The Origin of Valentines Day

When I was a child at St. Henry’s Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio, I studied in religion class how the holiday began. Apparently there was a Saint Valentine. Actually, there were three of them; the one after whom the holiday was named was called Saint Valentine of Rome. According to the Catholic Online web site: “St. Valentine is the Patron Saint of affianced couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travellers, and young people. He is represented in pictures with birds and roses and his feast day is celebrated on February 14.”

I find it interesting that Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy, fainting, and plague. This seems to go against all the lovey dovey stuff, but then that happens fairly frequently with the saints.

When I wish Martine a Happy Valentines Day tomorrow morning, I will of course refrain from bringing up all the negative stuff.

“True Love”

Author Barry Gifford (Born 1946)

I find myself liking Barry Gifford’s work more the more I read him. Here is a poem called “True Love.” And I didn’t even know he wrote poetry!

True Love

Your sickness made me
a little sick, it's
true—I still
feel it
     Mayakovsky got down
          on his knees
     and declared
               his love
to his last 
        a few hours after
           he'd met her
Remember me 
at the hotel
            in Paris,
         on my knees
            in the lift?
We're all the same
men of too much passion
and a little talent—
    some a little more
                  than others
    We fool ourselves
       into thinking
                  we're strong
          then complain
      the rest of our lives
          crippled by
            the consequences

An Islander Recalls Cythera

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

I am always enchanted by poems based on paintings that I love. And my favorite painting of the Eighteenth Century is Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera,” a promise of love in the offing, but no delivery for certain. Cythera, or Kythira, is an island off the Peloponnese. The following poem was written by another islander, from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, namely Derek Walcott. It is poem XX in the sequence of his collection Midsummer and called simply “Watteau”:

The amber spray of trees feather-brushed with the dusk,
the ruined cavity of some spectral château, the groin
of a leering satyr eaten with ivy. In the distance, the grain
of some unreapable, alchemical harvest, the hollow at
the heart of all embarkations. Nothing stays green
in that prodigious urging towards twilight;
in all of his journeys the pilgrims are in fever
from the tremulous strokes of malaria’s laureate.
So where is Cythera? It, too, is far and feverish,
it dilates on the horizon of his near-delirium, near
and then further, it can break like the spidery rigging
of his ribboned barquentines, it is as much nowhere
as these broad-leafed islands, it is the disease
of elephantine vegetation in Baudelaire,
the tropic bug in the Paris fog. For him, it is the mirror
of what it is. Paradise is life repeated spectrally,
an empty chair echoing the emptiness.

My First Girlfriend: Joycey

Now Imagine She’s Only Five Years Old

The year was around 1950. I was a five-year-old boy living at 2814 East 120th Street in Cleveland, right in the middle of the Hungarian neighborhood. All the houses on the street were two-family homes in which the upper story was rented. It was around then that I met the love of my life, Joycey, who was my age.

We did all the usual things: played doctor and looked at each other with moonstruck eyes. What I loved most about Joycey was, to be precise, the back of her knees. The picture above is of a grown-up woman, because I could not find the same picture for a little girl. I would probably have been arrested if I tried.

Although her name sounds vaguely Anglo, Joycey spoke Hungarian just like me. I don’t remember exactly how our “relationship” ended, though it was probably in 1951 when two major events happened:

  • My brother Dan was born and
  • We moved out of the Hungarian neighborhood because the teachers were complaining that I couldn’t speak English

I don’t think I ever knew Joycey’s last name. It was like we were two ships passing in the night. But it was nice while it lasted.

A Fragmented Life

Our Lives Are Not Quite an Uninterrupted Triumphal March

I have just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, which she wrote in 1928. Actually, it is not the biography of a real character, but of a highly fictional one. Not only does Orlando live for upwards of 400 years, but the character physically changes gender at some point in the early 18th century. And he/she manages the change swimmingly.

As Woolf wrote about her Orlando:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.

Tilda Swinton as the Male Orlando in the 1992 Sally Potter Film

There was an excellent film version of Orlando released in 1992, with Tilda Swinton playing both the male and female lead.

Both the book and the film set me to thinking of my own fragmented life, which included the following scenes:

  • The 5-year-old sent home from kindergarten for not being able to speak in English (my native language is Hungarian).
  • The teenager who has turned sickly with punishing frontal headaches.
  • The high school valedictorian who has won a four-year scholarship to an Ivy League college.
  • The college graduate, within days of leaving for graduate study at UCLA, goes into a coma and subsequent brain surgery. My pituitary gland was destroyed by a tumor that was causing the headaches and making me, at 21, look like an 11-year old.
  • The young man in his 20s who feels as if he were from Mars, looks absurdly young, and can’t get girls interested in him.
  • The same young man in a few years learning that alienation is part of the human condition.
  • In his 40s, he finds love with a cute woman born in France, who doesn’t mind that he can’t father a child.

