Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Isn't it romantic?

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 [1]. 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"[2].

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? [3] 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 [4] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

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Arthur Quiller Couch said...

I've read a lot of your blog over the last two weeks and I think you're very good. But this post is the sheerest tripe. Valentine's Day IS a commercial exercise. Romance is personal: you can't assume you judge for the world. That's the beginning of bigotry.

ozymandiaz said...

Very interesting post. I don’t agree that “romance” can’t be calculated. Yes, spontaneity can be very romantic but it can also be disastrous (which in itself can be romantic, remember your cooking at her place). I think putting a cognitive effort into fulfilling the desires of another, getting to truly know your lover; there may be nothing more romantic than that. What says “I love you” more than caring enough to actually “learn” about them. And whether it is a process of convention or not does not denote romance, it is the connection between the lovers that is romantic. Yes, something new and beautiful is romantic but so are moonlit walks on the beach and lying in a field of swaying grass under the sun (getting it on in the surf not withstanding). What did I do for my love? I bought her hand made dark chocolates and wrote her poetry, started and ended the day with the making of the whoopee. There was nothing special about this, though, as that occurs often.
What I wonder about romance is the root of the word. How did it come to denote, well, whatever it is that it denotes concerning love. The only history I know of the word is its relationship to “romance languages”, languages that have root in Latin (French, German, Spanish, English, etc.). It would be interesting to me to find out how it got from there to where it is.

Veena said...

You too? You want someone to give you flowers for Valentine's day? Hmm...maybe this is a male Phd students in Pennsylvania thing..

ozymandiaz said...

it looks as though others don't care much for the VD either...albeit solely on religious terms

Heh Heh said...

hey. i want somebody to give me flowers on valentines day too. i also want to sit in small hole in a wooden clock and go cuckoo! every hour.

Falstaff said...

AQC: Thanks. I love it when someone makes sweeping statements with no logical basis and then pretends they're an argument. I especially love it when people accuse me of not respecting individual differences, right after they've gone and condemned something that literally millions of people around the world celebrate and enjoy as being a commercial exercise (notice, incidentally, that I didn't say that V-day wasn't a commercial exercise - only that so is everything else). And as for not judging for the rest of the world - if you read a little more of my blog you'll realise that doing that is precisely what this blog is about.

Oz: Fair enough - personally, my concern is much more with imagination than with spontaneity; besides I suspect I'm thinking more of calculation in the sense of cost-benefit analysis (though admittedly I don't make that clear enough in my post) than in the sense of planning.

My overall gripe, as I suggest in the post, is not so much with people as with the language - I just think it would be nicer if we had a different word for the sentimental things that couples do for each other and for an authentic artistic instinct. Word origins - not sure - I wonder if it could have something to do with themes in literature - maybe french novels of a certain era being more focussed on love and relationships and the word gradually getting transferred from romance novels in the sense of language to romance novels in the sense of content. Kind of like blue films. This is just idle speculation of course.

Veena: I don't want exactly. Let's just say I wouldn't mind. Or at least, I wouldn't mind as long as I didn't have to do something in return for them, like marry the woman, for instance.

heh heh: Think you might have to choose between the two there. Just a hunch.

meditativerose said...

hmm ... re the flowers, I think I see a pattern here ... could it just possibly be that PhD students are lazy??

Veena - what do you think?

Anonymous said...

Your idea of romance (ain't yours in the first place as you have said it yourself) is borrowed from the past; Romance, what it once was. So no one can be in a philosophical quagmire if they take Romance as what it is "now", just as people, in those times, took it to be what it was then.

Very interesting contrast between past and present, nevertheless.

:) sorry had to be cynical of a cynic's view. :P

Neela said...

yeah and if you truly want to improve your chances of getting flowers, maybe the next time I ever so tactfully request the seating lady at the Philly Orchestra office to give us seats that are the farthest Euclidean distance from each other, you will try your damndest not to weep openly "but we are supposed to sit together! but I want to sit next to you!! what's the point of buying tickets together if we don't sit together" and then peremptorily ask, demand, order for adjacent seats till the lady gives us sweet knowing smiles and thoughtfully puts the gay couple on the other side of you.


p.s. Belated Happy Valentine's Day! And what did you do, besides penning sonnets of exquisite beauty and uselessness? (rather like flowers, one would think?)

Falstaff said...

Veena / MR: Have you seen the Valentine's day PhD comic? It might be instructive:


Neela: Well, at least I don't show up at bars where you're having a quiet drink with your friends, express wifely disapproval and drag me off saying things like "it's time we were leaving". You realise that there are first years in my department who think I'm married. Worse, that I'm henpecked.

And of course, the difference between sonnets and flowers is that any idiot can by the latter in a shop with five minute's effort while sonnets take skill and time to put together - so it really shows you care. It's like the difference between buying someone a CD and playing something on the piano that you composed especially for them.

Inkblot said...

The pressure's too high-its THE DAY you've got to be romantic whether you feel like it or not.I always wait for my birthday to pass hoping no one remembers to wish me and for christmas to fade away so I can look back rather than be there.
The 'beauty of truth' doesn't need a label for expression and the 'necessity for excess' should be a burning need always- so why then does romance fade faster than love and we feel increasingly incapacitated while trying to revive it?
Perhaps we need Valentine's day after all just to reiterate what could be, even if we do not have the energy or imagination to create something new. Bitter hearts don't buy flowers, they preserve dead ones.

And what would you do if you couldn't write poetry and the love of your life couldn't understand Keats and wanted that bunch of red roses-just that?

Sony Pony said...

I've never actually given the word, romance any serious consideration. But now that you have it described here and all, I say we use it perfectly! Love, it's full of the "passionate devotion to an ideal" and romantic gestures are theoretically supposed to be an "ode to the imaginative". Romance doesn't mean love, they are, therefore, "the necessity of excess", "the extravagant" and all that pomp and show.

K. said...

I think the word is "IMPULSE"..I loved your post.

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