Murmurs of the Heart

When the cheerful young cardiologist listening to the thumpings and rumblings inside my chest declared that my heart was free of murmurs, the phrase “murmurs of the heart” began racing around the tangled circuits of my brain. That’s what happens to someone fatally attracted to metaphor, and in this case the neural janglings led to a French movie I saw many years ago called “Murmur of the Heart.”

For anyone unfamiliar with this coming-of-age tale by Louis Malle, I should include the caveat that it contains a scene of a 14-year-old boy having sex with his inebriated mother. I’m a firm believer in the concept of artistic freedom, and the scene isn’t explicit, but I won’t pass judgment on anyone who’d rather, for any reason, steer clear of film and literature and visual art that reaches into the forbidden corners of human nature.

While recalling scenes of that movie, a quote attributed to Malle bobbed to the surface of my brain: The longer I live, the less I trust ideas, the more I trust emotions. When Malle died in 1995, he was considerably younger than I am now, and I don’t remember when I first read that quote, which on the surface is a simple, direct statement of fact but contains, for me at least, a world of complexity. When are there exact distinctions between ideas and emotions? What does it mean to trust an idea or an emotion? How might longevity influence this trust one way or another?

A long-past girlfriend once complained about my habit of applying reason to problems and other matters of life instead of, as she put it, listening to my gut. I tried to explain that being led by whims and urges, answering the inchoate summons of the gut, or heart, or wherever you choose to locate the metaphorical wellspring of emotions, had landed me in various kinds of trouble. That’s why you don’t trust your feelings, she declared, which might have been true but also had the scent of pop psychology and self-improvement that destined our time together to be brief.

At the time, I was in the opening act of starting a construction business, and I sensed as much as knew that to succeed I had to be, as that girlfriend used to censoriously put it, “in my head.” Instead of taking on jobs that promised to be interesting, I needed to take on jobs that, first and foremost, promised to be profitable. If I hired a personal friend who did sloppy work, I had to let him go. If the cordial folks at the local lumber yard mixed up orders and failed to deliver things on time, I had to do business with the big impersonal place that catered to corporate customers and barely deigned to notice small-timers like myself. If I didn’t feel like dragging myself out of bed at 6 a.m. to lay out plans for the day, I couldn’t do as I had sometimes done in the past, pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep.

Malle, of course, worked in the realm of art, not business, although it’s hard to imagine him not thinking about the audience for his films, about what would tempt someone to buy a theater ticket and thus help him make a living from his art. Perhaps his attainment of both critical and financial success allowed him the luxury of casting aside such calculations, or putting more weight on what he felt about a project than what he thought about it. But that’s just guesswork. I really don’t know what he meant by coming to trust emotions more than ideas.

I do know that here in the opening days of my ninth decade, making sense of the thoughts that clamor in my head and the muddy commotion in my heart or gut is no easier than it ever was. Being modestly successful at business didn’t bring contentment, and trusting instinct in the pursuit of art brought exceedingly modest success. I’m sure I don’t act as impulsively as I once did, but the impulses are still there, requiring resistance—resistance that is certainly made easier by physical limitations and waning concern about how I’m perceived by those whose opinions don’t really matter.

Maybe the loudness of those sirens of temptation slowly created a kind of useful deafness. But I think of something else at play in the beginning of this ninth decade. Because my knowledge of psychological concepts is almost entirely empirical, I’ll call it the first time syndrome. The first time getting high, the first time having sex, the first time driving a powerful car, the first time standing on the summit of a mountain, the first time traveling to a foreign country—all these experiences and more have been repeated and their intensity has in many cases grown, but a brilliance attending the first time has faded, sometimes in very small increments, sometimes so quickly as to render the flare of feeling an illusion, a kind of trick.

I clearly remember the long-ago moment I kissed the woman I’ve shared forty-four years of my life with and feeling for the first time a burn of desire so ephemeral and yet so searing that I believed I had fallen in love. That moment can never be replicated, even though that sense of being in love has deepened into a permanent element of my life, as present and necessary as the beating of my heart. I read of people who have been married three, four, five times, and wonder if they’re trying to recapture that moment that shimmers beyond description.

The character of the mother in Louis Malle’s film tells her son that they will never repeat the intensely intimate moment they shared, but that they should also not feel shame or regret. The son had a heart murmur, as did Malle himself, and he made artful use of it both as literal fact and metaphor. As an idea, incest is forbidden and shameful, as an expression of love between mother and child, no matter how inappropriate and ill-conceived, it stirs—murmurs—in the heart.

The cardiologist sliding her stethoscope around my chest didn’t hear anything, but I’m sure that my heart really does murmur, and if all was quiet and I listened very carefully, I would trust what I heard.

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