top of page

Telling a Tale of a Heart

Standing before a Mayan temple near Mahahuan, on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, I’m taken back to the Mayan heart sacrifice ritual, and the image of a bloody heart held in a priest’s hand, still beating. The ritual may have been done to appease the gods, feeding them with the blood of high status prisoners of war, their bodies painted blue for the ritual (and perhaps to provide better contrast with blood). One thinks of Mayan civilization as having come and gone fairly quickly, but this ritual, is traceable to the Classic Period of 250-500 CE, Popol Vuh was written in the mid-sixteenth century CE, and the ritual was still being performed well into the 17th Century. In 1684, three Franciscan missionaries were tied to crosses and their hearts extracted. This is a civilization with a pretty long haul, however much European diseasevectors, and advances in weaponry, may have quickly stopped its heart

A few years ago, I visited Cichen Itza as an excursion during a conference in Cancun. It is ironic that one of the results of visiting one of the largest temple sites on the Yucatan, substantially further inland from the beautiful Western Caribbean coast, was that, upon return I was forbidden to give blood. While the sterility of being “on the reservation” of the Cancun resorts would have been fine, my trip inland meant malarial risk. What an interesting sacrifice is giving blood, both in many religious senses, as Christians celebrate communion with the body and blood of God’s son, sacrificed for human

redemption, but as so many of us do by donating our precious life-blood so that others may live. As any Roman soldier could have told you, “the spear in the side” with which it is fi


nished is only a little to the side, through the diaphragm, to pierce the heart. Le Sacre Coeur.

Having once watched a college acquaintance cook and then mix morphine with his blood before injecting it into his arm with a needle (after which I couldn’t sleep), I could never bring myself anywhere near a needle being stuck into my vein. Then, as the father of an infant daughter, I saw a hospital billboard with another young father, reaching out his arm, beneath which it said “Please, my little girl needs blood.” I was hooked. By now I’ve given gallons, but it took me months to get readmitted to my blood bank after a false positive for Hepatitus C surface antibodies. Then, after taking my readmittance letter to blood donations for years, one of the doctors asked me whether I would have trouble lying about whether my blood had ever been rejected, as the process of officially clearance took time away from other donors, and I was clearly no risk. I would give my students extra credit, not for giving blood, but for writing about the effects of the process on the autonomic nervous system (the fight-flight system) in either themselves or a friend they might have accompanied. I once even gave students Valentine’s Day off for generating 70 pints of blood. Not only is such a donation (for those that can) clearly a moral good, but a psychological boost, and probably has physiological benefits as well. Win-win-win.

Having come of age in an era where blood was sometimes spilled on documents in Vietnam war protests, and later sometimes used more atavistically in rock concert performances, I thought it might be interesting to have a replica of a heart-sacrifice knife, available at most souvenir shops. After the national trauma of 9/11/2001, airport “security operations” had been seriously tightened. Sadly, many of these operations do little or nothing to reduce terrorism (and are easily circumvented, as our own government research has shown), and mainly are costly in both time and money over the millions of law-abiding citizens subjected to them. I personally find it a bit nerve-wracking when stacked in the cattle chutes waiting to get through security, being perfectly aware that the most damage possible might be caused by a suicide bomber patiently waiting in line, and then detonating into the waiting crowd. It is wryly amusing to note that what psychotherapists call “security operations” are all the superstitious or neurotic little rituals that people go through to make themselves feel safer, that actually do nothing of the sort, and may become counterproductive in their false safety.

Thinking travel would be more efficient without checked baggage, I brought only a carry-on backpack for the conference in Cancun. Sad for me that I couldn’t then take home the free bottle of Tequila offered by our resort hotel. I’d carefully packed my souvenir heart-knife inside a coffee cup. The knife wasn’t actually flint, just obsidian, but it looked pretty impressive with an image of a god carved on the handle. I thought the coffee cup would protect it from breakage. The absurd thing about this particular airport security was about their overzealous reaction to bottles of water. Mexico can be pretty hot, and it does make sense to hydrate. I surrendered one water bottle before putting my pack on the X-ray conveyor. Not a problem, as one can buy bottles of water cheaply in the secure passenger-checked area. I enjoyed my time there, running onto some of the conference luminaries, and also noting many of the distinctive facial features of the Mayans that I knew might’ve gone back thousands of years. I wasn’t really thinking much about their beating hearts, though my own could still beat faster at the sight of a provocatively dressed woman, and it was, after all, Cancun. I do remember seeing my first love at a college reunion, after not seeing her for ten years, and was still disconcerted by my dry mouth, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, and nervous obsessions about her. What was disturbing as our boarding time approached in Cancun, is that, for whatever reasons of heightened security, carry-on luggage was to be hand searched before boarding the shuttle buses to our waiting airplane. The water bottles procured in the secure departure lounge were also confiscated. Absent air conditioning, waiting in our shuttle bus, it was disturbing and frustrating to see a pile of our water bottles sitting on a chair inside the air-conditioned terminal. I also hadn’t given a thought to the search, having surrendered my tequila, and carrying no contraband. Sitting parched on the bus, I couldn’t help laughing. I did wait until we were on the airplane before explaining to my seatmate, sotto voce. I have had two bottles of water taken from me, including one purchased in the secure departure area. I have had my bag X-rayed and hand searched, and then sat thirsty on the runway looking at the stack of water bottles confiscated for our safety. I laughed when I realized that packed inside a coffee cup was my Mayan heart-sacrifice knife. How safe do you feel?”

