Heart and soul

15 December 2017

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Head and heart: the weeklong series This Old Heart of Mine (Radio 4, weekdays) was prompted by Canon Giles Fraser’s own heart attack and consequent heart surgery back in the summer

Head and heart: the weeklong series This Old Heart of Mine (Radio 4, weekdays) was prompted by Canon Giles Fraser’s own heart attack and consequ...

IT WAS 50 years ago last week that Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant. As we heard on Health Check (World Service, Wednesday of last week), back in those days the artificial pumps used to keep patients alive while the hunt went on for a new heart might be the size of a washing machine. Now, you can fit something that will do the job beneath your chest cavity. There is even talk of a device that will circulate blood through your veins without the need for a pumping mechanism at all.

That might be a scientific breakthrough too far, at least according to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams: one of Giles Fraser’s guests for This Old Heart of Mine (Radio 4, weekdays). There is something so fundamental about the pumping of the heart that to lose it would be to lose something like our physical self-identity. The heartbeat is the basis of so much poetry, music, and — in the Eastern tradition — prayer, whereby ritual incantations are timed to accompany the pulsing of the heart.

Fraser’s weeklong series was prompted by his own heart attack and consequent heart surgery back in the summer. If these programmes are anything to go by, he is now in fine fettle. The experience of vulnerability, of opening up his insides, of having his heart literally in somebody else’s hands, has not had the depressive effect that it can so often do. He is refreshed and alert, but also happy just to listen.

As well as as our former Archbishop on Tuesday, another guest, on Friday, was the psychologist Adam Phillips. The two of them were in agreement that our current way of speaking about head and heart as having dichotomous functions is neither spiritually nor physiologically helpful.

The heart, in this discourse, is the traditional locus of old-fashioned emotion. If you have an overactive conscience, you are a “bleeding-heart liberal”. The head is where rationality resides: it is a super-computer, the heart a mere pump. Naturally — and perhaps reassuringly — the surgeon who saved Fraser’s life had no time for such niceties. His brain does the thinking, and his fingers do the needlework. The heart does not come into it.

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Scheduling, and the lack of a preview copy meant that I was unable last week to give The Devil’s Passion (Radio 3, 3 December) the notice it assuredly deserves. Scripted by Justin Butcher as a one-man stage show for himself, this radio version represented the perfect vehicle for David Suchet as a Satan who, unlike most literary imaginings, is convinced of, and deluded by, his own rightness. This is a devil who genuinely regards Christ as the enemy of a correctly ordered cosmos.

Butcher acclimatises us to Satan’s world through the language of fanaticism familiar in modern international politics; and this gambit, provocative though it is, does not sit so successfully with the rich poeticism that follows: essentially a narrative of the life of Christ as told by the Antichrist. Yet, for its virtuosic writing and outstanding production values, this is still one of the finest pieces of radio drama of the year.

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