Romantic love, the guest we hope to welcome in on Valentine’s Day, is appealing in concept. Ostensibly, love is hard to find and easy to fall into, resulting in sexual gratification, social validation, and heaps of offspring. It is important and delightful. We know these things are true. The conventions, pleasures, and perils of romance are sowed in our minds from infancy: spilling out of radio speakers, blinding us at the cinema, pulsing along with the pelvis of that fellow on the dance floor.
The archetype of romance is surprisingly rigid. Its fixity results in fixation. Love becomes an ordering principle. It is the goal of adulthood, the holy grail of contentment. Be real. It’s about time you found someone. Someone who really gets you. You know, like, someone who’s funny, and smells good, and wants to have the kinds of sex you want to have (passionate but not weird), and gets along with your friends, and also someone who can be your friend, who cares about how you feel, but who isn’t overbearing.
This conception is too safe. The figures of speech commonly used to describe romance—chemistry, spark, fireworks—suggest a modicum of excitement. As purveyor of vigorous erotics Dr. Frank N. Furter, once said, “I think we can do better than that.” This Valentine’s Day, I would like to imagine a world where our figures of speech about romance struggle to match the intensity of the act itself. Our idea of love need not nestle into convention; it needs to be exploded. Love shouldn’t be safe, predictable, or even intelligible. It should be a volatile, hallucinatory rampage.
Conventional romantic love = emotional stability = tedium. Effectively, our idea of romantic dependence limits the kinds of activities you can perform and the sets of decisions you can make. Romance, whether serious and committal, or casual and fleeting folds you into a world of safe, harmless rules. Paragon of weirdly academic conservativism and fount of general scorn for things plebeian, Allan Bloom, once wrote that the promiscuity of college students was not “Dionysian.” Dionysus was revered in the Ancient Greek pantheon as a purveyor of chaos, a perennially drunk party monster who incited mania among his fervid disciples. With this information, Bloom’s assertion confused me; isn’t the whole point of college that we’re really good at binge drinking? I asked a professor who studied with Allan Bloom what was meant by this, to which the professor replied: “He means that when you have a one night stand, what you’re seeking is some combination of getting a massage and going to the movies.”
Okay, so one-night-stands are frivolous. But that’s not love. Love is this other, bigger thing. Perhaps. But the fear is that our idea of love is no longer Dionysian, either. People get into relationships because they are bored and lonely, and stay in them because breaking up is a pain. Convenience obscures romance. This will only get worse as we age, get slightly less attractive and more pompous, and feel a constant, subtle pressure to start shooting babies out of our collective uteri. Love is no longer an experience; it is a set of expectations.
The point is not that love has ever existed entirely outside of culture, or outside of expectations. A historicist might even object that the idea of romantic love as a free choice at all is only a very new idea. And while that may be true, the idea of true erotic passion, of Dionysian hunger, is in fact a very old idea. At the end of Plato’s Symposium, as the elderly, homely, ostensibly wise Socrates is prattling on about “higher” forms of erotic love, he is interrupted by the young, virile, and piss-drunk Alcibiades, wreathed in flowers. In his state of advanced intoxication, he can’t parse his praise and his anger at Socrates, after whom he lusts. His confused diatribe is not demonstrative of an emotional state, but rather the deterioration of emotion as a functional, legible condition. Alcibiades in this moment embodies the chaos and unboundedness of authentic erotic frenzy. He is at once fearsome and lovable, out of control and DTF. And Alcibiades is perhaps a tame example. The devotees of Bacchus (Rome’s answer to Dionysus) were famous for frenzies where, in altered states of consciousness, they took to the forests and tore animals limb from limb.
A Dionysian experience par excellence probably shares some properties with Lacan’s psychoanalytic category of the Real: that which resists description, which cannot be put into language. Words function to create categories, to divide things from one another. The Real is undifferentiated from itself— it is its own category. It cannot be put in language because it cannot be described by anything but itself. Outside of language, impervious to description, the Real is in some sense incomprehensible. Lacan often aligned the Real with anxiety, trauma, and hallucinations. Experiences that partake of this spirit, the fiercely strange, possibly unsafe, and hard to remember, are the ones we have occluded from our conception of a fulfilling erotic life. To say this, however, is to admit that the task of describing such intense erotics in language is in some sense footling. What follows is an elucidation, which can only be completed by you, dear reader, exploring your own Dionysian tendencies.
How are confusion, trauma, and absurdity sexy? Let us not forget the central figure of our Valentine’s Day lore, the archer cherubim, Cupid. Love should be less like txting someone and asking them if they want to come over, and more like having a steel shaft penetrate your torso at inhuman speed, causing you to collapse, bleed, and descend into uncontrollable infatuation.
If you’re on board, let’s get practical. The Dionysian is not opposed to wanting a boyfriend (or girlfriend). But the school of thought surrounding “finding someone to hook up with” probably needs to be revised. Your quest for the Dionysian may not initially involve an overt grab at erotic love. Much as one’s desire to become a great musician need not start with worldwide stadium tours, the desire to be a great lover need not start with a blatant effort to get crazy in a romantic situation. The Dionysian is a godly ideal, something which one strives towards. It must be summoned, not by going to the right party, or having the right friends, but by attempting to turn inwards, and searching for the part of yourself that is ruthless, uninhibited, and powerful.
Start by getting drunk—really drunk. Throw up. Drink more. Pass out. Wake up drunk. Drink more. The more unpleasant it gets, the better. Don’t think about inebriation as an escape, or an avocation. Think of it as an arduous journey, a striving. Pre-game Valentine’s Day three days early. Wake up the day of not just dehydrated, disoriented, and in an unfamiliar space, but also oriented towards your desires—what you wanted most when you were drunkest—that’s what the day is about. Don’t let it drift off into the ether of sobriety. Clutch it like an arrow sticking out of your breast. Pray to it.
This February 14, aim higher than a safe, slightly hackneyed version of romantic love! Create an experience that would be near impossible to describe retrospectively. Punch someone in the face. Crash a car. Walk around in the cold with no shoes. Eat a live animal. Or, if you want to keep it simple, go Greek; get all your friends in a room, take shots, and turn out the lights. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Eli Schmitt B’11 is in a long-term committed monogamous relationship.