Like a Horse and Carriage

Like most of our holidays, Valentine's Day has a history that reportedly starts with those horny pagans and another one of their many fertility festivals, makes its way to the Catholic Church, which, in a typical cooption, laid on top its own celebration and gave it a fancy new saint-name, winds its way through the work of a popular British author (no, not that guy for a change, but this guy) who gifted its association with romantic love, and ended up mercilessly corrupted by soulless corporations who want to Sell You Shit Without Which You Can't Possibly Celebrate This Holiday.

Ya know. Kinda like Easter. Or Christmas.

Its origins being murky at best, there are competing legends about the sainted man for whom Valentine's Day is named, each of which has emerged to fill a need in its time, like such things have a wont to do. The account I like best, though, casts St. Valentine as a priest who defied a decree of the Roman Emperor Claudius II forbidding soldiers from getting married on the premise that such emotional attachments weakened soldiers' resolve. Valentine, moved by the injustice of the edict, met young lovers in secret and held clandestine weddings despite the prohibition—an acknowledgement of the (nearly) universal desire to love and be loved and commit to another, for which he was eventually jailed and executed.

I like the idea, even if it's only that and nothing more, that Valentine's Day is not just about love, but about marriage equality.

Love is a concept that is largely absent from our modern debates about marriage equality—because, of course, the people who seek to deny marriage to same-sex couples lose ground when the emotions of the thing impose upon their clinical, passionless talking points about protecting an institution they'd happily return to little more than a property exchange between landowning men, given half a chance.

For a very long time, marriage between a man and a woman didn't have a lot to do with love. (In fact, in some cultures, it still doesn't.) One of the most remarkable things about our culture is that we have the freedom to marry for love, to forge lifelong bonds based not on class or race or religion or the number of goats our dads can spare, but on a feeling so beautiful that poets have spent lifetimes trying to lay it on a page, that artists have passionately sought its capture in one still but enduring moment. Operas and books and films and pop songs, so heartbreakingly lovely that they can steal one's breath, if just for a moment, have been written by people in the thralls of love, or the searing pain of its loss. Monuments have been built, wars have been fought, and some of the greatest happiness ever experienced by humankind has been born because of love.

We are blessed with the luxury of love, and, make no mistake, it is a luxury. Marriage at its best is an expression of love. When it's simply an institution to facilitate the continued existence of a society through the birth of new generations, it is a splendid functional legal contract and nothing more. When it's a sign of commitment forged out of love, it is something ever so much grander. It is the stuff of legend.

Aristophanes said, in Plato's Symposium, that humankind, "judging by their neglect of it, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood it they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in its honor." He then laid out the most beautiful explanation of the origin of love I have ever read, just a piece of which I will excerpt here (having updated the translations with gender-neutral language):
[T]he original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost… In the second place, the primeval human was round, hir back and sides forming a circle; and ze had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. Ze could walk upright as humans now do, backwards or forwards as ze pleased, and ze could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on hir four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when ze wanted to run fast.
The gods were scared of humans in this powerful state, and Zeus conspired to diminish their strength by striking each of them in two with a lightning bolt.
He spoke and cut humans in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the human might contemplate the section of hirself: ze would thus learn a lesson of humility… After the division the two parts of humanity, each desiring hir other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, being the sections of entire men or women, and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of humankind.
That isn't about marriage. It's not about being straight or gay, either. It's about feeling such a desperate need to be close to another person that you are certain the two of you were once torn asunder. It's about love. And that is neither the sole province of unions between one man and one woman, nor a luxury we should ever take for granted. It is a luxury so precious that denying of some people any and every expression of its unique and awesome qualities, treating their love as different, as less, is an affront to the tremendous gift we have been given in our capacity to feel love.

If we really understood love, we would not just build in its honor noble temples and altars, and offer solemn sacrifices, but would believe without reservation that to deny its existence in every human heart is to reject our humanity.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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