On ‘A Heart, Beating’

The excerpt of Tara Ison’s novel The List, that appears in The Kenyon Review (Winter 2007) begins with the image of a heart in a dream, “a seemingly average and healthy human heart, cone-shaped and hollow, embraced by a colorful network of arteries and veins. A textbook heart.” The dreamer of hearts is Isabel, a very practical-minded medical student who uses her dreams to help her learn medicine. When Isabel’s boyfriend, Al, tries to direct her attention to what is to be learned from dreams, from the dreamy side of her psyche, Isabel responds in characteristically pragmatic terms: “I did learn from that dream, thank you, she told him. It’s very effective to nap or sleep after studying. Your subconscious goes to work on the material and it aids retention. I use my REM cycles to organize data in my brain. That’s the beauty of sleep. It can be very productive. I scored a ninety-nine point nine on my cardiac exam.”

But there are other versions of the heart in this excerpt: “organ of Valentine and black velvet torch song fame”; an “intricate choreography” like “Martha Graham’s eurhythmics…danced by women in red satin…flowing around in sync”; “Marlene Dietrich’s face, singing ‘Falling in Love Again’ in a throbbing voice, that’s heart, he said.” The “he” here is Al, and all of these non-clinical descriptions of heart are his.

It’s not that Isabel’s clinical description of the heart and its function is simply literal exactly. Perhaps it is literal inexactly–if I may adapt a famous line by Marvin Bell. All of the descriptions occur, after all, by the letter, and if ‘heart’ first meant the sight and sound of Dietrich singing, then ‘heart’ would refer to the human organ by extension, rather than the other way around. It seems, though, that in the case of metaphor, the primary sense is the one closer to the body, as “I see” means to perceive visually before it means the apprehension of “I see what you mean.” But then again I remain suspicious of tales of origin. The fact is that both senses of see, like the various senses of ‘heart,’ circulate through our languages and ourselves, and at any given moment it may be difficult to tell which if any sense gets primacy of place.

I take it that the novel of Isabel and Al–which I have not yet read in full–is in large part about these various senses–of bodies and words–as they circulate through the characters’ lives. At first glance it would seem that Isabel is reason and Al imagination, that she is left brain and he the right, she the wakeful world and he the depths of dreams; but this opposition quickly breaks down. After all, if she is using her dreams to learn medicine, then she is taking her dreaming very seriously. At the same time, she doubts that “he’s really dreaming when he dreams, either. He’s just watching what flickers by, passively….” If Isabel is right and Al is not really enaging in his dreams, in what sense is he becoming a part of what his dreams might disclose or lead him to?

I’ve read enough about this novel to know that these two characters are having a difficult time dispensing with each other. They break up and get back together even though they seem to know that what they have together is precious little and should end. What their struggles might say about the dreams of reason and the reasons of dreams I shall attend to as I read more.