… and so on.

Tilda Swinton as the Female Orlando from the Film

I guess I managed all those years without once having to change my gender. Of course, there is little chance that I will reach the ripe old age of 400.

Where English Fails

A Word With Too Many Meanings

It is said that the Inuits have some fifty different words for snow, covering snowflakes, frost, fine snow particles, drifting particles, clinging particles, fallen snow, deep snow, and so on almost ad infinitum. And yet, the English language has this one word—love—which covers a whole host of emotions, from liking an inanimate thing, to strong affection for a person, to to attachment to one’s children, to copulation, to a score of zero in tennis, and so on.

When one tells a woman one loves her, it could mean any of a number of things, ranging from a momentary feeling of affection to a lifetime of devotion.

I became more conscious of this lack while reading a fascinating book published in 1942 by Austin Tappan Wright called Islandia. In it, there are four terms for love, with the Greek equivalents in Italics:

  • Apia, sexual attraction (eros)
  • Ania, desire for marriage and commitment (storge)
  • Amia, love of friends (philia)
  • Alia, love of place, family lineage, and the land (heimat)

It is a wonderful book about a nonexistent country called Islandia in the Southern Hemisphere on the remote Karain continent. In it, the hero, an American called John Lang, keeps falling in love with beautiful young Islandian women with numerous misunderstandings due to differences in culture. It is a thousand-page novel of which I have read only some 600 pages thus far,



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My Tragic First Love

Traduced by My First Love

My first love—really, a schoolboy crush—was with Laura Sowinski in the Third Grade at Saint Henry School in Cleveland. She was a pretty little girl with some artistic talent. For some reason, I thought she was Swiss, because Sowinski sort of sounded like “Swiss.” Hey, I was only eight years old. What did I know? Now I would think she was Polish, which was more likely for the neighborhood in which I had lived.

Of course, I had hoped that my feelings for her were reciprocated, though I don’t know how she knew what I felt for her, because I never communicated it.

The rupture—and yes, there was a rupture—came when I was sick at home for a few days. In the Catholic school system of Cleveland in those days, there were often days off with little advance notice. When I got better from my cold or whatever it was, I dutifully walked to school the next day. (In those days, we walked to and from school.) To my surprise, the school building was all locked up. I turned around and returned home.

My unexpected free day came to an end the next day, so I trudged to school the next day. Being the age I was, I told everyone I showed up to school on a free day. In a week or two, when the next dittoed edition of the St. Henry Golden Knights news sheet came out, the whole last page was a drawing by none other than Laura Sowinski of me walking up to the school when it was closed. The caption read “James Paris Going to School on a Free Day.”

I thereupon turned several shades of vermilion and thought of my great love as wrecked on the rocks. I don’t think I ever spoke to Laura again. Not that I had ever spoken to her before.

Disorder and Early Sorrow

Formerly St. Henry, Now Bishop Lyke School

Formerly St. Henry School, Now Bishop Lyke School

It was the third grade, and at the tender age of eight I was deeply in love. At that age, it was very much like Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl, except that my inamorata had curly brown hair and flashing eyes. Her name was Laura Sowinski. At that age, I somehow thought she was Swiss because Sowinski sounded like the word Swiss. (Eight-year-old logic!)

Did I ever whisper sweet nothings to her? No, I don’t think that ever happened at that age. Mrs. McCaffery ran a tight ship in our basement classroom, and any kind of childish spooning would have been nipped in the bud right quick.

Catholic schools like Saint Henry had, in those days, many off days. Sometimes, we did not know until the day before that we would be off the next day. When one of these sudden free days was announced, I was home with a cold and didn’t get the word. So, naturally, I walked to Saint Henry the next day, only to find the school deserted.

The word got around quickly. At the time, Saint Henry had a newsletter, for which the gifted and cruelly beautiful Laura Sowinski was the artist. On the next issue of The Golden Knight, there I was on the back page, in a particularly goofy rendition, walking up the drive to class with a bunch of books secured with a belt. The caption read, “James Paris Going to School on a Free Day.” I was appalled, shamed before the entire school, devastated—my heart had been minced up and handed to me on a lead platter by la belle dame sans merci. My love had turned to ignominy and shame.

I do not know what became of Laura Sowinski, and frankly I don’t care. The bitch!


