Sassy’s Article #7: Kissing, a lost art…

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  • November 26, 2010 at 12:40 am

Here is a great article on kissing, which Sassy thinks is a lost art, and seems to be the first thing to stop when you begin to seriously date one person. Sassy loves to kiss and wishes it would never end…

A kiss is not just a kiss. Indeed, it is a medium more than a single message. The Romans noted three kisses: of friendship (oscula), love (basia), and passion (suavia). The Talmudic rabbis identified a more formal trio: kisses of greeting, leavetaking, and respect. Like love, kisses can both exalt and degrade. They can signify treachery, as the Mafia’s kiss of death, and abasement, as in “The Miller’s Tale.” They can be ironic. Mata Hari blew a kiss to her executioners before they shot her.

The kiss of love is the core. Byron called it a “heart-quake,” and it can make the lips more eloquent than any speech. Heine writes, “Yet could I kiss thee, O my soul, then straightaway I should be made whole.” A kiss can pour love from lips to lips, two receptacles filling each other.

A love kiss fuses. Hence the first kiss signals new intimacy in a relationship, and can even begin it. The kiss-as-union became a staple of Renaissance poetry, and one of its masters was Johannes Secundus (1511-1535), whose lovers kiss eternally, swoon to near-death, diffuse their souls into each other’s bodies. This merger is common too in medieval art. We see it in Giotto’s Meeting of Anne and Joachim, where the two seem to form a single mass, and in his Kiss of Judas, where a cloak further unites the traitor with Christ.

The two most famous sculpted kisses show very different sides of love. In Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss (1898), two naked lovers coil into each other. The woman wraps an arm sensually around the man’s neck, while he touches her bare hip. She kisses him from below as she falls slowly, deliciously to the supine. The work is alive with dreamy whirl, an erotic vertigo. It somehow inspired Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss (c. 1910), in which two blocklike humanoids press flatly together and lace arms around necks. Their faces almost disappear into each other, and we see them mainly in profile. The sheer awkwardness of this embrace-their mutual dependence, their inability to fully grasp each other-makes it poignant. Fittingly, Brancusi actually carved it from a single stone.

Distance is no obstacle to the kiss of love. People kiss images of their lovers: drawings, photos in lockets, freeze-frames on tape. They kiss snippets of hair, letters, lovers’ possessions, tombstones-any link to the person. They pucker lips and release them, to send kisses through the air, whether they see each other or not. They fountain up the lips: an anticipated kiss, a request. The ancients drank out of goblets at the spot their lovers’ lips had just touched, a kiss through time.

The kiss of passion, the deep or French kiss, makes two mouths into one. It has a splendid history as an emblem of animal lust, but of course it is also an act of tenderness and intimacy. The lovers’ tongues caress each other, dance about the teeth and inner cheeks, bathe in each other’s oral fluids. This kiss merges inner seas and resets the bounds of self.

Even deep kisses are tasteless-usually-yet they all have intense metaphorical flavor. Almost universally, they are sweet. They are honey, nectar, liqueur. Renaissance swains described their ladies’ “mouths full of sugar and ambergris.” The Song of Songs says, “Thy lips drip as the honeycomb, my spouse: Honey and milk are under thy tongue.” In Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Marthe’s kisses taste like wild strawberries. Jimmie Rodgers sang about kisses sweeter than wine.

Kisses can be flames. The lover of the Persian poet Ha-fez (1320-1389) worries his kisses “will char her delicate lips.” They can pass an electric thrill, and the touch of a kiss can linger in the mind for years.

They can be almost inaudible, like silk sheets rustling, or soft as a footstep in sand. In the final parting, air rushes in to separate the lovers, so a kiss can pop like a bubble or have the suck of a bottle opening. Long, luxurious smooches can end in a sound like panes of glass rubbing, or even in a cheep. A German expression likens a smacking kiss to a cow pulling its hoof from a swamp.

