How the heart has been “transformed into such a whimsical icon.”
A senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, Yalom (How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, 2012, etc.) combines an impressive depth and reach of knowledge with an engaging style that serves the popular topic well. In short chapters with plenty of illustrations, the author shows how the heart has been strongly associated with romantic love for more than two millennia and how there has also been a long association with religious devotion, with romantic love sometimes seen as a portal to spiritual love and sometimes at odds with it. She shows how the connection between the heart and the power of romantic love (or erotic desire) was made in words and verse two millennia before its visual depiction, and how the development of the iconic Valentine heart (which looks nothing like the human organ) turned into a universal symbol. It’s fascinating to read of the changing relationships—cultural, psychological, metaphorical—between the heart and the head, the heart and the hand (given in marriage), and the heart and the genitalia. “Heartbreak” has not only long been recognized for its physical manifestations—and very real pain—but linked with emotional disturbance, inflicted by the gods, “a divine madness invading their heart…a painful affliction, visited upon mortals by capricious gods.” Yalom shows how the visual representation of the heart extended from playing cards to heart-shaped maps of the world, to the Valentine’s Day phenomenon that began at least six centuries ago. More recently, of course, the heart has become both an emoji and a verb, as “I (Heart) New York” extended its context from romantic and spiritual to civic-minded identification.
An illuminating study that shows how much has changed with our perception of the heart and how much has endured.