My funny Valentine
I wonder if it has always been the case that love is the focus of most fiction. Creative, twisting plots, thrillers, tragedies, romance . . . all seem to be focus on the concept of love. Getting it, keeping it, betraying it, falling in, falling out, falling for . . . love appears as this all-encompassing power that causes more human tragedy than any other force of nature. We puny humans have moved beyond our fear of the great darkness of nights, ceased to wonder at the magic of the wheeling heavens and starry constellations, even lost our fear of a wrathful, vengeful God. Now, it seems, our main concern has become love.
St Valentine was brutally tortured and murdered. I wonder how many people realise this as they buy roses and chocolates for the one they love, or the ones they love, depending on their inclinations and proclivities. I know women, particularly feminists, who eschew the idea and practice of the Valentine’s day ritual because it is both heteronormative and fundamentally flawed, sexist and based on false ideals of romantic love and ignoring the stark realities of relationships and life in the everyday world. We buy into the fantasy, and we authors perpetuate that fantasy by the very act of writing.
Think of any plot, in a film or book. Then find the love angle. Love is the key to tragedy, to change, it motivates us. In fact, it is the most commonly cited motive for murder. It is the writer’s bread and butter, but love is a fiction. To me, love is the story we have been told, the story that we tell ourselves to give us hope and purpose and meaning, in the absence of other, deeper reasons for being. So much of our time is taken up with love: dreaming about it, looking for it, mourning its loss, even perhaps defining it. But what the stories most often don’t tell us is the unfolding narrative of how love is kept alive by our continuing belief in it. Like any god or idol, love is what we choose it to be. It is he dream we call into being, the thought form created by the common focus of two or more minds. We are the engineers of our own desires, the programmers of our particular love-game, creating its landscape and its identity out of our own minds, which in turn are shaped by the world around us, by the hundreds of other love stories and ideas and the shape and nature of love as defined by the stories that we imbibe from everyone else.
As I writer, I have never set out to tell a love story, but love creeps in and is the essence of every story that seems to come into mind. But instead of romantic love, person-meets-person, falling in love type of love, my stories seem to abound with other, perhaps deeper and more real types of affection. The love of a mother for her children, that is the kind of love I can most easily explore, the inevitable love that seizes a woman, grips her, and challenges her for life. It is the inexplicable unconditional positive regard of the mother, the love that continues regardless of how the child behaves, of what they do to others. It is, in fact, the truest form of love. The love of a child for their parent, that is a similar, almost inevitable affection, particularly for the mothers who bear us, as if we absorb something of their essence in the womb, and are forever attached by that most intimate of relationships.
What most seems to excite the author, the reader, the television viewer, the cinema goer, it seems to me, is not love happening, or existing, but love turned upon itself, the darker side of love. We have created our own Gods, and alongside them it seems we are bound to create our own Demons. And what is a demon but a fallen angel, what is a plot but the moment when love twists and becomes something else? When we think of the cultural meta-narratives of our time – Star Wars, Twilight, Dr Who, Spartacus, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice – or of the never-ending braided threads of the Soap Operas – love is the one abiding common feature of the human condition.
But what is the nature of the love that we find most stimulating and fascinating in our preferred narratives? Is it the pure love that we imagine for ourselves as our goal and ideal in life? Is it the unstained love that springs from innocence? Of course not, that kind of love is too easy, too sweet. It is not the love that makes headlines or sells newspapers, it doesn’t feed the hungry masses who sit in their simulacrum living rooms devouring a diet of pre-processed artificial fodder of every possible variety.
The love that sells, the love that fascinates, intrigues, the love that binds – it is the twisted, deformed love of the tragedy, the horror story, the moral dilemma, the personal challenge. It is the love of the ghost for the living, the soul ripped from life too soon to linger, seeking vengeance or relief, or release from earthly bonds through haunting. It is the love of the maiden for the vampyric attacker, the darkest subtext of violation as the alternate face of love. It is submission, resistance, perversion of the purity towards the unspeakable, the undesirable, the undead. Love gone wrong. Love and its absence. Loss and the bitter darkness that rushes in to fil the gap. Desire gone awry, passion run amok. This is what we know, this is what we crave, as much as the happy ending. It is the twist in the tale, the lovers’ meeting disrupted by the cataclysm, the madwoman in the attic who embodies the ultimate hump in the path towards true love. We frame love as something wonderful, something desirable, something which fuels life, without realising that love itself is the darkest power, and love gone wrong the most terrifying plot twist of all.
This is what I think of when I see the bunches of roses in the shops, the red hearts and the cards stamped with messages of love. I see the bleeding body of a mutilated saint, the rictus of pain and death on the face of a friend, the bitter weeping of a broken heart, acid hot tears bleeding from the source of all pain. Without love, without the failed promise of the love we have created and fictionalised, the love that never fails to disappoint, would the world be a better place? Without love, I fear, there would be far fewer stories, and the stories themselves would be almost unrecognisable, limiting us to a meagre pool of sanitised storylines. Do we want the real stories, the ones that happen after the happily ever after? Do we want to know what happens when Prince Charming has a beer gut, or how he leaves his toenail clippings on the side of the bath? Do we want to hear about the Princess’s frustration as, against her better judgment, feminist values and beliefs about love and relationships, she finds herself keeping house and realises she is the only person who even thinks about cleaning the fridge? Do we want to hear about the death of passion, desire and spontaneity in the face of daily intimacy, of sharing a bathroom, of morning breath and night time flatulence?
Of course we don’t. We want the fairytale, the romance, the promise, the dreams. We want the fantasy. And that is what we writers keep feeding our readers. Even writers like me. I set out in my first novel to give a stark, unequivocal insight into one woman’s mind, experiences and struggles. In my second book, my current work in progress, I am equally explicit. But even I find myself unable to avoid the desire for the happy ending. In my first book, I had a choice of two endings, one ‘happy’ and one tragic. In this work in progress, I have a choice of THREE endings, and I am still debating which way to go. I love a happy ending as much as the next reader, but I also love the idea of not following the herd and twisting my story out of the grasping, tenacious hands of the traditional story arc.
I’ll wait and see. And let the lingering cynicism and disillusionment of the warped commercialisation of Valentine’s day pass before I make a decision. This is the life of the writer, I guess, making huge decisions that no one else sees, struggling with dilemmas without recognition. I love it. This is love, the unconditional kind. There is never a moment I am not in love with writing, with being an author. Stick that in your box of chocolates, St Valentine!