Fall 2014

The Writing of the Heart

At the self’s inner core

Julian Lucas

The word record derives from cor, the Latin word for heart. Behind this etymology, there is an ancient metaphor, one that says the heart is a text. Familiar from valentines and novelty diaries, this idea may be more important than we realize. In The Book of the Heart, the scholar Eric Jager places it at the core of the Western concept of self, tracing its development from Greek and biblical antiquity to the present. As early as the seventh century BCE, the Israelites wrote of divine commandments and the reflections of conscience as inscriptions made upon the heart. Later, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans describes virtuous pagans as having “the work of the law written on their hearts.” Ignorant of the gospels, they were nevertheless guided by an inner scripture. The idea of the heart as a text became common in scholastic writings after St. Augustine, whose Confessions—the story of the writer’s heart across his experience of conversion—is an outer text translating the inner text of the conscience and the narrative of its growth. The climax takes place when Augustine, prompted by a child’s voice, opens the Bible at random and begins to read. Just as the codex has opened, Augustine’s heart opens to God: “For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.”1 Augustine’s parallel between the Bible, codex of God’s word, and the inner text of the heart took hold in Christian theology. The book of the heart was born.

A fresco from the Cathedral of Saint Cécile in Albi, France, depicts a striking scene: the naked figures of the deceased face divine judgment with open books spread across their chests. In this apocalypse, the book of the heart, record of the inner life, lies open before God and the world. As a metaphor, the “book of the heart” fuses the exterior and the interior in a paradoxical unity. The innermost spaces of the self become legible, transferrable to the exterior world, and subject to universal judgment. While opening the book of one’s heart before God was a fearsome prospect, doing so before the beloved became a favorite fantasy of the courtly lover. By the Renaissance, the book of the heart had undergone a secular transformation: it became the text of the self made legible and transferrable to the beloved.

Master of the View of Sainte Gudule, Young Man Holding a Book, ca. 1480. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the end of the fifteenth century, texts in the shape of hearts began to appear across Europe. At least four survive. One is a prayer book—the Livre d’heures à l’usage d’Amiens—and the other three are scores of love music. The earliest is a love song by the French composer Baude Cordier. “Belle, Bonne, et Sage” (Beautiful, good, and wise) is composed in the shape of a heart, the stylized, colorful musical notes and lyrics following its curves in an early example of what would come to be known as augenmusic, or eye-music. In Cordier’s composition, the heart-as-text is no longer a record of conscience to be offered up to God’s judgment, but a synecdoche for the inmost self surrendered to the beloved: “I make you the gift of a new song in my heart / Which presents itself to you.” In the decades following Cordier’s cordiform composition, European aristocrats and men of the church commissioned entire manuscripts of music in the shape of hearts. The most elaborate is Jean de Montchenu’s Chansonnier Cordiforme, a richly illustrated compilation of love ballads in the form of a doubled heart, now housed at the French National Library. Predecessors of the modern valentine, these heart-shaped songbooks were a record of feeling, revealed and made legible to the beloved.

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