Guest Post: On the Power of Doing Unserious Things Seriously – A Defense of Valentines Day by Tessa Jacobs
February 14, 2022
A Guest Post by Tessa Jacobs, our friend and fellow folklorist!
Contrary to popular opinion, Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday. It’s a misunderstood holiday: too often dismissed as an overly commercialized reminder of our culture’s tendency to value monogamous (usually heterosexual) relationships above all others to the detriment of people who by choice or chance find love, community, and connection in other ways.
I am not saying that there aren’t elements of truth to such a critique. After all, most people do celebrate the holiday by posting tributes to their monogamous partnerships online before dropping hundreds of dollars in a crowded restaurant.
However, Valentine’s Day has the potential to be so much more. Valentine’s Day, for me — and I hope by the end of this you might see it this way too — is not a celebration of having achieved some sort of relationship status; Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romance and the Romantic as a mode of seeing and being in the world. It is the holiday of the artist, the dreamer, the make-believer; it is a holiday with the potential to reveal the radical and transformative power of doing unserious things seriously.
Like Romanticism as an intellectual movement that grows in opposition and in tandem as the mirrored twin to modernity, Valentine’s Day is our romantic opposition to the forward march of progress we have exerted upon our lives. Valentine’s Day is a time for dreaming, of puttering, of looking back upon the pleasures and desires we left behind as we grew into our adult selves. It is a necessary moment of reflection in which we evaluate the things we loved and might have left behind when our less sentimental selves were making choices.
Valentine’s Day is about the momentary abandonments of reason that come with falling in love, not just with people but with ideas, with beauty, with the not-quite-formed desires that haunt our consciousness, but which we do not yet have — might never have– the language to interpret. Valentine’s Day inhabits the realm of fantasy, it cares little for what can be but rather lets us imagine all the many contradictory desires that inhabit us as people. It is a powerful holiday, dangerously full of the potential for us to dream new and forgotten ways of being and wanting, it’s not surprising that as a society we have tried to confine it to a well-worn pattern of heteronormative, monogamous love, but Valentine’s Day as a holiday of Romantic opposition could be so much more.
While I have spoken of Valentine’s Day in elevated terms, let me be clear that this holiday is both potentially transformative and entirely frivolous. It rejects the notion that the things we love and want must lead to anything useful or productive or even good. Valentine’s Day doesn’t promise that our Romantic subversions will lead anywhere; that’s not why they are useful. Valentine’s Day is about enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake — it’s about lace tablecloths, flowers that will wither two days from now; it’s about High Tea as an extra meal that exists unnecessarily between lunch and dinner. It is about staying up late painting Valentines, which will never be Art with a capital A but will take just as much effort and just as much love. Valentine’s Day is like a good romance novel, full of tropes, ridiculous antics, fantastical expectations, and unrealistic anatomical capabilities, but potent as an examination of the things we yearn for and their complex entanglements with what we are told we should want. Romance, after all, is a genre with the ability to reveal to us who we are at our most vulnerable and desirous. The Romance Novel, like Valentine’s Day, is about what we learn about ourselves, when we indulge in unserious things.
The Valentine’s Day I champion, is the Valentine’s Day of our childhood.
The truth of the holiday can be excavated from our elementary school years, when we all spent a week decorating shoe boxes into mailboxes in class so that we could fill them with cards and candy. Is there anything more romantic or ridiculous than a ritual of make-believe that recreates an already outdated mode of communication technology?
And yet, do we not all still experience the thrill of receiving letters, of little bits of news and social connection that could much more easily and cheaply be delivered by text or email, and yet we love all the more for their impracticality, their indulgence, their beauty? Do we not still remember that thrill from childhood? As children it did not matter if we were “in a relationship;” Valentine’s Day wasn’t about that. Valentine’s Day was about making things for no other purpose than the fun of giving and receiving. It was a holiday when we expanded the definitions and boundaries of who deserved our attention, and when we celebrated the sociability and love found in mere acquaintances.
To understand Valentine’s Day as a celebration of the Romantic is also to begin to see it as a holiday of the artist. The Romantics, after all, understood art and art-making as a particularly noble spiritual and social practice. Though art can be and do many things, for me, art (like Valentine’s Day) is often an investigation of desire and creation. Moreover, art–no matter how much one would like as a working artist to capitalize upon it as something useful, productive, and lucrative–more often than not is a labor of love. It’s purpose is sometimes inscrutable until after it has been created and at times obscure even then. Making art requires faith. One has to be willing to play, to envision, to make-believe, and create knowing that what you make may not amount to anything of significance or value to anyone but you. Making art requires seeing a certain worth in doing an unserious practice very seriously.
In short, Valentine’s Day as a day of Romantic inversion invites us to be artists, dreamers, and shameless pleasure seekers, merely because such endeavors are important praxis. And in our intensely capitalistic world, which would have us turn all our dreams into something profitable and productive, a holiday like Valentine’s Day offers us a radical and much needed respite.
Tessa is a writer, artist, and folklorist living in Munich, Germany.
You can visit Tessa on Instagram @tesskjacobs.