Longing for love online

Posted: Feb 13, 2006 12:05 AM

St. Valentine's Day, like a lot of other things, is rooted in love and war, tragedy and comedy. Emperor Claudius II is the man responsible for the February traffic in notes of love and romance. He needed disciplined soldiers to fight his Third Century wars, and reckoned that men unhindered by wives and children would make the best fighters. He outlawed marriage for his men. Valentine, a priest in Rome, didn't think that was right. He secretly tied young lovers in knots.
He was beheaded for his trouble, which got him canonized, and lovers have been losing their heads on St. Valentine's Day ever since. Cupid became the symbol of the holiday, armed with bow and arrow to stitch the hearts of lovers. Cupid shot himself in the foot so that Psyche would fall in love with him, but on the condition that she never look at him. When she opened her eyes, as a woman is wont to do, Cupid, suffering commitment terror, fled. There's a modern moral hidden somewhere in that story.

Middle Ages custom required men to draw names of ladies from large urns and pin them on their sleeves, the first men to wear their hearts on their sleeves. When Ophelia goes mad over her passion for Hamlet, she sings a bawdy song about St. Valentine's Day, reinforcing the idea that one can be madly in love.

Rites and wrongs for celebrating St. Valentine's Day change with the times. The Victorian cards frilly with lace and flowers that our great-grandparents sent to each other often were accompanied by handwritten notes reflecting secret feelings. Now you can send the word by e-mail, with a selection of special fonts, dingbats and glyphs with which to woo. Longing for love has become logging-on to romance.

Romancing online has its risks, but it has become big business. Thousands of single men and women have visited dating sites since Match.com promised in 1995 that it could forge links to the heart with a questionnaire. Questions about religion, race, height, weight, hair and eye color, eating and drinking habits, attitudes toward money, sex, education and family plumbed the secret places of the heart. You get the idea. A Pew survey finds that 53 million Americans have gone out with someone they met through Internet websites.

Lori Gottlieb, a modern Candide seeking the best of all possible worlds, tells how eHarmony, PerfectMatch.com and Chemistry.com have revolutionized romance. "All have staked their success on the idea that long-term romantic compatibility can be predicted according to scientific principles," she writes in the Atlantic Monthly, "and that they can discover those principles and use them to help their members find lasting love." They've developed a wide variety of questions based on research in psychology, anthropology and sociology. "Hello, Dolly!" this is not.

So confident is eHarmony that its "scientific" research works that it created a venture capital-funded think tank to study and evaluate its "relationship-enhancement service." This laboratory for those seeking love online boasts that in a single year, eHarmony "facilitated" the marriage of 33,000 members. Lori Gottlieb was not one of them. She was less than enchanted with the samples that arrived in her inbox, collected from suitors who answered the 436 questions on a personality test. Her prospects included a bald man with a handlebar moustache whom she would have had to stand on a chair to kiss. He was 14 inches taller than she. Another profile was closer to her height, at 4 feet 5 inches, but he was too short. A third man sent a photograph of himself in a kilt, presumably thinking that hairy legs would entice. They didn't.

Her replies sound a little like the replies to an early personal placed in the London Review of Books: "Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle-aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible." Elizabeth Barrett Browning this was not.

Personality profiles generated "scientifically" online do not always reflect men and women in the ways they see themselves. Groucho Marx might have said: "Anyone who wants to date someone with my profile isn't someone I want to date." Making a good match, online or elsewhere, requires a sense of humor. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart understood that when they wrote:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
Yet you're my favorite work of art.