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‘A physical event’

Project Manager (Bristol) for Life of Breath Jess Farr-Cox writes:

I have written elsewhere (see ‘Taking a deep breath’) about the strength of the link between heart and lungs, and others have touched on the strong association between the emotions, breathing and health, and the perception of health (see ‘An ongoing presence’). Here is a lovely greeting that captures the symbolic anatomy of both heart and lungs:

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayfhaal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaachetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.[1]

People (and writers in particular) love a good body-related metaphor. From burning ears to green fingers, we have a suitable piece of symbolic anatomy for almost any situation or emotion, and the internal organs are no less useful to us as metaphorical devices: a quick or simple decision is made ‘in a heartbeat’, while a suspicion may manifest itself as a feeling in the ‘bones’ or the less specific ‘water’. Consider the opening pages of Three Men in a Boat, and J.’s assertion (before he itemises all his other ailments) that a disordered liver is to blame for his general malaise. I assume we are being gently invited to infer that he may actually be suffering from a hangover, but also reminded that the liver used to be considered the source of strong emotions (much as we might speak of the heart now), and that therefore what J. is actually suffering from is an emotional problem: boredom, mostly caused by his own laziness.

With me, it was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all […] the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”[2]

As a way of embodying, understanding and perhaps even medicalising emotions in some cases, symbolic anatomy is both simple and direct. It can be a means of conveying complex and profound emotions to others, taking the inner thoughts and converting them through metaphor into something those around us can understand (see ‘There is something in there’). Take the much-covered song ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ (rendered hauntingly in the 1959 version by the Flamingos) and its neat bodily metaphor for obsession:

My love must be a kind of blindness:
I can’t see anyone but you.[3]

While we use the eyes and the heart as metaphorical devices to talk primarily about love, we tend to use the breath, throat and lungs to talk about a wider spectrum of feelings: fear, anger, excitement, joy or disappointment. As described previously, during our first Breathing Space meeting we compiled what we called ‘the lung lexicon’, writing down as many phrases and expressions involving breathing as we could think of. Here is a lovely piece of symbolic anatomy from that list: ‘getting a weight off your chest’. The image of the problem or issue that needs to be aired as a physical weight, pressing down on both lungs and heart, is a powerful one. COPD sufferers often speak of feeling that their entire being is oppressed by their condition, and may draw a link between being unable to breathe freely and being physically competent in a more general sense. The asthmatic poet Daljit Nagra writes about this in his essay on the lungs:

My earliest memories of asthma, when I was five or six, involve being dragged by my parents to countless faith healers, to help rid me from this dishonourable condition. I come from a macho farming background, and to compound matters, my father was a champion wrestler, and here I was, a wheezy wreck.[3]

Later on in ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, the lyrics ask, ‘Are the stars out tonight? / I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright’. Nagra uses similar imagery to describe getting high on Ventolin: ‘If I took enough puffs, I’d see stars before my eyes’. This high was one of the few perks of his asthma, the others being a greater awareness of breathing and how that relates to his profession. He notes that,

the poem, with my newly-acquired knowledge, is a physical event. A poem alters the reader’s experience of their ribcage and their diaphragm […] [it can] create an air-thrill in the thorax, which can make the lungs feel calmed or rushed. I wonder if this one of the many things the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert had in mind, when he said that poetry should be a struggle for breath.

Finally, we have Eric Garner’s words on his own struggle for breath, ‘I can’t breathe’, and the way that phrase has proliferated around the world, taking the lungs and the ability (freedom?) to use them as a powerful piece of symbolic anatomy for our time.


[1]  Omid Safi, onbeing.org.

[2] Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men In A Boat (London: Penguin, 1959. First published 1889), pp. 5-6. Laziness notwithstanding, Harris, George and J. eventually diagnose themselves with overwork and the trip that they take in the boat is in fact an attempt at ‘rest and a complete change’ (ibid., p. 11).

[3] ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, music composed by Harry Warren with lyrics by Al Dubin, for the 1934 film Dames.

[4] Daljit Nagra, ‘The Lungs’ from the Radio 3 series A Body of Essays.

Jess Farr-Cox

Jess is the Bristol project manager for Life of Breath. She is also a freelance proof-reader, copy-editor, indexer, teacher and writer.

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