Billie Holiday, in one of her more poignant lyrics, wrote that “love will make you drink and gamble, make you stay out all night long.”
Which leads me to conclude that there are worse ways to kill a weekend.
What Ms. Holiday was getting at is it’s always prudent to remember during this annual conspiracy of florists that not all good things come when love comes to town. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Like love itself, all this can be baffling, but stay with me here. Show some patience, which is something love requires.
The traditional American song, “Careless Love,” recorded many times but owned by Bessie Smith, speaks to what can happen when an accelerated heart rate combines with being struck suddenly blind staring at a light all around one person.
“Love, oh love, oh careless love/ You fly through my head like wine/ You’ve wrecked the life of many a poor soul/ And you nearly spoiled this life of mine.”
This love-with-consequences theme goes back to the man who gives his name to the feast day. There are many legends attached to St. Valentine. One story goes that St. Valentine believed in love so fervently that he fearlessly married Christian couples in ancient Rome when doing so was a capital offense. He was arrested, but spared a dinner engagement with some lions when Emperor Claudius II took a liking to him. Still a fool for love, Valentine tried to convert the emperor, which didn’t go down too well. The emperor had Valentine beaten with clubs, stoned and then publicly beheaded.
Talk about careless love.
Some will honor the martyr to love by celebrating the holiday with trysts at motels where the bed is shaped like a heart, the tub is a giant cocktail glass and there’s a complimentary bottle of uncertain vintage. The fortunate ones, at least.
The triumph of hope over experience has often been a definition of a second or third or Liz Taylor-number of marriages, but it can also be a working explanation for love in general. I once did a business story for a newspaper that tried to go beyond the flowers/sweets/lingerie matrix and discovered that V-Day for divorce attorneys meant a happy spike in billable hours. It seems lots of romantics get hitched on Feb. 14 and more marriages inevitably beget more divorces.
David Mejias, a partner at a Glen Cove-based law firm specializing in divorce, told me that after the glow of joyous emotions during Christmas and New Year’s — when the love-intoxicated believe everyone is as blitzed as they are — many see Valentine’s Day as “an idealized situation. They look at their own lives and think it might be time for a change,” Mr. Mejias said.
(It’s tragic to think of an April morning when the Valentine’s Day marriages are wrecked on the rocks of dubious bathroom behavior or alarming in-laws.)
But those are in many ways sad cases, and what we want to celebrate and remember is the battle-tested bravery of great lovers. They’re the ones who have gone through the fire because of their commitment to each other and have a to-hell-with-you defiance to throw in the faces of society, parents, tribes or any convention that would dare separate them.
Think of Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard, Tristan and Isolde, Donald Trump and Donald Trump. Except for the last couple, all the others had to fight for their right to party with each other.
Walter Benjamin, the great German writer, made a study of, among other things, German romanticism. Benjamin said, completely seriously — maybe a bit too seriously, he was German, after all — that the only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.
His counsel to give your all to the love of someone with full knowledge there will be unpleasant or even dangerous consequences, and somehow putting all that from your mind, is one of the bravest acts a person can perform. That courage is truly what makes the world go ‘round.
What is love? Love is like jazz, and not just when it’s choreographed correctly. Remember Louis Armstrong’s response to someone who asked him to explain his art — if you have to ask, you’ll never know.
But Shakespeare did make a fine attempt: “Love is heavy and light, bright and dark, hot and cold, sick and healthy, asleep and awake — it’s everything except what it is!”
Happy Valentine’s Day.
This column appeared in a slightly different form on Valentine’s Day 2016.