Tuesday, February 14, 2012

St. Valen(trans) Day

The "trans" in Valentrans Day speaks to a "beyond" that is nothing less than the subversion of the violence that we perpetrate upon ourselves through ill-fitting conventions with which we have saddled ourselves. But to understand this, we must first understand a bit about the history of Valentine's Day...

Most of us know Valentine’s Day as the contemptible holiday alleged to be for lovers but which functions in large part to circulate insipid clichés by way of unabashed consumerism. That is, when it doesn’t function as a torturous reminder that empty gestures are still better than involuntary solitude.

The perverse pomp of Valentine’s Day, however, hides within it a certain richness of potential. Valentine’s Day was originally something more akin to Veteran’s Day: a day to commemorate martyrs. An elaborate faux history has been fabricated, circulated, edited, and enhanced to bring the day commemorating the fallen victims of murderous violence into line with rather adolescent notions of romance. These faux histories themselves have a long history. So much so, in fact, that faux history itself is nothing short of a Valentine’s tradition in its own right.

In the spirit of this tradition, I hereby proffer a more authentic faux history of Valentine’s Day:

VALENTINE'S DAY, in its original context, is a celebration of the great Gnostic teacher and mystic Saint Valentinus. Born in Egypt at the beginning of the second century (CE), Valentinus taught a sort of Eastern-influenced existentialist form of mystic Christianity. Valentinus wrote:

“God created man and man created God. So is it in the world. Men make gods and they worship their creations. If would be fitting for the gods to worship men.” (Logion 85: 1-4)

Mankind finds itself always already thrust into a painful and confusing world. So-called orthodox Christians understand this condition as a consequence of original sin; all that is ill or wrong in the world is a consequence of our disobedience to God. On this model our very existence is ineluctably plagued with guilt. Guilt is man’s fundamental burden to bear.

Valentinus, however, had a radically different notion. The problems that plague us are not rooted in our collective past insubordination but is instead a defect of creation itself. The burden of blame is not mankind’s but is God’s. This is a shocking statement, but it is important to remember that Valentinus understood that reality is something constructed by the ego. The flawed creation of God is the flawed creation of a God of our own imagination. In other words we exacerbate and compound our woe by interpreting the world and especially ourselves according to radically flawed conventions. According to Valentinus, it is not through some sort of vicarious participation in the ultimate sacrifice of God on the cross that we achieve salvation. We are saved by way of mystic processes of attaining true knowledge (gnosis) of ourselves. We are ignorant, we suffer from our ignorance, and only ignorance’s opposite, gnosis, will save us:

“Perfect redemption is the cognition itself of the ineffable greatness: for since through ignorance came about the defect . . . the whole system [kosmos] springing from ignorance is dissolved in Gnosis. Therefore Gnosis is the redemption of the inner man; and it is not of the body, for the body is corruptible; nor is it psychical, for even the soul is a product of the defect and it is a lodging to the spirit: pneuma (spirit) therefore also must be redemption itself. Through Gnosis, then, is redeemed the inner, spiritual man: so that to us suffices the Gnosis of universal being: and this is the true redemption.” (Adv. Haer. I. 21,4)

TRANS- : across, beyond, on the other side, surpassing.

Trans-scending the ill-fitting conventions that we’ve saddled ourselves with, that cause us suffering, is an act of love towards ourselves. This is the love of Saint Valentinus the Gnostic teacher. This love is a type of work: it is a process of attaining (or creating!) true knowledge (gnosis) of ourselves. This is not an easy path to salvation. The world we happen to find ourselves in thwarts true knowledge of ourselves thereby thwarting our love for ourselves. This story is not only the story of salvation told by Saint Valentinus. This is also the story of Hedwig. Thus, the trans- in Valentrans Day is one of subverting the violence we perpetrate upon ourselves by going beyond the ill-fitting conventions we have saddled ourselves with.

Those of you who know Hedwig’s story, then, know that there are few movies more suited to the authentic spirit of Valentine’s Day than Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

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