The onion is a tragic vegetable. It has all those layers, the outer ones brittle as ancient medieval parchment, as if to say “the one who writes here must use a pen as delicate as air, for life is ephemeral, and the life of the onion evolves in darkness, in dirt, and grows into a globe that is acrid and sour and so compact in its bitterness that it can only be opened by knife.”
When the onion is chopped and sliced its cells are damaged, which produces a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor, which is the cause of its notorious stinging sensation. The onion is bitter and wants us to cry, to share in the acuity of existence, the exquisitely intricate contrarieties of existence, which are sharp with sensation, and binding in their constancy.
The onion repulses as it draws us to it. We must back away, then return to its rings, if we want to add the onion to our broth or cloves and sausage. We must chop the onion into bits. We must cry. We must endure. We must protect ourselves as the onion does, in layers and rings and sour emanations.
The tear itself is a sign of capitulation. It grows in weight and trickles from the orbit of the eye in a slow irregular path. Weeping has a formal weight, a gravitas. It is different than sweat. Sweat is more acrid and covers the entire body with a sheen of salty moisture, a residual luster of healthful endeavor. It is the result of exertion, not strong emotion. Sweat lacks the sympathy of tears because its origin is mechanical rather than emotional. Sweat attends the drama of bodies in intense motion. It is the juice of aggression. War and sports. Vigorous sex. Hot summer days and long summer nights in voluptuous ceiling fan abandon. It is the stuff of Hemmingway novels and bar bells. Tears are the emblems of romantics and Pre-Raphaelites. Tears are Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sweat is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Blood is the opposite of sweat. The object of blood is to say within the body and bring oxygen to the cells. You don’t want to see blood outside of the body. That’s not where it’s supposed to be. You don’t want to see blood at all. Unless you’re a surgeon doing heart surgery and your attention is focused on the rhythmic diastole and systole of the heart. Pumping blood in, pumping blood out. Or giving blood in a bloodmobile, the dark fluid of your body moving through a transparent tube into a plastic bag.
The adult human heart has a mass between 250 and 350 grams. It is about the size of a fist. It is located between the vertebral column to the rear and sternum in the front. Symbolically, it is the seat of all emotion, all feeling. If we say someone has a lot of heart it means they have a lot of feeling, a certain gallantry of generous being. If we say a prostitute has a heart of gold it means that her rough mercenary exterior belies an inner warmth and generosity.
Shakespeare makes frequent reference to the heart: My heart is heavy and mine age is weak; if my heart were great, ‘twould burst at this; there were a heart in Egypt; the heart of brothers govern in our loves and sway our great designs; my heart was to thy rudder tied by strings; throw my heart against the flint and hardness of my fault; O that your Highness knew my heart in this; now I do frown on thee with all my heart; warr’st thou with a woman’s heart; their very heart of hope; the head is not more native to the heart; a heart unfortified, a mind impatient; but break my heart for I must hold my tongue; for my manly heart doth yearn; he’ll drop his heart in the sink of fear; the king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold; come, here’s my heart; I shall be out of heart shortly, and then have no strength to repent.
The heart of a matter is its very core, its essence. Its most enduring part. Here in the realm of metaphor, a heart could feasibly be anything, except a diesel locomotive or a tulip. Which is grossly off-target. It can be those things, too, if you can massage the language into accommodating the chatter of humpbacked toads, or the language itself assumes a more leading role and simmers its own casserole, concocts scarlet antennas, mechanical beards and splashes of apparitional splendor. Metaphors never die. Metaphors metamorphose. Metaphors metastasize into larger and larger metaphors until at least a dream of life seeks the warmth of the soil, turns toward the sun, and a phenomenal flux occurs, generating thousands of leaves and winds, lavender on the hills of Provence, secret metals in sparkling parables, onions in rows in the fields of eastern Idaho, a heart beating fast in a fight in Tallahassee.
Silverware gleams on the beautiful white tablecloth. A waiter appears, bringing plates of onion quiche. Hearts beat, wine flows. The waiter has been working hard. There is a sheen on his brow as he leans forward, gently putting a plate on the table.