Saint Valentine was a pastor, and eventually a prisoner, in ancient Rome, at a time when Christianity was illegal and promoting the religion frequently earned you both a cruel and an imaginative death.
One of Valentine’s last acts was to pray for his jailer’s daughter, who was supposedly miraculously cured of her blindness. The story later developed that he penned a final letter to her before his execution, signed ‘from your Valentine’.
By the time Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece Hamlet in the year 1600, the feast day of Saint Valentine was already associated with romance, and if we take his character Ophelia’s speeches at face value, illicit sex.
For what it’s worth, I did not wear a red jacket on February 14th; neither was I to be found in a queue of worried people at Victoria Pharmacy first thing on February 15th.
I’ve got nothing much against ‘romantic’ love, and in this economy, I suppose I can’t fault retailers for using romance and sex to sell everything from roses to Savanna Dry cider.
But the whole Valentine’s performance did get me thinking about how changeable traditions are, and how the ‘love’ we celebrate between couples could transform us if it became a societal thing.
When the UK’s Prince Charles was about to start his disastrous marriage to Diana, he was asked in a media interview if he was in love. He said yes, then added - almost like a conspiratorial ‘aside’ in a theatre play - ‘whatever love means’.
We’re fond of seeing love only between couples, and only in sexual terms. But what if ‘love’ meant the good feelings that a person should have for all he meets, a desire to promote the well-being and betterment of all people? Or all beings, whether human or animal?
This is what we mean when we say ‘love thy neighbor’ in Church (most of us, I assume, mean it that way), but how many of us practice it?
Imagine if, on Feb 14th, Woolworths, Coca-Cola, South African Breweries and Saint-Valentine’s-Jesus knows who else, urged us to love - not only our partner, but also the street kid at the traffic light, the taxi driver who cuts in front of us, the shack dweller in our peripheral vision as we head off up the highway, the annoying amateur policeman on the Neighborhood Watch WhatsApp group?
Not many theorists have proposed love as a radically transformative political force. bell hooks is one of the few who have. As she rightly points out, before love can be that force, we will have to separate it out from its associations with commercial kitsch, and with European late-medieval notions of ‘courtly romance’.
When you get rid of such, the love that is left is self-sacrificing - it’s the love of the Civil Rights marcher, the tree-hugger standing her ground when the bulldozers move in.
Jokes aside, I’d love to help organize a real Men’s Conference on 14th February, where we men unpack how patriarchal notions of ‘masculinity’ are leading to us harm the women and children we claim to love. I’d offer to draft a curriculum instructing men in transformative anti-GBV love, if anyone would ever accredit it for teaching.
‘That kind of love,’ as Namibian spoken-word poet Nesindano Namises memorably declares, is both rare and hard to organize. But we’ve got to try.
We often think of traditions as these sacred, unchangeable things, but (as Valentine’s transformation from rebel priest to Patron Saint of all things rosy and tasteless shows) that’s not so. Traditions change; they’re our servant, not our master. Oftentimes, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm has shown, they’re simply invented on the spot.
So, let’s embark on consciously re-inventing our traditions to make ourselves better people in love, and to make our country a better place. Saint Valentine’s Day would as good a place to start as any.
Hugh Ellis is accepting chocolates and flowers for February 14th, 2021. But don’t ask for a date; he’s got a Men’s Conference to go to! Hugh is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views he expresses here are personal views.