us, insistently and almost to the point of irritation, that “we do not make ourselves.” He means that nothing we have arrived at as an “explanation” for either our origin or our moment-to-moment operation is wholly persuasive as an explanation; no “central intelligence” can be discoverd other than as a metaphor not dissimilar to the metaphor to which the human mind in modern culture has reduced the extra-mechanical functions attributed to the heart.
I do not make myself. Indeed, there is no “I” to function in this way. If I look for the “I” as the author of myself, then I rummage in the package and find nothing but wrapping. And yet there is obviously something within, an “I” of some kind–one that does not seem to be the source of itself. Only if the “I” that beats or thinks can be seen as the projection of something beyond does anything even begin to make sense. If the human being is contemplated only in terms of the deterministic and mechanistic processes in which the human mind excels, then a process of elision is necessary, to shut out the idea of the “ghost” that must reside at the center, heart, of this machine. This “ghost” is the true “I,” that essential, primary element of the human heart that the transplant surgeon cannot find.
This “I” is not alone in there, but seems to be the partner of something else.  We might say that it is a receiver of signals from afar, except that such a construction appears to dangerously replicate the mechanistic thinking we would seem to do well to avoid. Let us just say that,  at the heart of each of us, something remains unexplained. More than that: something seems to exist that cannot be reduced, that cannot be understood according to the methods that seem to work for everything else, or at least for most other things that we address in our everyday lives. Perhaps we might say that the heart, by definition, is designed so as to be unable to understand itself.

Where humanity starts out. And this is where the heart reveals itself in its true nature: it is the locus of that in man which cannot be reduced by man’s craving for an explanation, a craving that itself seems to emerge in the heart. Perhaps the “heart” is no more entitled than the mind to claim itself as the “center” of the human being. Perhaps this is indeed a metaphor. But, if so, it is one behind which no further option seems to exist. The heart thereby seems to dramatize the mystery of man’s central dilemma, but also to offer a beginning of reason that is workable and reliable. The heart is the entity in which my humanity seems first to emerge, to start out, to originate itself.  So, if it is a metaphor, it is one in which we discover the only bedrock that seems available. And yet, it too, when investigated, fails to reveal its source, its inner voice, the impulse that creates the pulse.
There is, then, this paradox: the “I” that resides at the center of each human being is not some autonomous, disconnected, individualized authority, but a kind of partnership between what is evident and something that seems not to be there. My “I” is “me,” yes, but also something mysteriously other. “My” desires, therefore, are not entirely “mine” in the sense of relating to some straightforward equation between my obvious needs and what I have discovered to be my immediate options.They derive, too, from this  otherness, and this leads to confusion, which the human mind has come to call irrationality. The heart, the font of the desire that follows me from the beyond whence I came, speaks to me every moment of what this “I” really seeks, really wants, really is.
Here, we must pause to avoid a short-circuit. This idea of what the heart might desire cannot–must not–be heard as a sentimental or moral injunction, or of implying a direction that is already decided. It is the starting-point of a journey, not the cue for repentance. If we leap from here to an immediate conclusion, we close down the discussion, creating a short-circuit as deadly as any of the deterministic reductions we have already considered. No. At this point, we take a deep breath and prepare for the real journey. The heart will inform us of the full scale and nature of our desire. The search must be thorough and total. It begins with the authentic question that beats out its insistent rhythm all the days of our lives.