One proverb calls a beardless kiss “an egg without salt,” and Danish philologist Christopher Nyrop, author of The Kiss and Its History (1901), felt women preferred the kiss of a bearded man. According to this authority, the most refined women of Jutland say, “Kissing a fellow without a quid of tobacco and a beard is like kissing a clay wall.” But there are others “who are not so particular in the choice of words, and these latter say straight out: ‘Kissing one who neither smokes nor chews tobacco is like kissing a new-born calf on the rump.’ ”

Unexpected kisses can be potent, transforming potions. In Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” the love-starved Ryabovich wanders into a dark room where a lady awaiting her swain kisses him eagerly, and over the next few days, the act blooms in his mind into passion for a woman he cannot even visualize. In the pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe (c. 200 a.d.), Chloe steals a kiss from Daphnis. He reacts as if stung, yet he shivers and his heart pounds. Chloe’s face, which he’d noticed no more than a toadstool before, suddenly dazzles him and he blushes violently. “My breath’s coming in gasps, my heart’s jumping up and down, my soul’s melting away-but all the same I want to kiss her again,” he says. “Oh, what a strange disease-I don’t even know what to call it.”

The kiss has long emblemized the alchemy of love. It awakened Sleeping Beauty and makes frogs into princes. In a Scottish ballad, an evil stepmother changes an earl’s daughter into a snake, but the hero Kempion kisses her three times and she blossoms forth in human form. This legend has more variants than DNA. In one, the stepmother changes the maiden into a lime tree, and she stands pinned to the ground for ten years until the king’s son kisses its root. In Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato a beautiful damsel sits by a tomb in a castle. She urges the baron Brandimart to open it and kiss whatever he finds inside. He lifts the stone and out springs a serpent with brilliant eyes and fangs. Quaking with fear, he gives it an icy kiss, and it becomes a golden-haired fairy who gratefully enchants his armor and horse.

Sir John Mandeville tells of Hippocrates’ daughter on the isle of Lango. The goddess Diana turns her into a dragon, and she can become a fair damsel again if a courageous knight will kiss her on the mouth. At least two knights vow to do so, but both turn tail when they see her hideous face. She throws one off a sea cliff, and as the other flees, she bursts into a terrible wail.

The philosopher Favorinus of Arles said, “At what else does that touching of lips aim but at a junction of souls?” He might have asked kissing bandit Morganna Roberts, who liked to dash out onto the field and kiss baseball players. On May 2, 1988, Morganna planted a smooch on Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. near home plate. Police arrested her for trespassing and she spent the night in jail. It was “Fantastic Fan Night.” José Moura, Brazil’s notorious “serial kisser,” achieved his greatest triumph when he evaded security to kiss the feet of Pope John Paul II in 1980. In 1991 he tried to kiss Martina Navratilova during a tennis match, but police hauled him away.

A kissing bandit of a different sort was twenty-two-year-old Tabetha Dougan. In August 1994 she met a seventy-four-year-old man in a bar, went home with him, and slipped him a sedative in a kiss. When the groggy man awoke next morning, he found she had stolen his Rolls-Royce, a pocket-watch collection worth $100,000, and $6,000 in rings and other jewelry.

Stolen kisses can be harmless, like Morganna’s, or rapturous, like Chloe’s. But they can also be odious. In nineteenth-century Naples, after a man kissed a certain woman against her will in the street, the courts forbade him to come within thirty miles of the site of the crime. Roman law called the offense crimen osculationis, the crime of kissing, but held it pertained only between people of equal rank when done unchastely. Kissing a nun escalated the penalty. In England in 1837, Thomas Saverland sued Caroline Newton, who had bitten off part of his nose when he tried to kiss her. The judge found for Miss Newton, declaring that “when a man kisses a woman against her will she is fully entitled to bite his nose, if she so pleases.” In U.S. common law this crime is a battery, like any unwanted touching, and can also be sexual harassment.

