Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In Search of the Right Valentine

I was in my CVS the other day picking up the medical prescription of the week, and I could barely make it to the back, where the pharmacy counter is, through the large stacks of bright red Valentiniana clogging the aisles: greetings cards, heart-shaped gewgags too numerous to catalogue, and three or four metric tons of chocolate of pedestrian quality.  “Aha,” I thought to myself, “Saint Valentine’s Day must be approaching.”  In the words of our president, I am like a smart man.  But one of the advantages of marrying an English spouse who came of age during Post-War British Austerity is that such a person was unlikely even to know what Saint Valentine’s Day is, let alone be prepared to show offense when roses fail show up in timely fashion.

            Despite naturalization and fifty odd years of acculturation she has mostly acquiesced in continuing to ignore the day.  Mentions of its arrival in this household are generally muted or ironic, and gift exchanges have been very rare.  So when I crept out of bed in the pre-dawn on February 14th and padded off to the kitchen I was most disconcerted to see in the middle of the breakfast table a large package in gift wrapping with an affectionate note that concluded “fooled you…”  Indeed she had fooled me, but I still had a good hour before she would arise.  It is not always convenient to work out of a “study” that approximates in the profusion  and miscellaneous character of its crowded contents those of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, but on rare occasions, such as this one, it can pay off.  I was able to rummage about and come up with an as yet ungifted antique ornament as well as a gold-foil box in which to present it.  I put the box on the kitchen table.  This ploy would fool absolutely nobody, I knew, but it provided me with at least a flimsy ethical fig leaf in which I might face the dawn.  My own gift, when eventually unwrapped, turned out to be a delightful small tableau in watercolor and paper appliqué by a prominent local artist and musician.

            The first thing to know about Valentine’s Day is that it is, or should be, strictly for the birds.   According to premodern ornithology, the fourteenth of February was the day on which the various birds chose their mates.  The first substantial reference to this mating festival comes from a curious poem of Chaucer’s written well over six hundred years ago.  In a list of his works once made by the poet himself it is called “The Book of Seint Valentynes Day of the Parlement of Briddes”—parliament meaning, of course, jaw-boning, chewing the fat, debating, or simply having a good natter. 

            The discovery of any possible connection between talking birds and any saint named Valentine has remained elusive given the fact that what we know about the former is probably more reliable than what we know about the latter.  Saint Valentine is one of numerous hagiographical mysteries—hagiography being the literary genre of sacred biography.  The great scholarly work on Christian hagiography, begun by a squad of Jesuit historian-philologists in the early seventeenth century and still in progress as I write, is called the Acta Sanctorum.  Only the most physically fit among us can hoist a volume of this work and only the most erudite have the slightest chance of getting anything out of it once hoisted.  The rest of us would do well to make recourse to one of two relatively brief English language popularizations (a mere twelve to sixteen volumes each), both entitled The Lives of the Saints.  These are the work, respectively, of an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic priest named Alban Butler and a nineteenth-century Anglican priest named Sabine Baring-Gould.  It is not mere sectarian bigotry that leads me to prefer the latter.  Baring-Gould is one of the great if underappreciated eccentrics of English literature, not be mention being the actual godfather of Sherlock Holmes.

            As Baring-Gould makes clear our first problem concerning Saint Valentine is that of the plurality of bodies.  The real Valentine was a Roman priest persecuted by the Emperor Claudius II—aptly known as “Claudius Gothicus”.  The Emperor, miffed by Valentine’s indiscriminate working of miracles no less than by his successful evangelism, “condemned Valentine to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards beheaded.  He suffered on the Flaminian Way, on February 14th, A. D. 269.  The body of S. Valentine is preserved in the Church of S. Praxedis, in Rome; but the head in that of S. Sebastian.”  I myself have on more than one occasion accidentally left my hat behind, but forgetting one’s whole head suggests to me a level of distraction nearly culpable.  Yet I find nothing avian about this martyr, and certainly nothing erotic.  No more promising in this regard is any of the eight other Valentinian corpses catalogued by Baring-Gould, including that venerated in Annecy, that donated by Pope Urban VIII to the monastery of Socuellamos in Albacete, Spain, that treasured in Hamme in Belgium, or that “given in 1651 to the Jesuits of Ghent.”  Some mysteries must simply be granted leave to retain their mysteriousness.


 "Be Mine!"  Paper and pigment, 13.5 x. 13.5 cms.  K. Amon, American, early twenty-first century.