A Cynic’s Valentine
It’s a fairly well-worn concept that Valentine’s Day is artificial. How could something as spontaneous and involuntary as love be constrained in its expression to a single day? Enough people would agree with that sentiment that writing it seems as banal as a standard affirmation of romance would be. But just as people decry the commercialism that has claimed Christmas while still participating in it, they still buy the flowers and jewelry – skeptics, though not so blasphemous as to forswear it completely. I have yet to meet the man brave enough to tell his wife or girlfriend that he intentionally got her nothing for Valentine’s Day. I know women who agree wholeheartedly that the holiday is fabricated, yet still expect the tokens of affection. And for a guy, nothing seems more likely to screw up a relationship than the pressure of Valentine’s Day, especially early on. Too little effort or expenditure and you’re an insensitive jerk; too much and you’re a stalker.
Further, Valentine’s Day has a heavily exclusionist streak to it. Singles are constantly reminded of their status in screaming red letters for a month beforehand. Dating services see huge spikes in business in the weeks leading up to the 14th, and no wonder. No one likes to be part of the “out” group, and everything is geared towards couples; what isn’t still preys on our discomfort by offering a chance to meet someone who may not be the one, but is similarly lonely and fond of drink specials. It doesn’t help that the holiday occurs at the worst time of year. In most parts of the country February tends toward cold, wet and miserable. More years than not, the taste of chocolate is dulled by sore throats or clogged sinuses. Its sole saving grace is that it’s short.
Of course, St. Valentine did not know all this when he supposedly started this holiday, which he actually didn’t. It’s not even certain which St. Valentine (the official Roman Catholic list of recognized saints has seven) the original feast day was named for; and it has been suggested that the choice of Feb. 14, like Dec. 25 for Christmas, was merely to replace an established pagan festival. The idea of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love can’t be traced back any further than Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules in the 14th century, which is about the same time that the cultural concept of romantic love (the I-would-die-a-thousand-deaths-to-see-but-one-smile-on-your-sweet-lips kind, as opposed to the let’s-get-married-so-our-families-can-become-the-most-powerful-in-the-duchy variety) came into existence. Like most holidays, the modern meaning is largely divorced from its origin.
It’s easy to rattle off a jeremiad about irritating couples, sickening expressions, the syrup of sappy sentiments smothering the triple stack pancake of TV shows, movies, commercials and love songs sweet enough to require an insulin shot; but what’s harder is to admit the annoying little gremlin that lurks behind that revulsion: a longing, slight but present, for that glazed-over bliss those couples seem to be awash in, the kind that makes Xanax seem like a bowl of Rocky Road, false as the rational part of our brain knows it to be. We scoff but in the back of our heads there’s this persistent sense that what’s happening in our lives is not what’s supposed to be happening, at least according to the store displays and the endless commercials, and that’s what’s really at the heart of the cynics’ discomfort with Valentine’s Day: the highlighting of a glaring imperfection in our lives of which we’re already all too aware.
We are spurred on to find mates by this pleasure hormone, love, rewarding pair-bonding behavior that results in fitter offspring, rather than some magical force or a blind god in a diaper. This impulse was so beneficial to our reproduction in the hunter-gatherer days that our genes became perfectly capable of making us feel bad for not achieving it all on their own; they don’t need Valentine’s help. Although less necessary now, the impulse is no more dampened than are our predilections for salts, sugars and fats, essential rarities back then whose current abundance now threatens our health. Too bad Frito-Lay and Hershey can’t mass produce highly compatible partners. Of course given enough advances in artificial intelligence, love and companionship (or at least a reasonable enough facsimile) might one day be attainable for the same price as a DeBeers necklace, minus the attendant African atrocities. How many lonely individuals would balk at the idea once the stigma faded?
For those of you who have found love and are planning to celebrate it this week; yes, love is a chemical, a drug like alcohol or marijuana; that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Enjoy the hell out of it. As annoying as you can be, you’re a lot less likely to cut me off in traffic or shoot up the post office. Just don’t forget that it’s a drug. I’m by no means decrying love – I’ve been in love as deep and hard and obnoxious as anyone and treasured every moment of it, even the withdrawal – just the holiday and all its deification of an emotion. If you insist on participating in the ritual, at the very least do something that requires a bit of thought rather than a credit card: write a poem, sing a song – hell, an interpretive dance – anything that doesn’t reward those who would prey on our insecurities for profit.
And whatever you do, make love like lusty marmosets afterward.
To comment or commiserate, e-mail Dave Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.