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    The heart of the matter

    By JOHN FREEMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


    HEART

    By Gail Godwin

    Morrow; $24

    Gail Godwin's book takes us through history and literature to examine the many ways in which we have viewed the heart.

    I love you with all my heart. You break my heart. Eat your heart out. Whatever your valentine whispers in your ear on Wednesday, chances are the roots of the expression run deeper than you think. In Heart, her first book of nonfiction, Gail Godwin offers an intimate and illuminating survey of how we have viewed the heart over time. From ancient cave paintings to the elegant dramas of Henry James, Godwin maps the meanings of our most sacred muscle, revealing it to be richer and more mysterious than we could have imagined.

    Divided into three sections, Heart is both a literal and figurative journey. Godwin sets her accessible and confidential tone in a prologue, where she describes the routines of her day: how she sips coffee, picks flowers from her garden, then retires to her computer to write. These rituals, she tells us, are her attempts at a heartfelt life. Yet when an editor approached her with the concept for this book, Godwin had no idea exactly what a heartfelt life actually meant. Intrigued by the challenge, she began her journey, a tour of the world's great cultures, philosophies, religions and art.

    In the book's opening sequence, "The Heart Through Time," Godwin guides us through the earliest appearance of heart imagery. Around 10,000 B.C., a caveman in Spain drew an elephant on a wall, dabbing a red dot where the heart should be. From this image, Godwin progresses through Sumerian, Egyptian, Hebrew and Hindu civilizations, all the way up to the present day, demonstrating how the heart evolved from a symbol of our soul to a motif of the body. By the modern era, she writes, the heart had been usurped by the head, as the Enlightenment ushered in a new apotheosis of reason. Scientific method replaced passionate meditation. While Godwin depicts this evolution in sweeping strokes, she is such a good writer that we follow her trajectory willingly.

    In the second and third sections, Godwin adds an appealing gloss to this lush historical backdrop by examining heart imagery in literature and in her own life. She describes how, as a writer, these two realms overlap and inform one another. Characters from Shakespeare's Dark Lady to Hesse's Siddhartha infuse her real life. As if paying homage to this truth, Godwin shifts adeptly between personal anecdotes -- the death of her brother from a broken heart -- to more optimistic anodynes in the literary realm, such as how Elizabeth Bowen exacted her revenge on a betrayer by casting him as a dolt in her comedy of manners, The Death of the Heart.

    Godwin sifts admirably through vast tracks of literature and philosophy, interpreting the ripest uses of heart imagery in ways that are both entertaining and educational. Perhaps the most inspiring lesson from this book is that, while the heart no longer shepherds us through our lives, it waits in abeyance for us to rediscover it. By listening to our treasured organ, Godwin suggests, we can write our stories and imagine heartfelt ways to live.

    - John Freeman is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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