A Fable

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984 (High Museum of Art, Atlanta)
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984 (High Museum of Art)


Once upon a time there was a man without a heart.


Well, not exactly. Let’s start over:


Once upon a time there was a man whose heart was not entirely his own.


Well, actually, it was and it wasn’t. One more time:


Once upon a time there was a man who had given his heart away. A bit here, to a barefoot girl with brown hair. A bit there, to a child clutching a blanket and sucking his thumb. A bit more to that child’s younger brother, he of the dreamy eyes and the little pot belly. Until there came a day when the man reached an end, and was himself completely heartless. Heartless in a special sense, obviously. Not unfeeling, you understand. On the contrary and quite the opposite. For in giving his heart away, he had also surrendered the ability to defend it. To shield it from hurt. To deaden it to pain. To retire with it behind a deep moat and high walls, in order to protect it from the slings and arrows of life. He could no longer do that. Now the woman and the boy and the other boy, as they lived their lives and did their work and moved about in the world, exposed his heart to both soaring joy and bitter disappointment, to solace and frustration, to thrill and sorrow. Whipsawed, that’s the word for it. He was carried to great heights and then immediately plunged into utter depths, as they themselves experienced these emotions, yanked hither and thither and hither-thither. His heart, those pieces of it that he had freely given away, was intermittently and sometimes even simultaneously swollen and bruised, and the man himself was both gladdened and saddened. Surely, you think, he must have regretted his rash act. He should never have given his heart away! How much better it would be for him to feel only his own private joys and sorrows. Or, should he choose, to feel nothing at all, which for some people can be its own kind of bliss. You’d think so, wouldn’t you. Regret. That’s what the man in the story must feel, at least some of the time. And the truth is that he probably does wonder occasionally what life is like for anyone who is not compelled to stand by and merely observe, helplessly, as the people-of-his-heart suffer through the trials and tribulations of life. What would it be like, he may be thinking, to skim lightly over the waves, eyes on the horizon, the wind forever steady and true? Oh, what simple contentment one could take for granted! In what faraway lands one could idle, without enduring the pangs of yearning for those who are absent! How lovely to indulge one’s own whims without guilt, to devote oneself without distraction to one’s chosen work! But if from time to time he does wonder about that kind of existence, that forsaken life, he soon remembers to look down at the scar on his chest, and by it he is reminded that it was precisely in the act of giving his heart away that he entered into being, that he became himself, and that the other, that imagined life of pure self-sufficiency, is a mirage, if it is not a nightmare.


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