The heart is one of the most powerful symbols in many mythologies, it’s beating so important to the circulation of our life’s blood, variations in which are so apparent to all of us when our hearts speed in excitement, fear or anger, or we feel our blood pressure rise under duress. It is probably also the emotional arousal, however stimulated, or even produced by the climax of the stories we construct, that marks events for potentiation in memory, and later consolidation. For Aristotle, the heart was the center of our interior lives, literally and metaphorically. He was such an empiricist. The Platonist philosophers of Being located the mind in the head, not because of the brain, but because it was closer to the Heaven of the Forms. Aristotle, the empiricist, took the evidence of interior movement to be a better correlate. Different cultures “locate” our deepest essences differently. It took many years of history before brain death was taken as more significant than heart stoppage (or even the severance of a head, stories persisting of the responses of guillotined heads). Notoriously, one of the major differences between Semitic and classical Greek culture was the emphasis on hearing in the former (like the voice of God in the desert) and of vision in the latter (like the symmetries of architecture, the beauty of sculpture). Most of we culturally WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) in the present era think of ourselves, of our essential center, being in the head, behind the eyes. But try drawing a “P” on your forehead with your fingertip. Don’t reverse it so it looks like a “P” to someone else. It is also interesting that with self-images drawn from a mirror, we think of ourselves as looking like the mirror-image distortions you can see when looking at a friend’s face in the mirror. But draw the “P” on your forehead so that it looks like a “P” to you. For most contemporary Westerners, that is from inside the head. Now draw a “P” on your hairline. Next, draw one on top of your head. Same deal all around. Then without thinking, draw one on the back of your head. Almost invariably that will look like a “P” not from inside your head, but from behind. So where are you? “Get thee behind me, Satan”

One wonders if Aristotelian Greeks experienced themselves as essentially residing in their chests, with their beating hearts. Do different cultures learn these metaphors of self-experience quite differently across history and culture? I know that the whole metaphor of a psychological “interior” might make a quite different kind of sense (or little at all all) to the vast number of average medieval Europeans, who unlike royalty, never had a physical, architectural interior to themselves (even living in a single hut where children, animals, and even servants might share the same sleeping space). Indeed, what even of the notion of a separate “individual,” in cultures where, unless criminal, crazy, or maybe clergy, one was never really alone, nor would it be sensible, safe, or even sane to be so. Even the Greeks reserved monophagus, “one who eats alone,” as one of their worst insults (of course, their virtues were largely of the polis, one who spent too much time focusing on himself being and "idiot"). But then, I think even the phenomenology of contemporary Western experience of self and body may include some serious emotional variations. I can personally attest to feelings of loss deep enough to be brought to my knees, feeling like an iron hand was gripping my heart.

I suspect that, in our ongoing discussion of Neuromythology, of how we feel and think with our bodies, of how our nervous systems are socialized to the emotional scripts that we learn before language, of what we learn by dramatically shaping our lives with culturally available narratives from movies, books, scriptures, ideologies and mythologies, we will have much more to say about hearts, both literally and as powerful symbols. But one thing that really stands out for me, as I try to imagine having another person’s beating heart in my hand, whether I have extracted it with a Mayan heart-sacrifice knife, or removed it for transplant with surgical knives in a sterile operating theater, is what that might be like. Not as the grisly result of some ritual death, or some night-of-the-living dead zombie fantasy, but what it might feel like, and how I might understand a heart continuing to beat in my hand. Even after I have kicked the beheaded body from which it came down the steps of some Mayan temple, like some kind of offal to discard.

