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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


• Cruel Caesar? Lovesick martyr? Birds flocking together? All are purported sources of the sentimental ritual we observe this Friday. Records from the Catholic Church differ on who exactly Saint Valentine was; three different men of that name are said to have been martyred on February 14, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Various legends have been cooked up about St. Valentine. One says he performed secret marriages when the Roman emperor forbade young men from marrying. Another says Valentine was a prisoner who wrote a letter to the jailer's daughter who befriended him, signing it: "From your Valentine."

These stories get a lot of mileage for their Hallmark mushiness but offer little in the way of historical verification. What is certain is that February 14 was the date of a Roman pagan fertility celebration honoring the god Juno, in which men drew names of eligible women by lottery, and that in A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius I outlawed the festival and declared February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day to honor the patron saint of lovers. The practice of exchanging Valentine's Day cards probably began in medieval Europe and developed from the belief that birds selected their mates in mid-February.

By now, all manner of customs are associated with Valentine's Day, including those candy hearts (who knew? They're over a century old); superstitions related to the St. Valentine's Day massacre (the infamous Chicago gang shooting which, I learned last week, happened about a mile from my apartment); and a Japanese twist on the holiday that has women buying candies for men (which men reciprocate on the retail-created "White Day" in March; more at Snopes.com).

Valentine's Day's status as an American "festival of consumption," in Daniel Boorstin's term (reflected on here), seems complete when you see this Web site's suggestion that you "Buy your pet a Valentine's Toy." But Valentine's Day also gives us occasion to visit issues related to love and romance in contemporary society, and to gauge discussion about them on the Web.

• We usually think of them as cute and innocent, but is there a hidden danger in the consistent narrative of romantic comedies, one that may be subtly contributing to our country's ever-increasing divorce rate or at least our perspective on love? Nearly all romantic comedies—from Pretty Woman to The Wedding Planner to Serendipity—are about the exact same story: two beautiful people are destined to fall in love, but a series of unusual circumstances keeps them apart until the very end—and then they live happily ever after.

Thus the focus of these movies—and also most television, advertising, magazines, and music about romance—is on the tease of love: the dance of seduction, the magic of the first meeting—all of which precedes the actual relationship and any meaningful interaction between two people. How backwards is it that 95 percent of popular culture's treatment of love is about this initial tease—meeting the right person, how to be attractive for such a meeting, how magical the meeting feels at first, etc.—and not really about love itself? And how poisonous is it for children and teens to be bombarded with our country's emphasis on the role of external projection in this tease, while they get almost nothing on how to be an authentic and faithful person?

Weary critic Roger Ebert, enduring the oh-so-contrived romantic movie On The Line, sums up the standard storyline of romantic comedies and makes an important observation:

A boy and a girl Meet Cute and instantly realize they are destined for each other, and then they plunge into a series of absurd contrivances designed to keep them apart. Just once, could they meet and fall in love, and then the movie would be about their young lives together?

(Read the full review here.)

This is a crucial point. How much better would the quality of popular culture—and the quality of our country's marriages—be if more of it were devoted to the dramas, tensions, subtleties, and changes we experience in long-term loving relationships rather than just the initial tease? These are arguably more interesting and certainly more relevant to how we experience love in real life. For example, for all its gloss, "The Cosby Show" at least provided a genuine and complex picture of the second and third decades of marriage—and all of the random frustrations, adaptations, weeping and joy that go with them—as we watched Clair and Cliff spar and snuggle with each other. (Some would say the family portrait of the comparatively depressing "Everybody Loves Raymond" is even more rooted in real life). And at least My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which came from nowhere to become the number-one romantic comedy of all time, spent a good chunk of the movie showing the lovers' struggle to converge their two cultural backgrounds. (Now will the new TV show continue this useful storyline?)

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