Being Human: St. Valentine’s Day, Love, and Suffering

The week has come and gone and so has one of my favorite holidays of the year, Valentine’s Day. In light of February 14th, I spent of lot of time contemplating love and this holiday that celebrates it once a year.

In an article from 1993 published in the Winterthur Portfolio entitled The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870, Professor Leigh Eric Schmidt discusses the history of Valentine’s Day from ancient feast day to modern national holiday. A lot of things about the article irked me at first. Schmidt explains that,

“By the early decades of the fifteenth century, connecting the holiday to courtly conventions of ‘mannered love’ had become a literary commonplace, so much so that Lydgate simply used the term valentine as a shorthand for one’s fairest love. Linking the saint to birds, springtime, and lovers was a striking innovation, and why Chaucer and his compeers did so remains something of a literary mystery” (Schmidt, St. Valentine’s Day, 210).

Basically, Schmidt says that a bunch of poets used the death of two guys named Valentine on February 14th as an excuse to write poetry about love and no one really knows why. How romantic.

Schmidt then goes into how the modern Valentine’s Day came to be in America around the 1840s. Basically, it functioned as a consumer holiday and not much more. Valentine’s Day was a way to sell poetry and cards, probably exactly what the poets of the 15th century were looking for. However, the mass production that came with commercialization did worry some, “what concerned observers the most about the modern version of St. Valentine’s Day was the loss of sincerity and authentic self-expression at the hands of industry, commerce, and mass production” (Schmidt, St. Valentine’s Day, 240). At this line I was screaming, um duh, this should concern everyone. Something about the mass production of love is unsettling; as if we can just buy these feelings and give them out to anyone.

The article reminded me of something that I had read in Ursula Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed, a couple weeks ago. A mixture of men and women are sitting around discussing what exactly happiness is. The men lament that suffering is the condition of life. One, a man named Shevek, suggests, “I believe that the reality—the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness—that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way” (Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 61). At once a woman of the group protests and argues, “the reality of our life is in love, in solidarity…love is the true condition of human life” (Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 61). The irony of this argument is that it comes from a woman. Of course the ambassadors to the emotion of love are the women of the group, but irony aside it is a valid position.

Is the opposite of suffering, love? And if so which is the disease and which is the cure?

Another man of the group tries to answer that question, “Shev’s right…love’s just one of the ways through it, and it can go wrong, and miss” (Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 61).

So, if suffering is the disease, love is only one cure and sometimes it does not work according to the men of The Dispossessed. To quote the famous pop ballad of Pat Benatar, “love is a battlefield”.

Considering Schmidt’s article and The Dispossessed we all might as well give up now and find another way to alleviate the pain of suffering. A very happy Valentine’s Day to me, am I right? Alas, my never-ending optimism cannot allow me to just stop there.

In an article from the New York Times published on Valentine’s Day, Huma Yusuf reports on the protest of Valentine’s Day occurring in Pakistan. At first you think, great! A quick fix to the pain and suffering that love, and a day dedicated to it, can bring to millions. But then you realize why this is happening. It’s the conservative Pakistanis battle to monitor the social behavior of its citizens, something the young men and women of Pakistan have already defeated. Yusuf explains,

“But in trying to clamp down on young love, Pakistan’s conservatives are fighting a losing battle. Having earned the legal right in 2003 to marry without their guardians’ consent, Pakistani women are increasingly risking everything — even their lives — to marry men of their choosing, not their family’s” (Yusuf, Don’t You Be My Valentine, 1).

It was a definitely an “AHA!” moment in my mind. Love, suffering, all of these things are my choice. Something Shevek understood when he said that we could move through the suffering. Something the commercialization of Valentine’s Day did to love. It gave consumers a choice and opened up the idea of courtship. It’s something that the men and women of Pakistan only 10 years ago won the right to. Choice

And at the end of the argument Shevek gives one last insight, “I’m trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins—it begins with shared pain” (Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 62). Finally, men and women agree on something. Think back to what the woman’s first response was to Shevek, “the reality of our life is in love, in solidarity” (Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 61). Love is solidarity, brotherhood is solidarity, it is something we share. “Heartache to heartache we stand.”

If the commercialization and huge profits on Valentine’s Day are any indication, suffering and love are all shared pains. The reality is love is just another thing that binds us all together and we choose whether we feel it or move through it.

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Sources

  1.  Schmidt, Leigh E. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28.4 (1993): 209-45. JSTOR. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.wlu.edu/stable/pdfplus/1181508.pdf?acceptTC=true&gt;.
  2.  Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1974. Print.
  3. 3. 13 Going on 30. Dir. Gary Winick. By Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa. Perf. Jennifer Garner. YouTube. Digei Frunza, 17 Dec. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  4. 4. Yusuf, Huma. “Don’t You Be My Valentine.” New York Times. N.p., 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. <http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/14/pakistan-cracks-down-on-valentines-day-celebrations/&gt;.

3 thoughts on “Being Human: St. Valentine’s Day, Love, and Suffering

  1. I read through each person’s blog. For reasons I’ll provide in person, some of them here, I respond to each of you in two principal ways. First, with some general remarks. Here is the first. Second, with remarks informed by your unique contribution thus far. Among those reasons: why we have blogs in the first place, what are blogs doing in a college course, their relation to our learning, reflections on your unique style, command of course texts, facility with sources, your blend of sources, popular and otherwise. General remarks appear on each person’s blogs; they are not consigned to obscurity. That too deserves illumination.

