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‘Ain’t Love a Kick in the Head?’ – A Rhetorician Considers Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2012

Scholars interested in rhetoric generally take public discourse as an object of study… but, what about private experiences? All national and religious holidays seem to have their in-groups and out-groups, and certainly there are public symbols and private practices associated with most of them.  Valentine’s Day, however, stands out as a holiday dedicated to what is often deemed one of those most abstract, subjective, and private experiences: love.  It takes what is often thought of as private and thrusts it right into public view and places it under public scrutiny.  So, how exactly might the public face of love influence our individual experiences?  Especially, those of us who prefer to think our loves are unique and our feelings sacredly divorced from such cliché and standardized norms of expression… [1]  I propose that rhetoric can tell us something about love, though books on rhetoric may not make the best bedfellows.

Let’s start with some of the fundamental questions. First of all, can ‘love’ in its most primordial form even be described by language?  Or does it evade our words entirely? Richard Terdiman, in a PMLA article  from March, 2011, “Can We Read the Book of Love?” states that love creates a “crisis of representation.” an love be represented by language, or as Terdiman claims, does it simultaneously “insist on… [and] block representation…”? Does language help us better understand love, giving tangible form to the abstract, or does it potentially diminish our experience of love by giving clumsy form to the innately formless?

Assuming we can never escape symbols entirely, we seem to be left with a remarkably meager set of linguistic resources and visual symbolism for love — so what do we do with all of the hearts, flowers, diamonds, chocolate, and teddy bears? In response to these deficiencies, perhaps we should just follow some advice famously attributed to Ingrid Bergman:  “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”

Rhetoric might look at some of the symbols that are at our disposal to build and celebrate relationships, even if it can’t access the most tender of feelings in the depths of our hearts, because it can access the pieces of the narrative puzzle that frame the ‘event’ of romantic love… the thunderbolt of love at first sight, the skipped beat, the silent moment, the kiss, or that very long ellipse (…I hear) is a fundamental part of the second Twilight book.  So, how is it that the symbols at our disposal constrain and limit our decisions related to how we narrate our own love stories?

Take a look at the following Valentine’s Day ad:

Karlin The Silver Tongue

The ad represents love’s narrative for us, selling us not only symbols, but consumer goods that stand in for the climactic moment of our love story. The ad symbolizes Valentine’s Day as a clear departure from the routine of day-to-day existence.  From my Jewish upbringing, I tend to think of the first of the four questions asked by the youngest child at the Seder table on Passover: “What makes this night different from all other nights?”  What is it about “Valentine’s Day” that calls up mass participation in the event? What is the ‘event’ in the first place?  Everything that came before this event and everything that comes after it pales in comparison to the event being sold to us.  The private is made public for a ‘brief’ moment … the evidence of ‘love’ is aired on the clothesline, outdoors, and now separate from the body it might adorn.  Our concept of ‘love’ is made into a temporary, fleeting thing, symbolized by the unique, red thong amongst a routine of white bikinis… already we see that love is out of the ordinary, different from the every day, and somehow more exciting and provocative. Not to mention, feminine… (but, we won’t go too far into that here).

Postmodernist philosopher MC Dillon, in his book Beyond Romance, makes a claim that the socio-cultural history of love in the West has led to two mutually exclusive, yet inextricably connected, conceptions of love: romantic and enduring.   Ultimately, he claims we are left at a crossroad where we must choose one or the other, and that each comes with a set of regrets that we were unable to follow the other path.  As such, we try to hold both at the same time, really wanting “

…the frisson of new love to last forever” (Dillon 9).

Yet, the tension between love-forms remains present in the artifacts of love we see on a regular basis. The ad places ‘romantic love’ (the red thong…) as separate from every other manifestation of the relationship, also separating the day from all other days… this is the day for love, and all other days lack that love.  In this vision, there’s a sense of urgency to celebrate now, an exigence, a call to action… before it’s too late!  As such, it privileges romantic love as the love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, as opposed to the stasis of enduring commitment.

Yet, do we really need to think so hard about it? Can’t we just enjoy our flowers and chocolates?  Can we find any freedom in doing something unique (and maybe less expensive than the traditional consumer-based symbols), or is it just difficult and time-consuming?

In culling responses to Valentine’s Day from my two freshman writing classes, which center around the topic of romantic love, at Carnegie Mellon University, we identified a limited number of responses individuals can have to the event.

First of all, we asked whether Valentine’s Day is a holiday for couples and intrinsically ostracizes the unattached. The Zappos ad certainly alludes to dressing for an event that includes more than one person — if not overtly, covertly.  Second, there seem to be systematic constraints to the responses that individuals can have to the holiday (restricted here to U.S cultural norms, though ‘romance’ takes many different forms depending on culture). How can we respond to the symbols presented to us?

  1. Use the symbols available – Wear that heart covered sweater, and buy your domestic partner some rose shaped, diamond encrusted chocolates.  This form of participation seems to exclude those who either do not find appropriate expression in these symbols, or who are not part of the reign of systematic couple-dom to which these symbols seem to adhere.
  2. Invert the symbols or reassign meaning to the symbols. A total rejection of the event might lead to inversions of those symbols (again, check out the Anti-Valentine’s movement – and, whatever you do, DON’T wear red…), creating a supplementary or alternative social experience. This format may neglect to see its own adherence to conventional symbolism in relying on those conventions for inversion.
  3. Ignore the symbols.  This is a more neutral version of rejection, but encounters the problem of intentional ignorance and the presence of unwanted thought (i.e. ‘Don’t think of a white bear!’)
  4. Re-assign meaning to the symbols or create completely new symbols.  For example, one could make the traditional symbols of romantic love stand in for friendship, family, or more spiritual forms of love.  However, this ignores the accretion of meaning attached to those symbols and the contexts in which those symbols are connected.

These are just a few rhetorical constraints at work when we struggle to make a private experience communicate with a public representation.   So, how are our subjective, private feelings linked to narrative constraints? Is there such a thing as a ‘private language’ by which we can represent our love in completely unique ways? These subjects must be the topic of the next installment of my series of posts on love for The Silver Tongue…. To be continued.

 If you want to know more:
Here are the  two source cited above dressed in full academic regalia.
  • Terdiman, Richard. “Can We Read the Book of Love?” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. March 2011/126:2
  • Dillon, M.C. Beyond Romance. 2001. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

[1] See any of the wide array of anti-valentine’s day activities available to the most unique individuals out there.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Cloud permalink*
    February 15, 2012 10:01 am

    Ashley, this is tremendous. I’m stealing this post and selling it as the premise for a RomCom as soon as I finish this sentence.

  2. February 16, 2012 11:34 pm

    Thanks! For the lovelorn Dean Martin fans out there, here’s the song to which the title owes its origins: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huKSm0tAvhs

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