An Exercise in Scholarly Detachment
I had such hopes for Valentine's Day.
I didn't want three dozen roses or dinner at the Ritz; I'm pretty low-maintenance when it comes to that sort of thing. My aspirations were simpler: I wanted to wake up, work out, go to class, put in a few hours at my job, do some reading and go to bed. No angst, no stress, and no Godiva hangover the next morning. I actually thought I could survive the 24 hours separating February 13 from February 15 without experiencing major emotional crisis.
Right. And chocolates have no calories.
I have fallen in love, and others have fallen in love with me, or at least so they've claimed.
But Valentine's Day, the mercifully brief window of opportunity when the world tolerates the most nauseating displays of cuteness and couples know no shame, has always found me either single or in the rigor mortis phase of a relationship. As a result, I start to cringe the moment those saccharine pink hearts pop up in CVS windows, which, unless I'm imagining things, gets earlier every year.
In the past, I've dealt with the dreaded day by utilizing such mature-adult coping mechanisms as staying in bed until physically dragged out (seventh grade, the year after teachers stopped making every-one send valentines to everyone else); assuaging my soul with depressing-music purchases, which I returned the next day when I came to my senses and balanced my checkbook (tenth grade); and, of course, wearing black (junior high to present, inclusive).
But this year was going to be different, albeit for an unpleasant reason. I'm not the world's finest judge of character, but until this year I've been fairly lucky when it comes to finding significant others, random hookups and hopeless crushes. Early last semester, however, I had what I can retrospectively term the good fortune to encounter a few individuals who made me realize that there are worse fates than being single, even on Valentine's Day. We're talking profoundly worse. No need to mention names, especially with Massachusetts libel laws in their current condition.
But I wasn't embittered. In fact, as Valentine's Day approached, I grew positively grateful. This year, I figured, I could approach the holiday with, if not the phenylethylamine-induced euphoria of my friends, at least a proper sense of scholarly detachment. No longer servile to the dictates of Hallmark, I could examine the free market's relentless tendency to corrode and commodify the most miraculous of human emotions. I could unearth the religious and cultural significance of the event; I could lay bare the institutions that sanction or suppress Valentine-related behavior. I could move beyond the trappings of our contemporary society to discover the true meaning of Valentine's Day. And, if I searched with enough dedication, I would have an excuse for being stuck in Hilles on the night of the 14th.
As it turns out, I would have been better off spending my evening with "Casablanca" and a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Based on my research, I don't think traditionalists are going to be calling for a return to the true meaning of Valentine's Day any time soon.
For starters, February 14th has nothing to do with love. (This I anticipated. February is a horrendous month to fall in love--it's a horrendous month to do just about anything.) According to Butler's Lives of the Saints, that date is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Valentine, a Christian religious figure who was beaten and subsequently beheaded circa 269 A.D. I went through not only CVS but the Coop as well, without finding a single Valentine's Day card that made so much as a token reference to this key historical fact. Clearly, the revisionist hegemony is both deep-rooted and far-reaching.
Nor did Valentine himself have anything to do with today's hearts-and-flowers business. According to Butler, contemporary customs derive from the popular notion that Valentine's Day is when birds choose their mates, to the accompaniment, one assumes, of an HRO serenade. Avian sex does not strike me as particularly romantic, to be perfectly honest, but who am I to judge?
Others tell the story differently. The Roman Catholic Church consigned Valentine to an eternity of sappiness when it canonized him 200 years after his demise, according to a recent article in The New York Times. (It was a slow news day, okay?) The church intended Valentine's Day to supplant a popular fertility rite of the pagan god Lupercus, who was associated with "joy, abundance and sexual freedom." Joy, abundance and sexual freedom sound a lot more entertaining to me than the current, more greeting-card-driven ritual, but then I'm not Roman Catholic and may be missing out on religious significance et cetera.
Finally, in order to gain a sense of the interpretations of the holiday prevalent in our consumer society, I examined the array of catalogues lying around in several friends' common rooms to determine which corporate entities were appropriating the Valentine image. The holiday appears to cross both product lines and demographic groups, appearing every-where from Williams-Sonoma to Victoria's Secret and beyond. Regrettably, research constraints and a wind-chill factor of maybe 20 below prevented me from visiting Hubba Hubba to check for sales.
In a way, it's heartening to learn in this age of fragmentation that virtually all sectors of our community can unite around a single theme, even for just a day. From the grit of the marketplace to the groves of academe, everyone pauses a moment at Valentine's secularized altar, Whether to give thanks, curse fate, or ask what possible excuse HSA could have to charge $50 for a dozen long-stemmed roses. Even those who choose to observe the holiday by flinging themselves at their textbooks and praying for the horror to end can band together in solidarity, not to mention finish their reading for the first time this semester.
Really, the only one who loses in the entire Valentine free-for-all is the saint himself: beaten, beheaded, and perhaps aware, somewhere in the empyrean, that Frederick's of Hollywood has a sale named after him.
But, leaving Hilles to venture down to the Square and write up my results, I felt that I had captured the essence of Valentine's Day. As I ran the gauntlet of Cupid-bedecked storefronts and dodged the simpering couples on Mass. Ave., I realized with pride that I had transcended the boundaries of religion and relationship to gain a deeper understanding of the day, the celebration, and the unfortunate martyr himself. I knew just how the poor guy felt.