Valentine's Day and Romance

Valentine’s Day is Tuesday, and I have something suitably romantic for you.

Being “romantic” or “a romantic” means different things to different people. Most commonly, of course, it means valuing the experiences and forms of falling in love and being in love -- what my fifth-grade daughter dismisses, with a grimace, as “all that yucky kissy stuff.”  

There’s also the literary and cultural sense of Romanticism, the 19th-century European movement that was partly a reaction against industrialism and its midwife, Enlightenment rationalism. That romanticism elevated nature, the past, the individual in his susceptibility to emotion, the importance of intuition, the power of the sublime, and so on – impulses and attitudes expressed in the poetry of Wordsworth or the portraiture of Caspar David Friedrich.

A lot of people consider themselves romantics. My father, who retired two decades ago from his career as a surgeon, liked to say about himself that he was a romantic in an unromantic profession. I’m not entirely sure what being “romantic” to him, but I know it included the feeling that he didn’t share a sensibility with most physicians he knew. To him being “a romantic” partly meant enjoying experiences rather than analyzing causes. It meant loving the surfaces of things – the look, feel, sound and mood – rather than the machinery below (he had suffered through one year of engineering school, basically flunking out, before landing in a liberal arts college). It meant loving music and singing. It meant admiring The Great Gatsby, and vaguely wanting to write something Gatsby-like himself. And certainly it said something to him about the stringencies of coming, as he did, from a working-class family with a no-nonsense father who himself had quit school after eighth grade to help support his widowed mother, and who would have had little patience for Wordsworthian ramblings from his son, the first in any branch of the family to go to college.

Another basic part of being romantic is the inclination toward nostalgia and its fascination with time, change and memory. As I have written before in this space – on the topic of music boxes – nostalgia was long thought of as an illness. The term was coined by a Swiss physician whose 1688 dissertation cobbled together two Greek words to fashion a neologism for “the pain of homecoming.” The impulse has been particularly powerful among Germans, with their worship of Heimat, but animates other European traditions as well, from Poland, with its odes to nobility, to Portugal with its swooning fado music.

At any rate, you can find my own expression of romance here, in a short essay, “Dreaming of Gerry,” published in the current issue of Hartford Magazine. Like those homesick Swiss soldiers of yore, listening to their music boxes, I was moved by the memory of a song, and the role that song played on a long-ago day in my life.

I don’t think of the ranks of Commonweal readers as rife with hopeless romantics. But the Catholic tradition did supply the obscure Roman martyr whose annual feast was eventually transformed -- by European Romanticism -- into the modern Valentine’s Day, in all its kissy yuckiness. So this is for the romantics among you.  RRC  

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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