Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saint Valentine Vanquished

"At the touch of love, everybody becomes a poet”, so said old man Plato way back at Western philosophy ground zero. Such expressions of amorous joy have been regrettably under attack of late though. Indonesia sure ain't Plato's Republic just at the moment. This year's Valentine's Day comes hot on the heels of the controversial new pornography law being passed by parliament. The law has again raised fears of Islamic Sharia style morality encroaching on public life.

Last year's Valentine's Day took a severe clerical mauling across the Archipelago. Ma'ruf Amien, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) warned that celebrating the day was 'Haram' i.e. prohibited by Islam and insisted that the romantic holiday encouraged drunkenness and other such Western immorality. It was a case of the old Pengaulan Bebas Barat (liberal Western social norms) broken record being played again. Us Westerners invented sex of course.

Meanwhile in the Sumatran city of Bukittinggi, Deputy Mayor Ismet Amzis banned Valentine's Day in his town saying, "Young couples tend to hug and even kiss each other. This is an immoral act right?" Well, I don't think I would concur with that view Mr Amzis although you're by no means the first person to suggest that such is the case.

Sexual repression has a long and sad history and is surely one of the great driving forces of religion. Such unnatural repression causes the stifled energies of the seething id to be directed instead towards a vigorous and pious defence of chastity. Mind you, with Indonesia’s population pushing 250 million plus people, clearly an awful lot of making of the beast with two backs happens here in spite of the increasingly dogmatic religious edicts.

This business of romantic love is a curious one though. Why do we as humans frequent strip clubs or have affairs and yet make a big show of the monogamous pair bonding of marriage? Is love just an illusion, a mental phantasm that has evolved to facilitate the procreation of the species?

Darwinian evolution does in fact offer many interesting insights into human love and sexual relations and the animal kingdom offers up some interesting cases. In nature there are so called tournament species such as peacocks or seals. These species feature high levels of male aggression and males fight each other for dominance of the females (95% of the offspring are fathered by just 5% of the males). By contrast, pair bonded species, such as many kinds of birds or marmoset monkeys, mate for life and exhibit very low levels of male aggression. Interestingly, human beings possess types of genes found in both tournament and pair bonded species. Not quite monogamous and not quite polygamous we are, in scientific jargon, a tragically confused species.

Undoubtedly this confusion is behind so much of our great art, music and literature. But pulling human desire apart in purely biological terms tells us nothing about the emotional content of a full to overflowing heart. One can pull a radio apart and examine the individual components, however, if you really want to know what a radio does you turn it on of course and listen to the heavenly music being beamed magically through the ether.

Here's hoping that our inspiring artistic and social traditions of romantic love manage to transcend the rather stingy edicts of the Bukittinggi Administration. I’ll take my leave for this month with a stirring romantic quote from French aviator and author Antoine de Saint Exupery who once said that, "Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” It gets me just there I’m telling you.

PS This year's reaction to Valentine's Day (according to an article in The Globe) by the Ulema seems to be that it's haram because it's of Jewish origin. Hmmm. St. Valentine the Jew ay?