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I'm reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Its narrator asks, "But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?", and I don't quite get what it means.

  • According to Google Books, you're at least four times more likely to say you will cut to the chase rather than that you will cut to the heart. But the preference is probably a lot stronger than that, since many of the latter instances will be metaphoric references to causing someone intense emotional distress rather than directly addressing some underlying central issue. But this question is essentially a matter of opinion/interpretation. – FumbleFingers Aug 15 '16 at 16:24
  • It means KISS. "keep it simple, stupid." Distilling the essence without the irrelevant fluff. – ahnbizcad Aug 15 '16 at 20:26
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Considering this is the part you're talking about:

I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion's tail hidden in his words. He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?

I believe the narrator is trying to say that he has stopped watching for any hidden intent in the words of the person he/she is talking about (presumably Achilles). That he speaks directly, striking at the heart of what he wants to say and does not attempt to beat around the bush or try to get his point across in an indirect manner. Used in a manner similar to "cutting to the chase" in a way.

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    I think at the heart is the important part of the answer. Heart being synonymous with core or center... – JPhi1618 Aug 15 '16 at 17:44
  • To jump in, likewise consider the phrase "the heart of the matter"-- the core or essence of the issue at hand. – user1359 Aug 15 '16 at 19:44
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Quote

I haven't read the book but I searched for the line you are mentioning on goodreads. This is the complete quote:

I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion's tail hidden in his words. He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?


Piecewise Explanation

I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion's tail hidden in his words. He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not.

This means that the narrator earlier used to take he's words as a ridicule - comparable to a scorpion's sting. But not anymore. Narrator has understood that he only speaks his mind. He is so simple (naive maybe) that he doesn't know that others don't always do the same.

Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?

The narrator explains that while some people think that this behavior can be classified as simplicity, yet as per narrator this behavior is actually the quality of a genius person to speak what you mean and cut away all the fluff from what is really important.

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To "cut to the heart of the matter" is an idiom that means "get straight to the point". But "cut to the heart" can also mean to strongly engage someone's emotions, as a song might do.

Which meaning applies would depend on context.

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"To cut to the heart" could mean different things in different contexts. For example it could be a poetic way of saying "When you attack someone, you hurt them very badly", or perhaps, using the metaphor "the heart of the problem" (meaning the most important aspect), "When you analyse a problem, you immediately see the most important aspect of it".

So, the author is saying that the ability to always do this is a sort of genius, ie requires exceptional skill and is a very rare ability.

In this case, it appears that the problem that he "cuts to the heart of" is "to communicate very directly and with the utmost truthfulness".

  • You can see the entire quote here. The context is pretty far away from your answer. – displayName Aug 15 '16 at 15:33
  • It seems to fit my "the heart of the problem" explanation, with the problem being "how to communicate something". – Max Williams Aug 15 '16 at 15:40
  • I could see some relevance in your answer earlier and I can see that even now. The second explanation is relevant, I agree. – displayName Aug 15 '16 at 15:49
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    " 'To cut to the heart' is a poetic way of saying 'When you attack someone, you hurt them very badly' " This is not strictly true, and it is certainly not what is meant here. That is involved in the etymology of the phrase, but this quote is only using it to emphasize directness and truthfulness. – jpmc26 Aug 15 '16 at 18:26
  • @jpmc26 it could be better worded as "could be" rather than "is". At the time of writing I hadn't seen the full passage so was guessing. I'll edit, thanks. – Max Williams Aug 16 '16 at 7:53

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