You didn't seriously think I was going to let Valentine's day go by without saying something suitably cynical about it, did you?
The trouble I have with Valentine's day is with the idea of 'romance' and the way it gets used. To me, the word romantic has very specific connotations - it denotes something that is imaginative and extravagant (in the sense of being impractical and / or spontaneous, i.e. absent calculation) and is inspired by a passionate devotion to some ideal. Romanticism is thus an aesthetic philosophy, a belief, to paraphrase Keats, in the beauty of truth and the necessity of excess. Shelley is romantic, Chopin is romantic, the fact that your boyfriend bought you a bouquet of crummy flowers may be sweet or thoughtful or caring, but it IS NOT romantic (what was it Shelley said: "One word is too often profaned / For me to profane it"). I have nothing against people enjoying things that are cliched - I'm all for socio-cultural nostalgia - just as long as they understand that romance comes from a burning desire to break free of convention and create something new and beautiful and then surrender to it entirely. These rituals of affection are important, but the warm glow you get from them is the exact opposite of the true romantic impulse - it is the security of demonstrable love, not the restless creative urge of true Romance. There is nothing in Romance that suggests happiness (if anything, the greatest Romantic figures are often tragic ones - just try reading Shelley's Alastor; or think about Prometheus, whose stunning depiction by Rubens is the painting at the start of this post).
Don't misunderstand me - I'm not one of those people who go around complaining about how Valentine's day has turned into such a cliche, how it's become so commercialised, so stereotypical. As though their boyfriends or husbands were actually capable of a more authentic romantic gesture than buying flowers or booking a table at an expensive restaurant (or had the inclination to). As if the only thing that stood between them and the immortal odes they would have written in praise of their beloved was the presence of Hallmark cards. Let's face it people - the average guy out there couldn't come up with something truly romantic to do if his life depended on it. And the average woman wouldn't know a truly romantic gesture if it jumped out of a heart-shaped candy box and bit her . The truth is, these people aren't looking for the innovative or the unique, they're looking for a signal that will affirm their faith in their relationship. As Eliot put it, they're looking for "Some way indescribably light and deft / Some way we both should understand / Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of hand".
I mean if you're genuinely concerned about feeling being eclipsed by cliche, why not start by objecting to marriage - which, after all, is the biggest cliche of all? Why not start with all these definitions of boyfriend and girlfriend, of date and significant other, friend and lover, which are all, at the end of the day, just stereotypes? Why not start with the word love itself, which covers such a wide range of emotions in our modern usage that it has almost no meaning at all? If you're willing to accept all those institutions (and most people you here bemoaning the commercialisation of Valentine's day fall into that category) why not accept this additional institution of Valentine's day as well?  Understand, I'm not saying that one should reject all institutions (though that would, of course, be the truly Romantic way), I'm simply saying that it's inconsistent to accept some and then rail against others. I'm all for couples doing the whole Valentine's day thing to the hilt, just as long as they don't go around claiming it's romantic and don't try to pretend that their actions are somehow unique or special in themselves - it's precisely because they're stereotypes that they're getting any pleasure out of them.
The other people who really irritate me on Valentine's day are the older swadeshi types who will blather on about traditions and how western commercialism is destroying our ancient values. I mean, first of all, most of the 'traditions' that these people are talking about (especially when it comes to man-woman relationships) are narrow-minded and chauvinistic practices that were blatantly disrespectful to women and that, consequently, we can happily do without, thank you. But what really gets to me is the hypocrisy of accusing the West of commercialising relationships in a land where most weddings are long drawn out and garish exercises in out and out ostentation. So apparently it's okay to spend millions of rupees on some tinsel celebration that the two people most intimately concerned probably won't even enjoy, but it's 'commercial' for a couple to do something intimate together? Cretins.
Personally, the thing I most object to is the romanticisation of what is essentially a commercial transaction between two individuals. I say we take Valentine's day back from all these soppy people who keep getting starry-eyed about 'romance' when they don't even know what the word means. Let's do away with all these empty trappings of emotion and focus on what Valentine's day is really about - expensive gifts as indicators of financial security. Negotiations between men and women to enter into long-term child rearing contracts. Shorter-term exchanges for the fulfillment of sexual and emotional needs in what is, regrettably, still a barter economy in that it relies entirely on that most elusive of transactions: a double coincidence of wants (or, as Woody Allen would say, a matching of neuroses). No more rhyming 'flowers' with 'bowers' and 'love' with 'stars above' (at least the fact that V-day is in February  spares us the 'moon' and 'june' bit) - let's have greeting cards that come in plain black writing and say what we really mean - if I went to all the trouble of buying you these (entirely useless) flowers, the least you can do is have sex with me, or listen sympathetically while I whine about my boss at work.
Tom Lehrer says: "It it has always seemed to me, after all, that Christmas, with it’s spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in. I refer of course, to money. And yet, none of the Christmas carols that you hear on the radio or in the street, even attempt to capture the true spirit of Christmas as we celebrate it in the United States. That is to say the commercial spirit." Just replace Christmas with Valentine's day and you've got it. Exactly.
 Okay, that sounds terribly sexist. My apologies. I use the conventional forms because I'm arguing against the conventional and they're easier to attack that way. Personally, I'd love it if a woman were to buy me flowers for Valentine's day, but no one's ever offered to yet. Still, that might just be me. Actually, it probably is.
 Obviously there's a serious case of sour grapes here, but I think, on the whole I'm entitled. Imagine how you'd feel if you spent years of your teenage life perfecting the art of writing sonnets (the Petrarchan ones - not this piffling Shakespeare stuff) only to find that neanderthals in your class were able to impress girls by buying them a bunch of half-wilted flowers with a pink ribbon around them.
 Another argument these people like making is that they don't see what's so special about that one day and why it can't be some other day and how anyway it's how you are to each other throughout the year that matters, not this one 24 hour period. I always feel like asking people who make that argument whether they celebrate their birthdays.
 A fact that I've never understood, btw. You would think if you were going to set aside a day to celebrate love you would keep it sometime in April or something, not in February. Coventry Patmore has a poem that talks about this somewhere.
Categories: Rant, Life