Wouldn’t I feel like I held the essence of a person? And an essence that continues to move on its own, no less, after I’ve kicked its previous owner down the temple steps. Is this not a kind of life transcending death? We tend to think of a life after death as somehow including our individual consciousness. But anyone who has been knocked unconscious, or even altered their consciousness with something as innocuous as a cup of coffee, to say nothing of simply falling asleep, is certainly aware of how fragile our consciousness is, and how dependent on a functioning nervous system. We know that damage to senses can alter our experience, as it does in becoming blind or deaf, or even merely aging, as our memories become somewhat more porous. Anyone who has had much experience with a post-stroke parent or friend can be well aware of how much and in what way the person you loved may no longer be entirely there. Has part of them fled to go somewhere else? Does the bounce of a ball continue on in some Platonic heaven after the ball is deflated? Even Aristotle understood that efficient, formal, and even final causes also require the material, and cannot be merely cut loose of it. Certainly the meaning and significance of one’s life does not require one’s consciousness of it. I think of times that I have been personable to a store clerk, rather than treating her as part of the machinery, and know that I could have played a role in her later decision not to kill herself that might, regardless of whether I knew it or not. Just as I have been made aware of the effects of my words and actions on generations of students, regardless of how small the handful who may later make me aware of those effects. I hardly need to be conscious of it to have been an agent in their production (good or bad). If I hit a baseball in my back yard, and then dropped dead from the sudden bursting of an embolism, did I still cause the broken window that the ball shattered seconds later? Of course I am. As the remembered voice of my father may continue to be usefully and appropriately instructive decades after his death. None of these things require my consciousness for them to exist, whether I am living or dead. Why then should my life only be significant if and when I become conscious of it again? A.”s I said to one of my favorite students, “I believe in consciousness after death. Just not my own.”

In a famous essay on “What It Is Like to Be a Bat,” Thomas Nagel suggests that for a conscious state, there is “something it is like to be it.” So if we ask ourselves what it is like to be dead, aren’t we presupposing that there is something it is like to be it? If so aren’t we presupposing a consciousness after death? Most of us have problem imagining that, was my head to be run over by a street grader, I would, just as if my eyes had been plucked out, no longer be able to see. Nor sense anything. But like my post-stroke mother, my brain-damaged abilities to do much of anything else will also be lessened, to the point of, in this extremis, not being able to feel emotion (which includes heartbeats, visceral, and skin sensations as well as the five exterior ones). In A Leg to Stand On, Oliver Sacks talks about the difficulties of identifying a debilitated leg as his own, as any of us might have experienced upon awaking to a numb extremity, “What’s this here?” Certainly we wouldn’t be able to remember anything, speak, reason, or tell stories to ourselves, whether about ourselves or others (many of which are constructions in any case). I remember, after being hit over the head with baseball bat at age 14, being reassured by my ability to remember the formulae for permutations and combinations (though they are now long forgotten). I have long joked about Descartes’ cogito ergo sum being an artifact of his method: I think, therefore I am. I think. The “demon” behind Cartesian dualism, the possibility that mind could exist with only a demon to delude it, presupposes a “demonic dilemma,” a distinction between mind and world, between a self-contained mind and a mindless world. But this leaves either a mind cut off from the world, which could never develop an intentionality to refer to objects outside of itself, or a mind without content or subjectivity. How could a brain in a vat, in a null environment, have any intentionality at all? Or that the vat, in duplicating many of the processes and properties of the body, including all the external events to which its sensorimotor couplings would connect it, constitute a surrogate body, and bodily processes are still minimal conditions for consciousness. If the “Feeling of What Happens,” Antonio Damasio’s definition of consciousness, requires a body, we cannot be conscious without one, a surmise also supported by a generation of research on embodied cognition, how we think, and experience, using our bodies. So why not bodily resurrection, as Thomas Aquinas and a millennium of Catholics would have it? Have a heart.

When my first-born son sobbed once in my arms, in anticipated grief that he might ever lose me, I told him he never could. I told him that when I was no longer around, I would still be looking through his eyes, as I would always be part of him, as my father looks through mine, and is part of me. Sometimes I even hear him yelling at me. But I also felt him looking through my eyes when I became president of an organization to which he aspired to be part, and felt his gait in mine as I walked the porch of the conference hotel, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Maine, where there was a 360 degree ocean horizon, and where I saw my first double rainbow. I still have the Hodgell woodcut of Christ in Gethsemane, which represented my father’s “take this cup from me,” in writing sermons, as well as Hodgell’s Dancing Prophet, with whom I can also identify. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Why would I care about things that will happen after my death? Even funerals are for the living. But I care now! Because I do still have a heart.

What will my consciousness be like after my death? Much like nothing at all. Much like it was before I was conceived. Even if God knew me before the womb, I did not. What does it mean to sacrifice one’s life for something? If you cannot imagine anything for which it might be worth dying, then for what is it worth living? Perhaps our mortality is a gift. Without finitude could we really be passionate about anything? Rollo May tells a wonderful story in The Cry for Myth, suggesting that our longings for what we cannot have, for what is beyond our reach, are what the gods envy of mortality. I love the mythological stories, which are usually stories of love, of people who choose mortality, as does Odysseus, weeping on the beach, finally sailing the wine dark sea to be reunited with the aging Penelope, and see his son Telemachus become a man. If heaven were anything I could imagine, it would only be hell, as the best things in my life have been what I never would have imagined. If Christ doesn’t really die, then is it a false sacrifice? But he does, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” His consciousness ceases, his heart stopped with the Centurion’s spear. In areas of the heart, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Consummatum est. It is consummated. Then, what we have done is more than merely hammering on our own personal anvils until our hearts stop. Why not a sacrificial death for Kukulcan? Requiescat In Pacem.

bottom of page