Will Self

Each month, Esquire com­mis­sions an un­spar­ing in­spec­tion of Will Self ’s body. This month: the heart

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

This month, the award-win­ning writer’s anatom­i­cal sur­vey is an af­fair of the heart

my brother was in hos­pi­tal last week for some­thing called catheter ab­la­tion. He was un­der a gen­eral anes­thetic for 10 hours, dur­ing which catheter-borne elec­tri­cal giz­mos were stuffed up the ar­ter­ies lead­ing from his groin to his heart. When they got there, the giz­mos be­gan zap­ping (or “ab­lat­ing” as it’s known tech­ni­cally) the cells in his heart that have run amok, and are caus­ing it to beat ir­reg­u­larly. My brother has been suf­fer­ing from chronic car­diac ar­rhyth­mia for a num­ber of years, and it’s a tes­ti­mony to just how sto­ical he is that he takes this “pro­ce­dure” (as it’s pre­dictably eu­phemised) in his stride. I very much doubt I’d be as san­guine: in­deed, the thought of any­thing at all go­ing wrong with my ticker fills me with what one of my sons once de­scribed — aged four — as “the death feel­ing”.

Ach! Kids! Don’t they say the fun­ni­est things, es­pe­cially be­fore they’re old enough to feel Death’s bony dig­its pok­ing be­tween their own ribs. This be­ing noted, for men of my age, class and na­tion­al­ity, the head­line news on the heart — and all mat­ters car­diac — has been con­sis­tently good for the ma­jor­ity of my life. True, dur­ing my child­hood, to call a mid­dle-aged male my­ocar­dial in­farc­tion a “heart at­tack” was some­thing of a mis­nomer; a car­diac cliché would’ve been closer to the truth. What with their diet en­tirely com­pris­ing un­sat­u­rated fats, and their Mad Men-es­que in­take of booze and fags, for men of my fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion, the daily com­mute to their desk jobs was a ver­i­ta­ble sniper’s al­ley. I re­mem­ber see­ing them most morn­ings, ly­ing spas­ming on the pave­ment as I passed them on my way to school, tightly-rolled um­brella and copy of The Times cast to one side, their leather shoes kick­ing fee­bly at the privet hedges’ un­der­storey.

OK, I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing — pos­si­bly for comic ef­fect; but not much — the num­ber of deaths from heart at­tacks re­ally was stag­ger­ing in those days, as they man­i­fested around the world in a great Mex­i­can wave of up-flung arms and down­turned faces. First, rates picked up along the Pa­cific seaboards of Australia and Amer­ica. Next, they rose across the rest of the con­ti­nen­tal USA, be­fore, in the late Six­ties, leap­ing the pond to plague Bri­tain and western Europe. In­deed, “plague” may’ve been no metaphor: I re­mem­ber chat­ting to James Le Fanu, the con­trar­ian medic and writer on mat­ters un­healthy at some cheesy, winey do — it must’ve been around the time heart at­tack rates be­gan de­clin­ing in the UK and in­creas­ing in eastern Europe. Vig­or­ously munch­ing on a root vegetable crisp dipped in some­thing polyun­sat­u­rated, Le Fanu had ful­mi­nated: “All this stuff about fat and heart dis­ease, it’s a typ­i­cal case of sta­tis­ti­cal cor­re­la­tion, but no proof of cau­sa­tion. Whereas, if you ex­am­ine the ac­tual epi­demi­o­log­i­cal data — the way the dis­ease has spread ge­o­graph­i­cally — there’s a strong case for some sort of virus be­ing im­pli­cated.”

An in­trigu­ing idea — it’d be al­most like find­ing out cream-stuffed can­noli were good for un­block­ing your own lit­tle tubes — but I’ve heard no more about it. There cer­tainly aren’t signs up in my lo­cal chemist, invit­ing the over-fifties to stop by and get in­oc­u­lated against heart at­tacks. What there have un­doubt­edly been is plenty more trans­plants, by­passes, ab­la­tions and other sorts of pro­ce­dure that re­mind one — rhyth­mi­cally, in­sis­tently — that the heart is the most me­chan­i­cal-seem­ing of the ma­jor or­gans: a two-stroke en­gine of a body part, putt-putting away at 60–100bpm, and thereby pow­er­ing the en­tire odd-wob­bly bub­ble of each in­di­vid­ual hu­man ex­is­tence.

Dr Chris­ti­aan Barnard’s per­for­mance of the world’s first hu­man heart trans­plant, in South Africa, in 1967, was a land­mark Franken­steinian event in my child­hood: “Ippa dippa-da­tion, my op-er-ation!” we chanted in the play­ground, but it wasn’t our op­er­a­tion… yet. It was Louis Washkan­sky’s, who sur­vived for 18 long days af­ter hav­ing his chest hacked open, his stopped clock re­moved, and another one, metic­u­lously wound-up, in­serted.

My own Un­cle Bob un­der­went ma­jor heart surgery around the same time; un­sur­pris­ingly, since he was in­deed the cre­ative direc­tor of a large Madi­son Av­enue ad­ver­tis­ing agency. I re­mem­ber him send­ing us a sort of schematic di­a­gram, which showed how he’d been opened up then zip­pered back to­gether again. It was a key mo­ment for me: the point at which that child­hood sense of un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated “body stuff’ gives way to some­thing more com­plex — and more ter­ri­fy­ing. I’d like to think of my brother’s “pro­ce­dure” as just another form of what a me­chanic friend of mine calls “cold en­gi­neer­ing” — ba­si­cally, ei­ther bash­ing at the thing with a ham­mer, or, if it’s fit­ted with a mi­cro­pro­ces­sor, turn­ing it off and on again — but I fear it’s al­to­gether more tricky.

Look, I re­alise you might’ve ex­pected me to dis­cuss af­fairs of the heart un­der this very gen­eral head­ing. Af­ter all, for most peo­ple any talk of the or­gan calls our at­ten­tion to its sta­tus as the world’s most vi­tal metonym, but I’m afraid I’m not feel­ing it to­day. I mean to say, there comes a time in ev­ery man’s (and woman’s) life, when he re­alises that the pic­to­graph on the Valen­tine’s card isn’t a re­al­is­tic de­pic­tion. I’d wa­ger that’s when our dis­il­lu­sion­ment re­ally sets in, a fac­tor not of ac­tual ro­man­tic dis­ap­point­ment, but anatom­i­cal in­ac­cu­racy.

“The heart is a lonely hunter,” is a ring­ing phrase and it made an ex­cel­lent ti­tle for a steamy South­ern novel, but I won­der how help­ful such metaphors re­ally are? I mean, you’ve only to trans­pose them to some other, less glam­orous or­gan, for them to seem bizarre, if not dis­gust­ing. The lung is a lonely hunter? The gall blad­der as well? I think not. No: the heart is a pump that drives the blood around the body, and its sys­tole and di­as­tole are the stro­phe and an­ti­stro­phe cho­rus­ing in our ten­der ears: You. Are. Alive. You. Are. Alive… For now, at any rate.

The heart is the most me­chan­i­cal-seem­ing of the ma­jor or­gans: a two-stroke en­gine of a body part, putt-putting away at 60–100bpm, pow­er­ing the en­tire odd-wob­bly bub­ble of

each in­di­vid­ual hu­man ex­is­tence

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.