“All you need is love”, sang The Beetles in 1967. In a world that seems focussed on power and money and politicized religion, we probably need to think about love some more. Really think about love you know; the what, the why, the how. And then consider how we are without love.
It’s easy to be cynical about Valentine’s day (banvalentinesday.com) and its token gifts; the schmaltzy cards, the over-priced flowers, the cheap chocolates. It is commercial there’s no doubt – 36 million heart shaped boxes of chocolate, more than 50 million roses sold each year. And the card thing (1 billion sent in the US) can make you feel lonesome and all the more lacking whatever your relationship status; for not having anyone special in your life or for being in a lacklustre long-term relationship.
But it’s worth looking behind the big business and the tackiness, to find some deeply felt human expression. Heartfelt love; blinded or thwarted, unrequited or disallowed, (how Muslim countries are banning Valentine’s Day).
Myth and murder and mayhem are said to lie behind Valentine’s Day but there’s no doubting it’s rooted in our ancestral history. We’ll never really know if it’s directly descended from Lupercalia, a bawdy Roman fertility Festival involving the sacrifice of goats and dogs, running naked with the animals skins (and ‘striking’ women with them to aid fertility) and then the uniting of couples (names were drawn from a jar) that was celebrated on the Ides (15th) of February. Or whether the couple of Valentine priests murdered by Emperor Claudius II in 3rd century AD and then martyred by the Catholic Church are the more determinable ancestral line.
(Today you can pay homage to one of the St. Valentine’s – he who is said to have disobeyed the Emperor’s marriage ban (husbands made bad soldiers) to marry couples in secret, and so was sentenced to death for his crimes. In jail, he apparently fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her a love letter signed ‘from your Valentine’ on February 14 – the day of his execution.) His skull (really?) can be seen in this glass reliquary at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.)
But we do know that Pope Gelasius I combined St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the (barbaric) pagan rituals in 496AD. And Chaucer (in “The Canterbury Tales,”) and Shakespeare (like Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet – “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine”) added myth and romanticism in their own way to the day.
And since the Middle Ages we have been sending love-notes (when, of course, courtship was much more ritualized and restricted). The Victorians, thought it was bad luck to sign Valentine’s cards with their names, so left them anonymous. They also started the trend for rose-giving (considered the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love).
In 1797, as the postal services became more affordable the The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published, suggesting appropriate rhymes and messages. By the early 19th century, Valentine cards had become so popular that factories start to mass-produce them.
Love is probably the most common theme explored in literature (the world over). Indeed can you name a classic that doesn’t look at love on some level? (And statistically, one percent of the “best novels” are about women doing something other than loving.) Our bookshelves and film libraries are full of love stories. Romantic fiction (covering the spectrum from nice to naughty) is a genre with best of lists and a publishing industry all of it’s own.
Stories that teach us about love, help us understand it’s nuances and intricacies and frustrations. But there’s a growing swell of opinion that romantic stories, and films in particular, are probably bad for us. It likely started with the Bechdel Test, (popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule) which raised the question if two women in a film ever talked about anything other than a man. Then there were the female rom-com stereotypes. Today the concern is for the effect romantic films are having on us (similar to film violence and porn on impressionable minds). Unlikely happy endings, improbable plots and faux philosophy; rom-coms love to tell of, and sell us, a passionate and all-consuming love. “Relationship counsellors often face common misconceptions in their clients — that if your partner truly loves you they’d know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined. We did a rigorous content analysis of romantic comedies and found that the same issues were being portrayed in these films,” Dr Bjarne Holmes (Herriot-Watt University).
Naysayers tells us these films feed into a fundamental dissatisfaction in our lives; that we are ever hungry for stimulation and never quite satisfied with what we have.
But maybe we’ve become hung up on sexual love (Eros in Greek, Cupid to the Romans; the mischievous, winged child, whose arrows would pierce people’s hearts causing them to fall deeply in love) and should think more like the Greeks, who understood love comes in many forms:
Valentine’s day is a day with a big heart. It embraces whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever you believe. It’s a day to treasure the love you have, and have to give, in whatever form.
And like many a good thing Valentine’s works best without high expectation; try instead giving (the selfless approach, from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux the Pope’s favorite saint) and laughter (Funny Valentines, a collection of original short films, written and starring many of Britain’s finest comedians.)
Keep your love burning this weekend:
If you want to celebrate St. Valentine’s like the ancients, look back to Rome and hear how they wrote about love so long ago;
BBC iplayer: Love in a Day. Filmed over 24 hours last summer, and with much of the footage supplied by viewers, this is an intimate insight into who and what we love. With a soundtrack provided exclusively by Northern Irish musicians, moments of laughter and sadness combine in a half-hour montage.
Indulge yourself (together or alone) in some of top films picks;
Or cosy up and read some of the best romantic novels of all time.
Essays: Modern Love: The Podcast based on the popular New York Times column, with readings by notable personalities and updates from the essayists themselves.
Discussion: BBC R3 – Free Thinking: About Love
Drama: BBC R4 – Love Me. A comedy to give romance a bad name: Maggie loves Ed but he loves Katrina and she’s sleeping with Stan. Wes attempts to sort it out and he doesn’t believe in love – yet
Featured image: Photo by Rehan Khan/EPA. Vice.com
Featured image: alexey-kondakov-art-history-in-contemporary-life-