There are two breeds of romantics that might call themselves "incurable." On the one hand there are those who respond to teddy bears and sentimental cards. Then there are others who react to an official celebration of romance with existential angst and lingering despair triggered by the noxious mingling of chocolate and roses. This is generally compounded by a night spent sipping cheap wine from the bottle, prone on the couch and expecting answers from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Is waiting for True Love worth it, Marquez? Or is it just a pathological excuse for avoiding the work of a committed relationship?
This suffering can be dated to 469 AD when Pope Gelasius sought to punish single men and women for centuries to come by officially declaring St. Valentine's Day a holiday. February 14 apparently marks St. Valentine's beheading by Emperor Claudius II of Rome for defying a decree that, since single young men were superior soldiers, they would no longer be allowed to marry. Note to self: Keep this information from Donald Rumsfeld.
According to legend Valentine was sentenced to death, but while awaiting his beheading, the randy young stud put the moves on his jailer's blind daughter, miraculously curing her of her ailment. As the story goes he sent her a final love letter signed "from your Valentine," sparking an estimated billion-card-per-year holiday (exceeded only by Christmas in the contempt it produces in postal workers). What would Valentine, who was certainly just trying to escape, think of the 21st-century card with the picture of a train that states: "I choo-choo-choose you"?
Typically though, Valentine was only a cog in the machine. Pope Gelasius used the story of his martyrdom as an opportunity to eliminate pagan ritual in favor of Christian deference to patron saints; mid-February had always marked the beginning of the festival of Lupercalia during which young men drew the names of young women out of hats in a wild precursor to The Love Connection. Yes, the little fat kid with the arrows is a hired gun responsible for the death of a festival that would have hooked people up at random with a new partner every year. How's that for a Valentine's Day massacre?
But whether Valentine or Lupercalia is more your bag, for a nation obsessed by this "crazy little thing called love" (witness the 47 million Internet hits the word produces), we are tragically inept at the practice of it. Even in the Land of Enchantment more than half of all marriages are doomed to failure. So why take that kind of risk when one could hold out indefinitely for Princess Bride-style true love?
History's great thinkers offer surprisingly little help. Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle cared only for the "love of knowledge," calling romantic love "inconstant" (isn't that Greek for "gross"?). Søren Kierkegaard-the Christian bad-ass who inspired existentialism-wrote that, except for the divinely mandated love of one's neighbor, love is unreliable. Either he had an exciting neighborhood or very little success with the amorous arts.
In fact, many great philosophers seem to have had less luck in love than the average guest on Jerry Springer. Martin Heidegger, Kierkegaard's successor, did manage an affair with his Jewish pupil Hannah Arendt, but it didn't come out well for her. She loved and defended him unswervingly through rejection, jealousy and his vigorous support of the Nazi party. After contacting syphilis from his very first sexual encounter, Friedrich Nietzsche was rejected by the only woman he would ever ask to marry him. At least Socrates and many Asian philosophers have consistently reminded us that, ultimately, we know nothing. Still, though we struggle with relationships, we have a comparably easy time with things like space travel. Perhaps the problem is learning to live with concepts that have flexible definitions; rocket science is precise, love is messy and often (gleefully) senseless.
For myself, I'm drawn both to settling down with a sweet girl and building a stable relationship and to holding out for, as Marquez says, "something immense and irreparable…the demon…the most terrible one of all."
I'd better get rolling on one hell of a personals ad.