It’s Valentine’s Day!! A day of chocolates, flowers, romantic dinners, and sexy lingerie. It is estimated that the average man will spend $300 to $400 on wooing his true love, or at least his current love. While I don’t want to appear as a Valentine’s Day cynic, I can’t help but feel that all this Valentine’s Day furor is more the result of effective marking than heartfelt expressions of devotion. We have been sold on the breath-stealing, rush of romantic desire with less attention paid to the soberer, at times monotonous, act of loving someone.
When I think of the insistence of the urge to unite with another, the blinding compunction for physical connection, I am reminded of Plato’s dialog, The Symposium. In this dialog Aristophanes, a drinking buddy of Socrates,[i] tells of a myth about how humans were doubled up. Supposedly, we were round with two of everything; two heads, two bodies, two sets of arms, and two sets of legs. One side was male and the other female. The gods, however, feared we were too strong. So, they split us in two. Since then, we have had an innate compelling drive to be made whole again, to unite with our other half. So, at least according to this myth, love is becoming whole again.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this Jerry Maguire you-complete-me image of love. First, it seems to needy. I need you to complete me? Am I insufficient as a human being in some way without you? Second, our drive to unite with another could easily devolve into mere lust. It is all too easy for our mania to unite to simply turns the other into a means of fulfilling our desire. When the desire is sated does love survive?
When I think of love, I think of the greatest love poem to ever have been written, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poem is revolutionary in a number of ways, especially in its view of love as well as its distinction between love and lust. Prior to Dante, the love of a woman was seen by Christians as a distraction, as something that hindered a man in finding his path to God. They reduced all love to lust, to carnal desire. Dante, however, turned this view on its head. Love, real love, does not distract you from self-actualization to finding yourself, to finding God. Love advances, empowers, this quest.
Let’s talk for a moment in real terms, not Valentine’s Day banalities. Everything has essential attributes, those characteristics of a thing that make it what it is. A television, for example, without a screen is not a television. Without a screen, you cannot view an image, so there is no visioning involved with the supposed television. People are the same way. If you were to take from me my love of books, the joy of playing music, or the desire to write, I would not be me. Of course, I have listed here my positive essential attributes, we all have negative attributes as well, but I will refrain from listing mine here.
When we love someone, truly love someone, we are drawn to their essential attributes, the combination of things in them that make them truly who they are. We see in them what complements ourselves. We want to incorporate those things into our lives, for them to become part of our life experience. At the same time, in loving that person we encourage those attributes. We spur them on in the development of those attributes that are part of their essential nature. The key here is to encourage what is already there, not drive them to be what we would like them to be. We are not seeking self-satisfaction, but mutual fulfillment.
Dante demonstrates this in his poem. Let’s look at the two of the most prominent women in The Divine Comedy. On the one hand, we have Francesca who is killed by her husband when caught in adultery with his brother Paolo. When Dante stops to speak with Francesca, it quickly becomes apparent that it is all about her. She assumes that Dante has traveled to hell to see her. When she speaks of her death, she describes how the reading of Lancelot and Guinevere stirs her desire. Paolo was a means of her satisfying her wants.
Contrast them with Dante and Beatrice. When Dante is lost, Beatrice aids him in finding his way. First, she descends from heaven into hell to arrange for Virgil to guide Dante through hell and up the slopes of Mount Purgatory. At the summit of this mountain is the Garden of Eden where she and Dante are reunited. From there she takes him into heaven where he has a face-to-face encounter with God. Dante did not need to possess Beatrice to love. She did not drive him forward but guided him to his destination. It was a love that transcended the physical.
When most people think of love Italian style, they think of Italian passion. The covers of cheap romance novels flash past their minds’ eye; a dark-haired man with smoldering eyes crushes a woman to his bare chest as he kisses her lips burning with desire. That is not how I see it. Italian love is as Dante describes it, something that abides past death. Couples who have been married for decades know this. We may have a bit more girth than on our wedding day, less hair in some spots with more in others, and a romantic evening may be simply falling asleep in front of the television, but love is still there. It is the thing that remains once passion’s fire has subsided.
To read more about Italian and Italian-American culture read my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American.
[i] Aristophanes is literally one of Socrates’ drinking buddies. Symposium means drinking party. The dialog is a series of speeches by Socretes and his friends who are having a drinking party to celebrate one of them receiving a literary prize.