Get hustling, connoisseurs of nougat and rosebuds. It’s time again to stimulate the economy with our annual fiscal salute to love, real and imagined, on the occasion of St. Valentine’s Day.
Somewhere up in the well-manicured residential community of Catholic Heaven (as opposed to the housing project with all the graffiti and air conditioners denuded of copper pipe that constitutes Catholic Purgatory), the martyr whose name adorns a celebration of costume jewelry and inedible candy hearts must puzzle over posterity’s curious salutation.
If it’s romance one wants to commemorate, I have a feeling there are a number of other saints that might have been more pertinent — Augustine comes to mind, as does Vitus — but it might do more harm than good, at this juncture, to put the holiday naming rights up for bid.
Instead, I propose another celebration dedicated to Valentine’s antithesis, so that all the people not currently in love can have a chance to spend a little money to demonstrate their disdain for romance. Call it Indifference Day or, if you must get a saint into the mix, St. Elmo’s Day (in honor of another martyr whose “fire”, a visible discharge of electricity from a projecting object, is a famous portent of bad weather).
Literature venerates the uplifting prose and poetry of those artists who extol romantic love, but not enough attention has been paid to the cynics and skeptics who scoff at the notion, whose remarks surely speak for a goodly percentage of those reading this very column.
Take for example Aristophanes, the Greek comic playwright who, 400 years before Christ, first wrote the phrase,” Women — can’t live with them or without them.” Another playwright of antiquity, the Roman named Seneca, offered a gender counterpoint, observing that “Men are but children, too, though they have gray hair; they are but a larger size.”
Scribes throughout the ages have seen though love’s illusions with varying degrees of clarity. Balzac called love “the union of a want and sentiment,” while Proust described it as “an incurable malady like those pathetic states in which rheumatism affords the sufferer a brief respite, only to be replaced by epileptiform headaches.”
(This is why Indifference Day has a chance to catch on. You never get cool words like “epileptiform” on valentines.)
Writers spend a good deal of time analyzing the human condition in uncomfortable chairs, which might explain why Hemingway decided, “If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it,” and Cervantes concluded, “Love is a power too strong to be overcome by anything but flight.” However, only delusion can explain novelist Saul Bellow’s assertion that “all a writer has to do to get a woman is say he’s a writer. It’s an aphrodisiac.”
Not just love deserves special encomiums on Indifference Day. The institution of marriage comes in for some pretty sly digs through the ages. Ralph Waldo Emerson wondered, “Whom God has put asunder, why should man put together?” I
Matrimony has been defined in different ways by different cynics. Leonardo Da Vinci colorfully characterized it as “putting one’s hands in a bag of snakes on the chance of drawing out an eel.” To poet Ogden Nash, marriage was “the alliance of two people, one of whom never remembers birthdays and the other who never forgets them,” but to Noel Coward, it was simply “the aftermath of love.” Critic George Jean Nathan suggested, “Marriage is based on the theory that when a man discovers a brand of beer exactly to his taste, he should at once throw up his job and go to work in the brewery.” One rather admires moviemaker King Vidor’s brevity: “Marriage isn’t a word — it’s a sentence.”
Don’t get the idea that our new holiday will be celebrated only by Y chromosome holders. Some of the best and brightest love debunkers have been women, and with good reason. “Woman serves as a looking glass possessing the magic powers of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” Virginia Woolf explained. Marlene Dietrich concurred: “The average man is more interested in a woman who is interested in him than he is in a woman with beautiful legs.”
In fact, if there is to be a matriarch for Indifference Day, let it be the ineffable Dorothy Parker. Pretty much forgotten today, unless you’ve seen Jennifer Jason Leigh’s depiction in the movie Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle, the Manhattan-based poet and short-story writer of the early 20th century wielded her wit less like a rapier than a scalpel.
She was married three times, twice to the same man, perhaps inspiring Mrs. Parker’s classic aphorism, “The cleverest woman on earth is the biggest fool on earth with a man.” Her rhymes were no less sardonic:
Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love’s a woman’s moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
count to ten and man is bored.
There’s plenty more where that came from, so if you’re looking for some snappy patter to drown out the bleat of all those sappy love songs Valentine’s Day provokes, remember the name Dorothy Parker and seek out her wisdom wherever better insights are purveyed.
However, if true love is your lot in life, don’t be dissuaded by bilious dissent. Dig deep into the Whitman’s Sampler of life and hope to find the chocolate-covered cherry. Just because Kenny G can’t keep it together doesn’t mean you can’t use his music as the backdrop for your personal romance. And should your fruit of choice ever turn from cherries to sour grapes, you can make every day an Indifference Day. As Lily Tomlin mused, “If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?”
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.