In July 1822, on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Tuscany, the drowned body of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley lay burning on a funeral pyre. He was 29. When one of Shelley’s friends, the writer Edward Trelawny, noticed that the poet’s heart had failed to catch fire, he reached into the embers and grabbed the smouldering organ. Trelawny later gave the heart to the writer’s wife, Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), who kept it with her for the rest of her life.
I was reminded of the extraordinary afterlife of Shelley’s heart, and all it says about that resilient muscle as a symbol of the human essence, by a moving photo that throbbed through social media this week. Taken by a wedding photographer, the image is of a bride standing at the altar. She is touching the chest of the man who had just walked her down the aisle – a man who owed his life to the heart that was donated to him by the bride’s murdered father.
Jeni Stepien was 23 when her father, Michael, was shot in the head by a 16-year-old mugger in an alley in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 2006. Though surgeons determined that Michael’s own life was beyond saving, his family knew that his body possessed the power to save others and allowed his organs to be made available to those in need. Enter Arthur Thomas – a 63-year old college adviser who had fallen into congestive heart failure at the very moment that the Stepien family’s tragedy was unfolding. Ten years later, Thomas was able to reunite Michael’s heart with Jeni on her wedding day by walking her down the aisle.
The photos of Jeni Stepien that have fluttered through Twitter and Facebook this week, capturing her as she reaches out to feel the heartbeat of her murdered father, seem invigorated by a deep interior urge to grasp the very spirit of love and life. In this way they echo the raw power of an iconic image of contemporary art: Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s 1991 photographic diptych My Hands are My Heart is comprised of before-and-after images of the bare-chested artist clenching a fist of inert clay into the shape of a crude heart and then offering it, sacrificially, to the viewer. Orozco’s deceptively simple gesture at once reaches back to the savage salvaging of Shelley’s heart two centuries ago and, forward, to the miraculous persistence of Michael Stepien’s, which beats on.
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