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A Valentine's Message for You

I'll concede you love. I'll spot you the Greatest Love the World Has Ever Known. Still it seems inadequate as a central cultural ideal. Romantic love just isn't what holds us together. It isn't what matters.



We could, I suppose, do away with Valentine's Day--hack it down, burn off the stumps. But Valentine's Day itself isn't really the problem. And it seems to be fading anyway, without any outside help. The clinging, cloying, lacy, scented style of it, the tone of neutered rapture--it isn't just dated; this kind of thing went out with the biplane. We can hardly be said to "celebrate" Valentine's Day, even now. If necessary, we "observe" it--usually drearily, dutifully, from an emotional distance. In another generation or two, the rituals themselves will have been forgotten. By then, Valentine's Day will exist only on the pages of desk calendars. It will have become the Armistice Day, the Arbor Day of Love.

And when Valentine's Day is gone, will we be any better off? We'll have disposed of one smarmy, embarrassing, hypocritical tradition, sure. But do you really think another one won't come along to take its place? Do you know how many Americans are employed in the greeting-card, confection, and pointless-novelty-gift industries? What about "Sweetest Day"? I forget when it is--I forget what it is--but the name itself speaks volumes. In fact, the long year is studded with ersatz holidays--secretaries' days, grandparents' days--waiting to be picked up and polished to glowing life. Even if there were no suitably sticky replacement for Valentine's Day at the ready, anybody with a little imagination and a fax machine could spring one on us at any time.

If anything, the new one, the Valentine's Day of the future, would be worse. It would be sexier, more explicit--this goes without saying; sexification as a historic trend can no more be denied or resisted than glacial melt. Valentine's Day has already tarted itself up in recent years--but formal, exaggerated, obligatory sexiness is, if anything, more ghastly than sentimentality. And if the new holiday is "adult" enough--think of New Year's Eve--children will have to be excluded. Which means we'll have no preromantic, gender-confused first- and second-graders' version, no cheap paper valentines ("You're ducky!"), no easy, inclusive celebrations of friendship to undermine and mock all the fake protestations of exclusive devotion.

Getting rid of Valentine's Day, then, would solve nothing. The holiday is only a symptom; the disease is our preoccupation with love.

Of course, I'm not talking about love in the broad sense. I'm talking about the stars in the sky and a girl and a guy. And the way they kiss. On a night like this. I'm talking about the tender, private feeling that has been so massively and relentlessly hyped, not just on Valentine's Day but all year round, that somewhere along the way it became a kind of popular religion. I'm talking about the theme of everything. The place where all the happy endings end. The one sturdy ideal that sustains us all, standing like a tent pole in the middle of our sagging culture. Love. True love. Love love.

It's customary for cynics to claim that this kind of love doesn't really exist, that it's only an epiphenomenal bubble on the surface of sex. But I don't want to bother with that. I don't want to get bogged down. I'll concede you love. I'll spot you the Greatest Love the World Has Ever Known--and it still seems inadequate and unworthy as a central cultural ideal. Romantic love just isn't what holds us together. It isn't what redeems us. It isn't what matters. It isn't what makes life "mean" whatever it means. It's only love.

Not that I'm assuming we know what we talk about when we talk about love. Dwelling as tediously as we do on love has a paradoxical thought-defeating effect: we contemplate it so much it loses its outlines, becomes part of the atmosphere. Like most people, I've probably devoted more surface-level thought time to love than to (1) death, (2) honor, (3) the human condition, or (4) why I don't have a career. But I tend to "think" about love in meaningless loops (it conquers all, it makes the world go round), and for all the good it does me I might as well be listening to the radio. In a sense I am listening to the radio.

But what if we turned the radio off? What if there were a civilization that didn't incessantly beat the drums for sex-based love the way ours does? Would it be emotionally barren? Or would it, perhaps, celebrate other forms of love? One consequence of our cultural fixation on boy-meets-girl love is that we have no heroic models for most of the other kinds. That is, we are hardly ever treated to the sight of magnetic, sexy people engaged in supporting their aged parents, lending money to old friends, or reading to their children at night. These forms of love seem prosaic, but only because they haven't been made glorious. There are plenty of songs about sullen teenagers in dating situations, but very, very few about coworkers who stick up for one another, or drivers who make it a point to respect bicyclists, or people who still write letters.

Romantic love itself could benefit from a little time off. It has been too thoroughly homogenized, for one thing; it could use a chance to separate out, to settle. People might begin to see their own "loves" for what they are, whatever they are. For instance, I love my wife (hi, honey), but my love--I'm forced to call it this; what I mean is the way I feel about her--bears very little resemblance to the hokey synthesis that goes publicly by the name Love. Real love, collectively, is like America--not the corny, dawn-lit, slow-mo America we see in commercials, but the bigger, uglier, more uncontrollable and interesting America we see whenever we open our eyes.

It's not like romance would disappear if we stopped staring at it. History has seen eras in which romantic love as we know it was not acknowledged at all, in which "this thing called love" was not called love. It was not called anything. I don't mean that there were no such things as desire, intimacy, fidelity, trust, and all of the other emotional phenomena that we roll up into the conceptual ball of love; I mean that there was no conceptual ball. Or at least they didn't talk about it. Or at least not very much.

There are cultures right now that give romantic love a very subordinate place. We tend to snicker at them--because they're old. They strike us as dour, stuffy, too medieval for words. They brood over unreal, impossibly antiquated concepts like "righteousness" and "holy war." We can't see why they don't lighten up. To them, we seem exuberant but dangerous, like menacing adolescents. Fear mixes in with the contempt on both sides, and if it should come to blows, neither will understand what the other is fighting about. They will fight for the old ways. And we, somehow, just as absurdly, will always fight for love.

I really didn't set out to spoil everybody's fun. It's Valentine's Day. If you're love-happy, be love-happy. Don't let me get in your way (as if you would). If you want to get her some flowers, get her some flowers. Buy him some heart-patterned boxer shorts, if you must. And make an evening of it, by all means. But tomorrow--do me a favor. Tomorrow, just for a change, I want you to go out and look for an alternative to the cult of erotic love, something a little more inclusive, sensible, and lasting than "you and me against the world." Seek out some unromantic people. Your old parents, say. Your Palestinian grocer who never smiles. All the tired, unthrilling people who ride the bus with you every day. Look these people in the eye--this will do you good, it will do us all good--and say it like you mean it: "You're ducky. Be mine."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.

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