If romantic love is a chimera, then so is its annual namesake. Our most convenient (if sometimes sketchy) online encyclopedia will give you this next paragraph — and more — but as for “Who was this Saint Valentine?” Wikipedia’s answer seems to be, “No one really knows.” But judge for yourself:
“The name ‘Valentine’ (Priest Valentio) does not occur in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled by the Chronographer of 354. The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.’ As Gelasius implied, nothing was known, even then, about the lives of any of these martyrs. The Saint Valentine that appears in various martyrologies in connection with February 14 is described either as: a priest in Rome, a bishop of Interamna (modern Terni, a region of Italy), or a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.”
If we’re talking “the patron saint of romantic love,” and I think we are, my preference would go with this last candidate, probably because it puts me in mind of that black guy in Gladiator, who was very cool. Also, martyrdom can be such an integral part of what makes up that whole noble vision of interpersonal intimacy we call big, bad love. In reality, if there were such a thing as a figure who embodies the agony and the ecstasy of such a pure burning human emotion as this fine passion, it could easily have been someone like a bishop in the Dark Ages; that is to say, someone absolutely clueless about the mysteries of the human heart and probably everything else as well outside of certain fleshy kicks and the odd bit of illuminated scripture.
So the job is open, the part uncast. But if we’re willing to extend as much license to a construction of Saint Val as we are to Santa Claus or Saint Patrick, we could have some real fun. But first, Wikipedia has more material in stock.
“The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). [T]he text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II.... He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome. Helping Christians at this time was considered a crime. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner — until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor — whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate. Various dates are given for the martyrdom or martyrdoms: 269, 270, or 273.”
While we’re shopping in ancient Rome, let’s pick up Cupid. The god of desire, affection, and erotic love, the son of goddess Venus and god Mars, Cupid — or Eros, among the Greeks — has been depicted in various versions of myth or allegory as a bad shot with a bow and arrow. If he’s not shooting himself in the foot with it then he is scratching himself with an arrowhead loaded with love potion meant for someone else. I then suggest Saint Valentine, from this day forward, be depicted as a diapered, headless infant covered in welts, bruises, and bandages (from the near-fatal beatings), carrying his adorable little head under his left arm (his right holds the bow), and perched on his wee nose, a pair of thick-lensed eyeglasses — he can’t hit the broad side of a barn, remember? He may or may not be depicted with a Bible protruding from the rear of his diapers; a tip of the hat to the Christian traditions of Valentine’s Day and chaste romantic love as well as St. V’s attempt to convert Claudius.
This image would easily resonate in the modern racial subconscious (make the diapers recognizably Pampers or even Depends and update the hairstyle on the severed head, etc.) and embody the reasons we fall in love with all the wrong people or, most often, mistake some kind of malaise or other for something we call True Love.
I may have taxed the patience of those among us who probably like to think of themselves as “incurable romantics,” those I like to think of as “idiots,” having been one myself more than once. For this last reason I will extend an apology, half-hearted as it may be, because I am serious. To encourage delusion on this scale — on all but a national bank holiday — is a flaw in the fabric of Western, mostly American, culture. A harmless conceit? True blue, forever and ever, my soulmate? Please.
Be my Valentine? Just say no. Be as serious as Nancy Reagan.