In Europe, its continent of origin, the feast dedicated to amorousness, St. Valentine’s Day, anticipates spring by a few weeks, as if to help rouse human sensibilities from their winter hibernation. Roses appear in lovers’ tributes, chocolate manufacturers count their profits, and romantic cards create artificial sociability through depicting mendacious relationships and sentiments. These embellishments of romantic love suggest that it should only be enjoyed once, with lifelong bonding as the appropriate outcome. Anyone who claims to fall in love frequently is deemed irresponsible, for it is such an ecstatic, transforming venture that it requires a long recovery—sometimes even a lifetime.
The linking of a Christian saint with a romantic interlude is indicative of the declining conservatism of the Church. St. Paul, who did more than any to mold classical Christian mores, perceived marriage or ‘chaste’ romantic relationships as, at best, a compromise between indulgence and renunciation of sexual passion. Currently, the ‘When Harry met Sally” cliché is the leitmotiv of stage and screen. Likewise, on the stage of life, it is an ever-present drama in our midst. We are often amused by its comic aspects, and shocked by its tragic implications.
Even under the blighting conditions that would seem to stifle all tender sensibility and sentiment, we discover evidence of these emotions and feelings striving to assert themselves. As Hugh Grant noted in Love Actually, while terrorists where turning packed planes into scud missiles on 9/11, virtually all passengers whose conversations were taped reiterated their romantic attachments to their loved ones. In primitive Greece, which held women generally in subjugation specifically within the confines of the gynacontis, romance struggled to express itself. Today, we find the names of lovers tattooed on their partners’ bodies, and the use of flowers is referred to as a medium for testifying love that otherwise would have remained mute. Even in patriarchal or fundamentalist Muslim societies like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where girls were married so young that they settled in the rigors of domestic life before they had the opportunity to develop romantic inclinations, amatory activities seem to be gaining prominence, as a look at leading Internet dating sites suggest.
The ritual of St. Valentine’s Day is a leap forward from the time when love meant only erotic passion. Like most rituals, its believers employ one or more symbols (e.g. gifts, romantic holidays) in a repetitive, formal, fashion. While rituals are largely about continuity, and are therefore generally predictable, they also serve a transforming role—rituals change things. Rituals are one of the ways a community communicates ideas to its members. They must therefore be flexible enough to incorporate new understandings and ideas developed by community members. Since ritual is a good framework for conveying a message as if it were unquestionable, it is often used to communicate those very things (e.g. romantic love) that are most difficult to prove.
For those who believe in the essence of Valentine’s Day, romantic love is perceived as an essential human trait, a catalyst for baring souls, for making sincere communication possible between lovers. In contrast, sober folk claim that falling romantically in love is not a good way to know someone, for we cloak the beloved in layers of crystal, and see a vision rather than a person. Thus, it is a delusional state, capable of being transformed into lethal consequences, including murder. Cynics advise us to ‘stand in love’, rather than ‘fall in love’.
The far-reaching import of amatory, with its connotations of romance and love, with its glamorous appeal to the mind of youth (and those not so young), with its alluring promise of fulfillment of the heart’s desires, is an intriguing experience in every normal human life that has fully expressed itself. Its influence is so far-reaching that we do not begin to realize the extent of its ramifications until we reflect on some of its tendencies. It is both a pun and a truth to say that the subject of love has been left to amateurs—love is too protean a concept to fit a theory. Nevertheless, St. Valentine is about the magnificent dream of romantic love. Without dreaming, you can’t have a dream come true. Enjoy!
Author: Dr. Niyi Awofeso is Sydney-based, a public health specialist, and author of Wedding Rings and the Feminist Movement. He is an incurable optimist with regards to the subject of love.