A few nights ago I read Phantom Heart and Maat, two stories from the luminous writings of Annie Q Syed. They are both part of her short-story series Tuesday’s Torrent, and I happened to read these two together. At the time, they seemed very different kinds of stories–which they are. “Maat” springs from the rich, fertile soil of Egyptian myth and psychological archetype, with many possible nuances of symbolism and meaning. It tells the story of a 12-year-old girl, named Thais, who dreams about a tree and a woman named Maat. Her recurring dreams set in motion a longing to understand this powerful intimation of the great lineage of mothers. Hovering just beyond view in the lives of the girl, her mother, and the Bedouin prophetess she meets is the Egyptian Goddess Maat, or Ma’at, who was said to participate in the weighing of souls after death. By contrast, “Phantom Heart” feels like a very “modern” story, a medical case-study almost, from the annals of neuropsychology (its manifestations are described very well). A man begins to think that his wife, Petka, is not his wife, that she has been replaced by an impostor. His daughter, Litiya, must try to make sense of his father’s delusional dissociation and her mother’s pain. Even with this clinical impetus, rather than the mythic underpinnings brought to the foreground in “Maat,” “Phantom Heart” likewise feels full of nuance and possibilities of meaning just out of view.
The next morning, it became very clear to me that these stories, rather disparate in content and tone, are actually deeply united by the heart as the seat of memory. For Litiya’s father, in “Phantom Heart,” his disorder of the memory is also a disorder of the heart–it “weighs less” without access to the true memory of his wife united to his experience of her now. He is suffering from a phantom heart. Yet, remarkably, this missing part of his heart is still beating in his dreams. That revelation took my breath away, as it did for Litiya in the story. I am still working out all the implications for Petka’s identity, and her faith in her husband’s love, however fragmented in memory. Even the boats that set the scene for the story suggest an Egyptian connection to me. In this life, Litiya’s father takes two boats out, but refuses to take with him the wife he no longer recognizes. Yet reading the story gives me the strong presentiment that their boats will cross together again in the afterlife.
If I were going to map out the underlying connection with words and arrows, then I shouldn’t be surprised that these two stories seem to inform each other–at least for me. The connections might go something like this:
(Phantom Heart) neuropsychology<–>psychology<—>dreams-<–>psyche<—>soul<—>psyche<–>archetype and myth<–>dreams<–>prophecy (Maat)
Another aspect of personality is the heart, which men as well as gods possess. According to the stela of Shabaka, which preserves a curious cosmogony, the heart is the seat of creative power–the imagination, in a sense–which becomes reality throught the mediation of language, as language transforms thought into word and thus into action. But the heart also functions as memory and in this way serves to characterize the person even in the hereafter, where hearts are weighed against Ma’at, the notion of social and cosmic order in which an equilibrium must be maintained. The heart thus occupies a central place in the conception of the judgment of the dead … But the heart does not play the role of conscience in this confrontations, as has sometimes been said, but simply plays the role of a witness, which assures us that its function was indeed that of being the seat of memory. (Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Anthropology,” p. 221)
The culmination of the ritual was logically the offering of the symbol of Ma’at, the guarantor of both cosmic and social order in her capacity as guiding force of the universe. The ritual was usually performed deep inside the shrine as the final act of the celebrant in his progress toward the meeting with the god…. For if Ma’at were abstractly guaranteed by the gods whom she nourished, it was necessary for men, led by their king, to act daily in accordance with this order, each one himself and according to his rank, so that the gods could draw from this well-ordered reality the energy needed to sustain the process of creation. (Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Rituals,” p. 231)
To me all of this information about the meaning and associations of Maat is very suggestive for dreams, identity, and the story of a life. As with all of Annie Syed’s stories (all the ones I’ve read so far!), there is so much there, so much that could be developed even further. Yet they do stand alone as short, energetic frissons to shake up the mind, emotions, and senses out of their usual ruts. I love that about them. Webster’s defines frisson as a shudder that is disquieting but thrilling. Yes, indeed.
I am still meditating on one crucial aspect of “Maat”–the connection to trees. Like many people, I have long felt a deep connection to trees, a friendship even. I was fascinated, therefore, to find that the friendship of young girls with trees figures in several important variants I had encountered in my research on the story of Cinderella. In “The Cat Cinderella” by Giambattista Basile (Il Pentamerone, 1634-36), the unscrupulous heroine, named Zezolla, kills her stepmother in order to install her seemingly friendly governess as her father’s new wife. The woman double-crosses Zezolla, however, and sends her to work in the kitchen in typical Cinderella fashion. Zezolla enlists help from a wish-fulfilling fairy housed in a date tree. In the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Aschenputtel” (1812), the much-abused Ash-girl, like Zezolla, found consolation from nature: She planted a hazel tree, watered it with her tears, and then caught a gold and silver dress thrown down by a white bird perched on one of its branches. She snuck off to the king’s festival and lost a shoe there. In each case, the tree stands in as a substitute for the girl’s natural mother or benevolent mother-figure. One other mother figure I’ll mention comes from “Yeh-Hsien,” the founding Ur-story of the Cinderella character from 9th-century China. Yeh-hsien (or Sheh Hsien) was a chief’s daughter, but she suffered under an evil stepmother who made her wear rags and do heavy housework. Worst of all, she killed the girl’s beloved pet fish, but Yeh-hsien buried the bones and learned that she could wish upon them. She obtained gold dresses from the bones’ magic, enabling her to attend a festival, where she lost one shoe. (The fact that tiny feet were prized in ancient China has continued to reverberate in the Cinderella tale ever since.) Both the trees and the buried bones are creative maternal symbols–bestowing gifts for the daughter and helping her realize her dreams. The deep roots of these stories also make me shudder: with the love of mothers and daughters, their connection in spirit beyond death, and the ways that help seems to arise when it looks impossible.
If we now attempt to find a connection between these two functions of the heart–creative imagination and memory–I believe it will suffice to recall that the heart is the seat of the god Sia, whose name simply means “knowledge.” Knowledge of the past is obviously “memory,” while the creative imagination is necessarily related to the future. (“Egyptian Anthropology,” p. 221, with a footnote crediting G. Wirz’s thesis for his discussion of the function of memory)
Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Anthropology” (trans. by David White), pp. 219-224, in Yves Bonnefoy, Ed., Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Rituals” (trans. by Gerald Honigsblum), pp. 230-235, in Yves Bonnefoy, Ed., Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Alan Dundes (Ed.), Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1982).
Neil Philip, The Cinderella Story (London: Penguin, 1989). [Includes a version of “Yeh-Hsien,” trans. by Arthur Waley]