Getting to the heart of Thomas Hardy

faith & reason: Do we live in the brain? Do we feel in the heart? Andrew Brown follows up last week's investigation of the religious impulse with an inquiry into the relation between mind and body.
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The Independent Online
Last week's column drew a long and thoughtful response from the Bishop of Rochester, and I was still thinking about the issues of personal identity this had raised when a retired priest on the Internet introduced me to the cat which ate Thomas Hardy's heart. Perhaps the cat's story forms an easier route to the speculative uplands of phenomenology.

Hardy is buried, most of him, in Westminster Abbey, where Poets' Corner shows the magnanimity with which the Church of England ignores all doctrinal issues if only the artist is great enough. I don't see that Hardy could be described as a Christian, and still less A.E. Housman, who is to be commemorated there this year. However, not all of Hardy's remains are in London. His heart was buried at Stinsford churchyard in Dorset, and when his corpse was being prepared for this operation the doctor was called away urgently, just after he had removed the heart and left it in a dish beside the body. When he returned, he found his cat had eaten part of it. So the cat was killed, too, and buried alongside the remains of the heart in the ornate container prepared for it.

The story would no doubt have pleased Hardy, not because he would have approved of it, but because the slaughter of a creature for obeying its nature in order to gratify human sentimentality would have fitted well with the grammar of his heart. It showed humans obeying the dictates of their nature just as surely as the cat obeyed its. We see this now, clearly, because, in an age of open-heart surgery, the physical and metaphorical meanings of the word have been sliced apart. When on Monday the Princess of Wales leant over poor Arnaud Wambo who was having his exposed and beating heart sliced into on an operating table, it was not his inner longings which were exposed but hers.

So it is obvious to us that, if Hardy's heart is to be found anywhere, it is in his poems, and not in the remains of a doctor's cat. With brains, the case is different. Einstein's brain is still preserved in a jar in some doctor's studio on the American Midwest, or a few greyish shreds of it are; and this relic is still felt to have more significance than his heart would. The brain, we believe, is where he lived.

The question is whether this belief that we live in the brain is any more justified than was the belief that we feel in the heart. Obviously, brain, heart, breath, spleen, kidney, and a whole other slabload of slimy metaphors are essential to our existence. And you need no more neuroscience than you will find in Oliver Sacks to see that personality is uniquely dependent on the brain. But the world we experience is not something in the brain. If I stab my finger, the pain I feel is in my finger, not in my brain. It may be the case that the feeling is done in the brain, but that is not how I experience it.

The modern temptation is to suppose that I am misled about this: that in fact someone who really knows what is going on in the world, as it might be a neurosurgeon, could show me where in the brain the pain was taking place, and that it was "really" a particular set of electro- chemical events. But they can't. By the time a particular sensation has been classified and experienced even as something so fundamental as pain, the experience has been distributed all over my brain in ways that are unique for me. If we try to describe this in third-person terms, at a neuronal level, we can't. The only useful way to describe it is in first- person terms: I feel a pain. Pain really is pain, and not reducible to objective causes. Horrible pain may have no apparent physical cause; conversely, placebos or shock can stop a patient feeling even acute appendicitis.

These facts are not expressions of the brain-body problem. They bear on the relations of minds and bodies. The point of all this, which the Bishop of Rochester wrote to upbraid me for not making clearly enough last week, is that minds have a sort of autonomy. Even if they cannot exist without bodies, they cannot be reduced to them. This is not because spirit and matter are two different things, but because they are two different ways for us to experience the same world: neither is absolute; neither can be denied. Thomas Hardy's heart could be broken just as truly as it could be eaten by a cat.

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