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Thursday, 16 December 2010

‘Any Human Heart’

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart”. The words belong to Henry James, and that last glowing phrase was borrowed by the novelist William Boyd for the title of his 2002 novel, ‘Any Human Heart’. I haven’t read the book but I have been watching the TV adaptation of it over the last few weeks (it’s out on DVD later this month if you missed it).

I won’t spoil the story for those who don’t know it, but its interweaving of the themes of memory and desire, regret and appreciation, betrayal and commitment, through seventy years and more of the protagonist’s life was portrayed with great delicacy, pathos and humour in the TV adaptation. It’s rare to see a work that manages to capture visually the way in which fragments of our life from childhood onwards are still alive and resonant as our lives move on - how memories from decades ago can be as vivid as (or even sometimes overlay) our experiences in the present, how past and present can merge as we look out at the world. And the drama of the central character negotiating his way through the vicissitudes of history and chance, love and loss, had something profound too to say about the role of luck in our lives – good luck and bad luck.

But essentially the story speaks of the mysterious, unanalysable nature of what it means to be a human being. Thus the simple, complex, power of Henry James’ words “Never say you know the last word about any human heart”. That sentence is the antidote to any tendency we might have to think we can really know other people, that we can sum them up, define them, be certain about who or what they are. They are always more than we know. Just as we are always more than we know. For we are more than our means to know gives us to know.

I love Walt Whitman’s great burst of sentiment, wonderment, and pride (perhaps arrogance) in his triumphant poem ‘Song of Myself’ when he cries out at one point ‘I am large. I contain multitudes.’ This notion of a plural self, a self of multiple parts and attributes, a self of internal dissention and concatenation and creative interplay between the strands of thinking and feeling and physical liveliness that we all contain – this is an idea central to my understanding of why working in depth with people as a psychotherapist is one of the most privileged professions that exists. The possibility of discovery of hidden parts of the self we didn’t know about, or the freeing up of trapped parts of our self that have got stuck, or the rescuing of discarded or abandoned threads of our lives – all this emerges from the notion of the ‘human heart’ being large, capacious, multiple.

Just as it emerges too from the Jewish and Christian notion of us being made b’tzelem Elohim ‘in the likeness of God’ – for what does that mean other than that we (like ‘God’) are multiple and made up of countless aspects of ‘what is’? From compassion to rage, from a sense of justice to outbursts of hatred, from a capacity for deep love to a silent withdrawal from any more involvement, and so on and so on...we mirror the divine Being with the multiplicity of our human Being.

The WikiLeaks saga has reminded us of what we already intuitively knew: there’s always another story going on that we don’t get to hear about. But what’s true in the world at large, the world of politics and global events, is also true more personally, of our own lives. “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” – not your own, not another person’s. Until our last breath, there may still be surprises in store...