COMMENTARY: Aphrodite, Eros and that confusing word

Yes, love. I’ve been confused about the word ever since I had to give valentines to all the girls (and guys!) in my fifth-grade class. All the girls, not just awesome Beverly O.

We love chocolate. We love our girlfriends and boyfriends. We love football, our children, our country, our spouses, pets, parents. While there’s an obvious issue with inanimate objects, even love of people is dichotomous. Do we love our neighbor? Should we love the sinner? Do we love all mankind? Even kids try to explain it: “I love my brother, but I don’t love love him.” Or “I don’t love him that way.”

Roget’s Thesaurus (yes, I still use it) has 27 synonyms for the noun “love,” divided loosely into two groups: fondness and passion. And 21 synonyms for the verb, similarly grouped.

Just who is this St. Valentine, anyway? A little research here: Apparently he was a third-century Christian who was martyred for marrying couples in defiance of the emperor. He thus became the champion of loving couples, and his feast date of Feb. 14 was later selected because it had been celebrated in pre-Christian Rome to honor Juno, goddess of women and marriage.

It was no coincidence that February was already being celebrated as the beginning of the spring mating season in many cultures. Our current holiday was apparently popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer who, in literature, linked middle-ages “courtly love” with St. Valentine’s feast day.

Ah, courtly love. Here we get to the heart of the problem. In art, literature, music, and yes, even poetry, we have never been able of separate the Aphrodite from the Eros, the “pure” from the sexual, the love from the lust. Courtly love was supposed to be of the “pure” type, true and lasting and devoted. But I suspect that the primary goal of the troubadour, the Arthurian knights, and even many besotted teenage poets, was still seduction.

We’ve heard about these goddesses, the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus. (Actually, almost all cultures have similar deities, like the Celtic Cliodhna, the Aztec Xochiquetzal.) These are goddesses of love and beauty, the “purer” love, full emotional attachment and supposedly lifelong dedication. But then there are those little imps the Greek Eros and the Roman Cupid, representing the other side of love, the lust side. So obviously that little chubby guy with his bow and arrow on my fifth-grade valentines was quite inappropriate … except maybe for Beverly O.

Poets are supposed to understand it, but I’ve tried for 60 years to write a love poem (long after Beverly O.) and am convinced it can’t be done, even by the Brownings. It’s always more than that. The only good love poem is the one that has not yet been written.

So on this Valentine’s Day, let’s not fret about getting the right card; we might get mixed up in trying to express the inexpressible, and maybe even be misunderstood. As a not-at-all-famous poet once wrote, “May the words left unspoken be heard best of all.”

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David Shumway is a regular contributor.

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