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Phnom Penh Asides: The refined face of lust

This weekend all over the world, including Phnom Penh, people are buying chocolates, roses, cuddly toys, balloons and candle-lit dinners, and offering them as gifts in the name of love, romance or something they're not quite sure of.

What started off as the Christianisation of the wild and crazy Roman festival of Lupercalia, held to avert evil spirits, purify and encourage health and fertility, has ended up as a rather drippy and commercialised celebration of ... well, what exactly?

Romantic love? Most would agree that romance as we know it stems from a medieval literary construct that facilitated the expression of love for a lady through poetry.

Love is, at one level, the civilised face of lust, containing it by convention and regulation and serving the social fabric - for no society can keep control of its genetic material if male-female relations aren't policed in some way.

Of course, structured relationships are not only a feature of human society, as all mammals have ways of controlling the ebb and flow of genetic material.

Polar bears and monkeys have social relationships and sexual relationships, but they don't fall in love in the way we do because they can't read.

We should never forget that reading is one of the things that separates us from other lifeforms on this planet. Reading and cooking our food are about the only two things that we do that ants have never been observed doing.

Romantic love as we know it is an invention of the late Middle Ages and remains one of our most enduring literary conventions, although today the popularity of genres has switched from novels and poetry to movies and music. 

The word 'love' should be drummed out of children at

a young age by stern primary school teachers.

Many people have deep, loving relationships with their pets, but this relationship is flawed when it comes to romantic expression of love because their dogs and cats can't read or write poetry, can't sing (even though some petlovers think they can) and really understand what's going on in a film.

Besides our tendency to have stunted and lopsided relationships with our domestic animals, another of the English-speaking world's problems is that we only have the one word - love - to express such a huge variety of feelings.

What's in a word

We love our children, the colour blue, rap music, our mothers, baked beans on toast, the beach ... we use the word for everything and leave it meaning nothing.

The word "love" should be drummed out of children at a young age by stern primary school teachers. Every time our children use it, they should have their knuckles rapped with a ruler and be told to choose a word that expresses more clearly what they mean.

In Khmer, srolang is as easy to use as the English word "love" but doesn't come with all the attached meanings. You can't srolang a puppy or a sunset. You can really only srolang a person. (It can only be used ironically or humorously for things like dogs, cars and cigars.)

This linguistic division is quite common. It's English-speakers who are linguistically disabled, with only one word to cover a huge range of ideas and feelings.

The twisted idea of romance

And what of romance, you ask? Romance is also tied to culture and language at a deep level.

Haven't you ever wondered how a Muslim man courts his second, third and fourth wife, an activity that is perfectly legitimate and socially acceptable, but that strikes a strong discord on Valentine's Day.

How does our concept of romance meet the arranged marriage situation where the wooing comes after the winning? The couple is only allowed to start dating after the wedding.

Clearly, this leaves us on Valentine's Day celebrating our most culturally confused and grossly commercialised ex-religious festival, a festival that has now been picked up worldwide, taken and twisted to suit local needs and tastes, and one that is all about an idea - love - that we English-speakers have a hard time even defining.

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