The Reasoning of the Heart.09.05.13

The Reasoning of the Heart                                                                09.05.13


Howard Adelman

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point,” Blaise Pascal Pensées

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.

This is a widely quoted idiom and is usually understood to mean that there are limits to what reason can know. Immanuel Kant once wrote that reason was limited in order to make room for faith. Blaise Pascal’s earlier quote was written with this in mind as an apologetic for his Christian Jansenist beliefs to explicate their fight with the Jesuits and not, as it is often used, to mean that reason is limited and cannot understand passions or emotions. Sometimes the sentence is used to explain a mad passion that makes no sense otherwise – such as the Duke of Windsor’s love for the American divorcée and philanderer, Wallis Simpson.

Wallis Simpson used the phrase as the title for her own evidently atrocious autobiography, The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor. Pascal would have been appalled at the appropriation by Wallis Simpson, the epitome of those who spend their lives as slaves to distractions and consumerism which he so despised as the escapism for the wretched who refuse to face their “nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness” and the depths of a soul that tries to disguise its profound boredom. The proposition was created by the mathematician (inventor of probability theory), scientist and profligate inventor (the syringe, for example, and the calculator) to explain Christian faith to the sceptical and new-born secularists of the seventeenth century. However, the quote actually says that the heart has its own reasons. The heart is not irrational but somehow its particular rationality is not directly accessible to cognitive reasoning. However, I use the sentence in its literal rather than connotative sense.

I write this because I have no clue about what is going on in my heart. This morning I am going to the hospital to have a cardiac angiogram, an x-ray using a special dye and a fluoroscope to visualize the blood flow in my heart. Last month I had a less invasive procedure, a cardiac MRI. My whole body was inserted into a large stainless steel tube to take 3-D pictures, first without a dye and then with a dye.

In the second part, when they inserted the dye, I immediately reacted to the dye and had to push the emergency button to be pulled out so I could vomit – unfortunate for the technician who was splattered. Evidently, reacting to the dye is very rare. I tried — and succeeded — in not sitting up and moved very little when I brought up so that I would not have to come back again to repeat the whole procedure as, if you move, this becomes necessary. It is very hard to vomit while lying on your back. I was a success and they proceeded with the test.

As a result of the test I learned that I had once had a heart attack. I had no knowledge of having had a heart attack. As a result of that attack, part of the heart muscle had died. The intent of today’s procedure is to determine whether arteries to the healthy parts of the heart are partially blocked or even occluded. If they are, an angioplasty will be performed essentially using a tiny balloon to squeeze the plaque and compress it against the sides of the artery. The plaque is not actually flushed out so the analogy to the work of a plumber that my late brother Al claimed to be is a little far-fetched. Angioplasty is now a fast and relatively straightforward procedure, but in one-third of patients it is only of temporary help in easing the flow of blood.

I am familiar with this procedure because I watched my late brother perform two angioplasties. He was in and out of his patient’s coronary arteries in both cases in just fifteen minutes. It is scary to watch but he never had a problem in all his years of practice. He had gone to California to master this new procedure and introduced angioplasty to Canada years ago. He trained many of the current practitioners, including the doctor who will take the cardiac angiogram and possibly perform the angioplasty on myself.  I am also familiar because we once did a TV show on angioplasty in a Jerusalem hospital when we were producing the television show, Israel Today. We were allowed to videotape the whole procedure.

All of this is preparation for another procedure to be undertaken at the end of the month, a non-surgical ablation, using the same procedure as in an angiogram to send a catheter inserted in the groin area up the femoral artery to the heart. That procedure is not intended to clear coronary arteries but to treat my atrial fibrillation in which my heart seems to skip some beats every minute, a process that may or may not have caused the heart attack of which I had hitherto been totally unaware. In that procedure, the cardiologist becomes an electrician rather than a plumber “flushing” out drains. In an electrophysiology lab, the specialized cardiologist directs electrical energy through the catheter to “zap” small areas of the heart muscle where the abnormal rhythm is located to disconnect the source of the abnormal rhythm. Presumably, after that procedure, the arrhythmia will be overcome, the beat will resume its regularity and my heart will function better.

My only symptoms seem to be the shortness of breath that I recently developed. If I have pain, I seem to be oblivious to it. Since both procedures are now routine, I expect no problems at all. However, I do have fears about having the dye inserted and I feel embarrassed about the prospect of vomiting over another poor technician who has the bad chance to be on my case.

Why is regulation of the beat, regulation of the rhythm of the heart, so crucial to both life and music, so mathematical yet the heart is referred to as the key organ for understanding faith. What is the relation of precise numbers to faith? To return to Pascal’s quote, it is worth offering the full citation. ‘Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. On le sent en mille choses. C’est le cœur qui sent Dieu, et non la raison. Voilà ce que c’est que la foi parfaite, Dieu sensible au cœur.” (Pensées 233)

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.”

Pascal argued there were two fundamental errors, the error of reason which takes everything literally and the error of the faith which takes everything spiritually. For Pascal, to accept the profound truths of faith does not negate the profound truths of empirical observation. In my discussion of the procedures in store for me today, I am not taking everything literally, just perversely playing with Pascal’s wordplay and bracketing the figurative meaning.

Tomorrow I will write on the parashat for the day rather than procedures, Parashat Bamidbar when we begin to read the book of Numbers (1:1 – 4:20). This is, appropriate to Pascal, the numbers man par excellence concerned with faith. The parsha is about the numbers of heads of households who could do battle, the over 600,000 that I wrote about last week. What do precise numbers, the product of what is most basic to reason, counting, have to do with faith, the reasons of the heart? Though the section also deals with the duties and responsibilities of each of the clans of the Levites with respect to the Tabernacle, I will not be discussing the division of responsibilities.


TOMORROW: Counting and Faith – Reasons of the Head and Reasons of the Heart

Parashat Bamidbar: Numbers (1:1 – 4:20)                                                      11.05.13

NEXT WEEK: Resumption of Discussion of the Economics of Israel

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