Valentine's day is underpinned by one pervasive notion. Not only is it carried by the sudden proliferation of those blushing pink and red cards, it is everywhere else: in papers, books, songs and films. It's the notion that each and every person has their ideal romantic counterpart; that somewhere in the world, in the vast anonymous multitude, is the one heart which beats in time with your own. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have already encountered your soul mate - or maybe you are still searching, but the sense that this person exists, somewhere out there, can at times feel compelling.
There is, to be sure, an inherent attraction in imagining a person 'out there' whose soul is made from a similar stuff, and who you are pre-destined to click with, long before you ever meet them in real time. It's the stuff of novels, the Heathcliff-Cathy paradigm, with all its screechy-soulful Kate Bush connotations. And it's something we learn pretty early on too. After all, who, as a teenager, hasn't translated the ping-pong play of his or her hormones into a more transcendental and pre-ordained passion?
And yet. The 'pre-ordained' vision of love, which at first seems like the most sublime form of spirituality, when scrutinized, very quickly passes into its opposite, revealing a rather more down-to-earth and mechanical modus-operandi. For once notions of 'destiny', 'fate', 'kismet' or anything else we can conceive of anchor us to that one special person, we are relieved of a great deal of our autonomy, in much the same way certain religious notions of pre-destination render a person's ethical behavior in this world almost irrelevant. Isn't there something profoundly undermining in raising a model in which we behave almost like atoms, bounced toward one another in terms of an unalterable trajectory, governed by some force of fate which remains invisible to ourselves?
You might disagree. Look at the couple next door, or across the street, or your aunt and uncle, parents or grandparents, or any other couple who have been together for thirty or more years, and who still gaze into each other's eyes with the same golden affection. Weren't they always fated to be together? Destined to see in the other a partner who is 'the one' - always was, and always will be. After all, what is the feasible alternative? Something inside us inevitably balks at the notion that such a pair could have just as easily ended up spending their lives with totally different people - that it was no more than a series of arbitrary events which brought them into alignment.
And so we encounter a polarization of possibility: a love which is absolutely pre-destined, and a love which is merely the product of a random, senseless series of interactions. But if we return to our hypothetical couple, the couple who have been together for thirty or so years, we can see something else too. They might well say to one another - "you are the only one in the world for me", without drawing on either some cosmic notion of pre-destination or the vicissitudes of chance. To paraphrase a poet who knew about love - their romantic course lies not in the stars, but in themselves.
For, by spending a lifetime together, that couple have as well inexorably altered one another in the process. Their future selves are created, in part, by the living of their relationship, the shared experiences, routines and habits. And so it can be said - 'you are the only one for me' - because the 'me' that makes this comment has to some extent been created by the 'you' which is the object of it. This particular 'you' and this specific 'me' would not now exist, were it not for the fact of a mutual, shared history. The feeling that there could have been no other in the world except 'you' becomes a truth which is fused with lived experience.
All of which means that the discovery of a 'soul mate' is not something any of us realise in advance, the result of some mystical, unseen quirk of fate. Your 'soul mate' is not someone 'out there', already fully formed, and just waiting to be encountered. In actual fact, your 'soul mate' does not yet exist; he or she can only come into being through your creation of them, and their creation of you - through shared experience, through mutual living. This, then, is love as an art form, for you are each other's most wonderful self-creation.
But, just as there is little art involved in those saccharine depictions of hearts and flowers on the cards, so there is something artless inherent in Valentine's Day itself. Everything is transcribed with an inevitability, a pre-destination, to which we must adhere. If we are in a relationship we must celebrate it without any sense of spontaneity, through a series of rituals which can sometimes seem artificial and mawkish, but which have to be observed for fear of being thought of as po-faced and unromantic. However, the real forces of romantic 'pre-destination' which underpin the day are, of course, the rather more unromantic mechanisms of the market, and the all-pervasive need for ever-increasing sales. That is why this year I am going to boycott Valentine's Day. Instead, I will spend February 14th machinating on my next project - a plan to abolish Christmas!