Detail of Zipporah from Botticelli’s The Trials of Moses

Detail of Zipporah from Botticelli’s The Trials of Moses

Shown above is a detail from Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Trials of Moses” depicting Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. It is this image which Marcel Proust used to describe the love of Charles Swann’s life, Odette de Crécy. It was a mammoth undertaking, especially as Proust was gay: He constantly had to translate heterosexual behavior through a homosexual template, which was more familiar to him. (In later volumes, Marcel’s lover Albertine was thus “translated” from his Italian chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli.) As difficult as it seems to do this, Proust succeeded so well that Swann’s Way is perhaps the greatest work in literature about disappointment in love.

Swann was not immediately taken with Odette:

[S]he had seemed to Swann not without beauty, certainly, but of a type of beauty that that left him indifferent, that aroused no desire in him, even caused him a sort of physical repulsion, one of those women such as everyone has his own, different for each, who are the opposite of the kind our senses crave. Her profile was too pronounced for his taste, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones too prominent, her figures too pinched. Her eyes were lovely, but so large they bent under their own mass, exhausted the rest of her face, and always gave her a look of being in ill health or ill humor.

A few pages later, we see what Swann (and by extension Proust) was doing in crystallizing his feelings toward this young woman::

He placed on his worktable, as if it were a photograph of Odette, a reproduction of Jethro’s daughter. He admired the large eyes, the delicate face, which allowed one to imagine the imperfect skin, the marvelous curls of the hair along the tired cheeks, and adapting what he had found aesthetically beautiful up to then to the idea of a living woman, he translated it into physical attractions which he rejoiced to find united in a creature whom he could possess. The vague feeling of sympathy that draws us toward a masterpiece as we look at it became, now that he knew the fleshly original of Jethro’s daughter, a desire that henceforth compensated for the desire that Odette’s body had not at first inspired in him. When he looked at that Botticelli for a long time, he would think of his own Botticelli, whom he found even more beautiful, and bringing the photograph of Zipporah close to him, he would believe he was clasping Odette against his heart.

Alas, Odette is openly unfaithful to Swann and drives him crazy with envy as the Comte de Forcheville moves in on his woman, while their friends at the Verdurins’ salon conspire against him. In the process, Swann’s life becomes bitter; and he no longer derives any joy from the things that hitherto had sustained him, his friends, his art, and high society. In the end, Swann admits to himself: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!”

Of course, that didn’t keep him from marrying her. But that is another story.

A Polish Poet Learns Latin

Zbigniew Herbert

Zbigniew Herbert

In my interest in Latin and my admittedly mediocre progress in that sphere there lay an element I might call personal. In the apartment building across the road from us there lived a young person, whose full shape, auburn hair, and dimples stirred my senses and gave me vertigo. She was the daughter of a Latin professor—not from our gymnasium, it is true, but known to us as the author of the book of adapted texts over which we labored; he also published articles in the monthly Philomat, to which Grzesio obliged us to subscribe through him. I used to sit on the balcony with my Auerbach & Dąbrowski Latin grammar and pretend that reading this exceptionally dull tome put me in ecstasy.

It was in fact an act of despair. If the object of my passionate feelings appeared on the balcony, it was not for my sake. She sometimes brushed me with a distracted look, as one glances at clouds moving across the sky. She was waiting for an older colleague of mine from the lyceum, a tall youth with a wavy blond crop, undeniably handsome (he was the standard-bearer of our school and wearing a sash and white gloves at celebrations he really did present well)—but I knew he could never make her happy. Every day around five in the afternoon she would leave the house with my mortal enemy and disappear around the corner into a little street shaded by chestnut trees, where (my feverish imagination told me) terrible things happened: he would take her arm (against the severest injunctions of the middle school rules) and perhaps press a fiery kiss on her silken glove. A storm of contradictory feelings in my tormented heart:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

What did I think to achieve, holding my Auerbach & Dąbrowski Latin grammar on the balcony so that its cover would be visible from afar? I thought that one day her father—the classical philologist—would notice me and shout across to me: “I have been observing you for a while now, my boy. Your modesty and industry, your love for the Roman tongue are a warranty that you are a proper candidate for my daughter’s husband. I therefore grant you her hand.” And from then on things would proceed as in a fairy tale.

They didn’t. On the other hand, I learned many examples of the use of the more complicated grammatical forms by heart and was able to shine in class, even winning a cordial look from Grzesio.

We labored in the sweat of our brows. The time to reap drew near: the next year we were to proceed to the poetry of Catullus and Horace. But then the barbarians invaded.—Zbigniew Herbert, “A Latin Lesson,” Collected Prose

NOTE: Translated, the above Latin quote reads:

“I hate and I love. Why do I do it, perchance you might ask?
I don’t know, but I feel it happening to me and I’m burning up.”

The lines are from Catullus.