    After much deliberation, successful and less successful experiments in/with writing, after sharing with a small upper level seminar the possibilities of course writing on wordpress.com, I spoke with you of what we could do in our course, neither an introduction nor a seminar, were we to take a similar route. Criticisms of our endeavors surely abound, whether we are in the vicinity of them or not. Let us enumerate them. These aren’t college essays. To which we might ask in response, what is? Are we in agreement about the form of an essay in English, politics, classics, philosophy, religion, economics, and biology? Is that form academic? If so, what does that mean? How does one write academically? For the majority of you this is not inconsequential. You are not going to be academics, though surely you will be in one way or another informed by what takes place in universities. In a blink of an eye, you’ll be sending your kids to college. And where might that be?

    Let us take the in academy. No blog by nature of being a blog precludes the academic. That a blog goes “live” and to an audience of non-academic changes the voice, tone, and feel of writing. Granted. No longer is the “college essay” a private transaction between one student and his or her professor. We are each responsible to an audience. Not everyone. We do not write for everyone. We do write for one another, we members of our classes. We write in the context of a college course and thus for our peers. We write for other teachers quietly looking in. Administrators. Friends and family. Alumni. Prospective students. No longer the transaction of one student and one teacher, ventilating our prose may help us write deliberately.

    We wonder what social media is doing to “students.” What could it do for “teachers.” Well, here is a response to essays that would have remained private. That is not altogether true. Would a professor comment publically in the same way as he might privately? Remember, no one is saying that everything goes public. There is a place for private commentary. For meetings during office hours. For comments that are for your eyes only. We simply ask whether there is a virtue in having professor think through the proprieties that attend to their response of students’ “work.” Again, sometimes silence is golden. Not always.

    Let us remain with academic for a moment. Often said of blogs is that they are personal. Academic means, what? That writing is impersonal? Is that true? Some change in perspective is necessary to see things as they are. Too close and we are blind. Too far and we are blind. We need the right distance. The right lens. The right focus. Let the metaphor be what you wish. I know you know what I say.

    Now, let us now ask if there is an objective gaze of college prose. Is there? Is there such a gaze? Were we attending to the rules of grammar, I suppose so. This piece is an example of incomplete sentences. It is filled with quite deliberate and some no so deliberate mistakes. By those mistakes alone should we say that this is poor writing, bad prose? Could we make this into good writing by correcting my grammatical mistakes? Style? Good writers who are read by literary publics are not usually college professors. Plato would not get tenure for his Republic, Jane Austen for her Persuasion, Friedrich Nietzsche for his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Words that change our perception of the universe are usually written by freaks in freakish ways. Some might protest: “They are the greats!” You aren’t. Without a doubt, true. Understanding my own persistent and indubitable mediocrity does not obscure the fact that the “great” were never great in their own lifetime. Most of them did not make a living by their prose. Not a few were vilified by the established authorities. No one knows his or her own worth in a lifetime.

    Leaving aside for the moment the objective gaze at the idea of “college essay,” let us ask whether there is a virtue having students express their own point of view? We college professor and administrators say we want students to “think for themselves.” What does that mean? How do they “think for themselves?” Occasions for a chat sipping a beer with friends, or coffee with a professor, intimate moments of carefree talk are among events small schools such as ours provide. You don’t need a small school for that. We encourage them and going “live” is not to make a small college into a MOOC. Schools such as ours will remain, changed to be sure, but remain for precisely those features that no technology can wholly capture or duplicate.

    But to return. Self-knowledge and self-awareness are some part of what it means to think for “our-selves.” Those parts aren’t whole. Aren’t we often mistaken. Deluded. Say right now? And not infrequently by our own thinking, right? Writing our errors howsoever understood – be they truths, opinions, conjectures, and other events we call “thinking,” – may allow us to see what we had not seen in the absence of making them seen. Circular reasoning is not without purpose. Maybe public speaking – and let us make no mistake, writing as we do is public speaking – might we pause sufficiently to take stock of ourselves before putting word to computer screen? If not, could we “leverage” the blog to that end? And when we err in the “personal” we have others there to guide us back to some truth about ourselves.

    Or maybe there is truth worth expressing in error. We ought to know where we are, where we stand, what we are, and surely these are personal. To experience one’s point of view is not the same as to indulge it. Awareness is not the same as thinking. Herein lies one of the important contributions of contemplation to learning. Not one bit of contemplation is self-indulgent. We don’t just simply divest ourselves of ourselves and by so doing write come up with the Truth. Along the way we ought to find our mode of thinking, our habits of thought, of mind, see them in the pattern of our words, stand back, reflect, discover our relation to things that we think are not “me,” and re-establish the right relationship to “them.” Dangerous and pernicious, is it not, to say to students at the outset: “divest yourselves of your cares, of your longings, of your hopes, of all sensibilities, and all sensations, for only then are you thinking?” Really? The most rigorous sciences do not uphold “a view from nowhere.” To allow students to come back to themselves is not to counsel, “A view from anywhere you wish.” We owe each other a humane acknowledgement of one another’s person and point of view. That is only a beginning, undoubtedly the beginning.

  2. Pingback: Margaret | Maureen

  3. Pingback: St. Valentine’s Day, Love, and Suffering: Part Two | Being Human

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