Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

I wrote this a couple of years ago. Reposting today (for obvious reasons).

The dominant hegemony of consumer driven romantic love assures that most of us will never even consider the saint associated with Valentine's Day. Although almost nothing is actually known about him, he was a third century priest who, after trying unsuccessfully to convert Claudius II to Christianity, was imprisoned, beaten to death, and beheaded by the Romans for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus somewhere on or about February 14, 269 AD. Beheading isn't typically considered very romantic and, aside from the color of spilled martyr's blood, doesn't account for most of the discourse we associate with Valentine's Day today—the hearts, roses, chocolates, diamond bracelets, and candlelit dinners. So where did all this modern bricolage come from?

Some have suggested Valentine sent parchment hearts to fellow imprisoned Christians while others claim the romantic connection revolves around the belief by Europeans of the Middle Ages that February fourteenth was the day birds gathered to mate. The latter is most likely an attempt to connect two disparate events with a coincidence of date while the former is probably pure, unabashed myth and wishful thinking. The real story may, in fact, stem from medieval Christianity's affinity for appropriating holidays from anyone who didn't appear to be suffering enough. In the fifth century, pagans were still partying it up at the Feast of Lupercalia, celebrating the deity Lupercus or, as he's better known, Pan—the horned (and horny) god of fertility. All of this hedonism and merrymaking was too much for Pope Gelasius I, so, in 494 AD, he banned the celebration of Lupercus and, for convenience sake, moved the feast from the fifteenth of February to the fourteenth, renaming it Saint Valentine's Day in honor of the slain martyr. Not ones to be easily put off, revelers stuck with Pan's ideals while transferring them to the largely unknown saint and, well, here we are fifteen hundred years later spending billions of dollars on Hallmark cards, flowers, and jewelry in hopes that, at least once this year, we might just get lucky. It probably isn't exactly what Gelasius had in mind, and, for his part, Saint Valentine would almost certainly be appalled by the epicurean excess practiced in his name.

And what about the heart? That red arched signifier of love and the pinnacle of overdetermined everything that is Valentine's Day doesn't even point to a genuine signified. It is a complete social construct—an orphaned icon. An actual heart, the one beating inside all of us (even the cold, black one kept alive by a pacemaker inside Dick Cheney), is far removed from the imagery of Valentine's Day. What if one substituted the symbolic heart with a depiction of an actual one? How would the meaning change? Of course someone has done this. In our postmodern age of irreverence and irony, it was only a matter of time before the symbol was replaced with a representation of the real. In the case of an image I discovered (above), a simple message, “Happy Valentine's Day,” is printed in a red serif font that sits on a beige background above an equally red representation of a bona fide, out of the chest onto the paper, heart. It isn't quite anatomy class, but it's close. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of giving someone your heart—conjuring images a la Apocalypto instead of romance and roses.

There is something truly disturbing about the juxtaposition. In an act of resistance and parody, the artist forces us to face up to our ideology. The heart, long-vaunted symbol of emotional love, becomes the fragile muscle that forces blood through our body for the finite time we're alive. It is a heart violently torn from the flesh. It signifies death. In this way, bloody images of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre—where Al Capone's cronies mercilessly gunned down rival gangsters in Chicago in 1929—are closer to the new interpretation than anything offered by DeBeers or See's Candy. It is with this fresh gaze we are forced to follow the thread of violence from the Romans' persecution of Saint Valentine himself to the Christians' persecution of the pagans for celebrating a different, randier, god; from Al Capone's slaughter of Bugs Moran's men to images of horrific atrocities committed in the modern diamond trade. With this wider view, we are able to see how our choices affect others—we are able to undo ourselves from the subject position to view the world more objectively. That diamond necklace may buy a night of nookie with the wife, but it may also contribute to the pain of someone in Sierra Leone.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with spreading romance. However, we should consider considering our loved ones every day, not just on the one day our hyper-consumerized culture tells us we have to. The next time I see the simulacrum heart, I'm going to remember that image of the real one. I'm going to try to make choices that, hopefully, maximize the happiness of my lover while minimizing the misery of my fellow global citizens—and I'm going to try to do it without the advice of some slick Madison Avenue advertising firm. To put it simply, this Valentine's Day I'm going to try not to do what St. Valentine did, and lose my head.

Happy Valentine's Day!