Where the heart is

Local author traces the origins of heart imagery in Western culture

From text messages sealed with a heart emoji to valentine cards and candies to "hearting" something as a verb, we're all familiar with the omnipresent heart symbol and the associations of love that go with it. But how did that iconic shape come to represent the blood-pumping organ in our chest in the first place, and what's love got to do with it, anyway?

Palo Alto author and Stanford University scholar Marilyn Yalom explores the cultural history behind the heart in her new book, "The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love," published by Basic Books. The Weekly sat down with Yalom (who arrived carrying an "I (heart) Paris" bag) for an interview to get to the heart (sorry, pun intended) of the matter.

"Language has held on to the heart as the home of love long after we have learned that it's really the brain that is the center of emotions," she said, offering examples of ubiquitous phrases such as "broken-hearted" and "wearing one's heart on one's sleeve." "There's something that goes very deep about the connection between the heart and love. The heart is associated with life and death and then becomes related to the things we hold most dear. It's not surprising that the heart is seen as the home of love and the home of the soul."

Yalom was specifically inspired to investigate the heart as a visual icon during a visit to an exhibition of medieval artifacts at the British Museum, where a brooch in the classic scalloped heart shape caught her eye.

"I noticed the heart's two lobes at the top and its V-shaped point on the bottom as if I were seeing them for the first time. ... All the hearts I had grown up with -- on valentine cards and candy boxes, posters and perfumes ... -- flashed into my mind. It quickly dawned on me that the perfectly bi-lobed symmetrical 'heart' is a far cry from the ungainly lumpsih organ we carry inside us. How had the human heart become transformed into such a whimsical icon?" she wonders in the book's introduction.

"The Amorous Heart" traces the symbol from its earliest days as an abstract motif to its rise to prominence in the Middle Ages -- the era of chivalry, troubadours and the modern concept of "romance" -- up through the modern era's developments of the "I (heart) NY" logo of the 1970s and the heart emoji (the world's most popular, she said) in the 1980s, among many other examples of the heart throughout the centuries.

The bi-lobed, symmetrical icon that we now think of as the "heart" first turned up in the ancient Mediterranean world as what was mostly likely a purely ornamental shape, probably inspired by the natural world (seed pods, leaves and flowers.)

"As I was writing this book, I came to the realization that these were decorative shapes in search of a meaning, and they didn't find that meaning until the 13th century," Yalom said. "Once that shape was taken over by artists and artisans it became a Western symbol of the heart."

Though the heart is largely associated with romantic, secular love, Yalom said she was surprised by the degree to which it also appears in the religious realm. Protestant leader Martin Luther, she said, who used a heart in his seal, is responsible to a large degree for the preservation of the heart image despite the protestant movement's rejection of iconography. And while Catholic artists and theologians tended to use a more realistic-looking heart, Luther's was of the now-classic symmetrical style. "That was pure enough for protestants," she said with a laugh.

Aside from some research into Arabic poetry, Yalom's book stays mostly in the European and Western world, although she was delighted to discover that the Japanese character (originally Chinese) for love also contains the character for heart.

"If I had universal grasp I would be able to come up with other examples, I'm sure, but I did not attempt to go very far beyond Western culture," she said. "Maybe someone else will pick up the subject."

Yalom, who's lived in Palo Alto since 1962, said she's had three different, albeit related, careers: one as a professor of French language and literature; one as a feminist scholar and director of what is now Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research (where she is still affiliated); and one as an author, both for academic and popular presses. Her previous books include "A History of the Breast," "Birth of the Chess Queen" and, most recently, "How the French Invented Love," the research for which eventually led her to writing "The Amorous Heart."

"I do have a tendency to write about very ordinary subjects -- the chess queen, the female breast, in this case the symbol of the heart -- and what happens to me is that at some point that very familiar item becomes unfamiliar because there are things I don't know. Sometimes it really feels like a lightbulb going on," she said.

In today's tech-focused world, she said, it's more of a struggle to attract readers to the humanities.

"When you're writing for a more general audience you have to assume that you have all kinds of people you want to reach," she said, comparing her books for the popular press to those she's written for academia. "There's always an educative process going on in which you try to have a more accessible style. You have to somehow hook the reader right from the start."

Yalom said she hopes readers, most of whom are well aware that the heart shape does not closely resemble an actual human heart and that furthermore the "impossible to define" feelings of love do not literally come from the heart, will consider the enduring appeal of the icon.

"Stepping back from what we know scientifically, the heart has all sorts of associations, both amorous and religious. There's something about that symbol that's still powerful for us today. We have to ask ourselves why," she said.

Happily married to noted psychiatrist and author Irvin Yalom, she dedicated her book to her "big-hearted" husband.

"If it is the symbol of love, maybe there is something in the belief that only love can save us," she pondered. "I'd like to believe what Virgil wrote: 'Love conquers all.' It would certainly be a motto to be brought back in our present moment." For more information, go to Marilyn Yalom.

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