Medieval literature abounds with examples of the kiss as an irresistible slippery slope. Men kiss women, then feel Jovian

g-forces tugging them further. The troubadour Peire Vidal, for instance, said, “I entered her room and stole a kiss from her on the mouth and chin. That is all that I had. I am dead if she withholds the rest.” It is the mentality of date rape.

Mistletoe is a celebrated catalyst for kisses, wanted or not. One caught under mistletoe must yield a kiss, a tradition some say arose from the plant’s resemblance to human genitals. In 1855 Nathaniel Hawthorne complained of the custom in Liverpool: “The maids of the house did their utmost to entrap the gentlemen boarders, old and young, under these privileged places, and there to kiss them, after which they were expected to pay a shilling.” In 1989 Moorhead State University in Minnesota banned mistletoe, on the grounds that it invited sexual harassment.

Kisses commonly express affection, as well as compassion, gratitude, reconciliation, wild joy, and deep sorrow. Family members and relatives commonly kiss, and the jealous Propertius charges Cynthia with inventing an army of kin to justify smooches from strangers.

We kiss at the start of long absences, as if to fill the future void with affection. The Old Testament abounds with farewell kisses, and when Paul left the Elders of Ephesus, they wept and showered him with kisses. In the ultimate departure kiss, people kiss the lips of a lover’s corpse, as Propertius and Tibullus asked their women to do. Legend had it that a death-kiss kept the spirit in the body a bit longer. Ovid, exiled in Tomi, mourns that his wife won’t be able to extend his sojourn on earth with her kisses. The ancients believed these kisses followed the decedent down to the underworld, comfort in the greatest void of all.

The kiss is often a gesture of greeting. Even chimpanzees embrace and kiss after a separation, one sign of the deep roots of kissing. People have welcomed the sun and moon with kisses, and individuals in many lands greet each other with a peck on each cheek. In ancient Rome greeting-kisses became such a nuisance that Tiberius (42 b.c.-37 a.d.), who detested flattery, issued an edict against them. It had little effect. “Every neighbor, every hairy-faced farmer, presses on you with a strongly scented kiss,” Martial (c. 40-c. 102 a.d.) laments. “Here the weaver assails you, there the fuller and cobbler, who has just been kissing leather; here the owner of a filthy beard, and a one-eyed gentleman; there one with bleared eyes, and fellows whose mouths are defiled with all manner of abominations.”

The custom persisted through the Middle Ages. Montaigne (1533-1592) complained of it. Why should a lady have to kiss any oaf with lackeys? he asks. And men fare no better, “for we have to kiss fifty ugly women to three pretty ones.” Erasmus (1466?-1536) notes England was a rainfall of kisses. Even the pretty washer-girls at inns gave travelers beaming kisses as they departed.

This lip-largesse continued up through the seventeenth century. The marquesses of Molière (1622-1673) kiss each other freely, though in Le Misanthrope Alceste complains that Philinte kisses everyone and “when I ask you who it is, you scarcely know his name!” But the habit waned in the eighteenth century and has not returned, except in Hollywood.

Kisses of love have a vulnerability, like love itself, and the kiss long ago evolved into a sign of respect: I am vulnerable to you. The inferior offers lips, the superior a less sensitive surface.

The foot is a classic kiss receptor. In the Babylonian Epic of Creation chthonic deities called Anunnaki kiss the feet of Marduk. Mary Magdalen kissed the feet of Jesus, and the custom of kissing the feet or hands of saints continued for centuries. Caligula made subjects kiss his feet, and medieval vassals bussed the hands or feet of their lords. When the proud Rollo, a Norman chieftain, had to pay homage to Charles the Simple, he faced the noxious prospect of bowing to kiss the king’s feet. Instead, he seized Charles’s foot and lifted it to his lips, upending the king to the general amusement.

The ground is another well-worn kissing surface. In Mesopotamian myth, when Nergal visits Ereshkigal, queen of the Underworld, he kneels and kisses the ground before her. In ancient times, people kissed the footprints of their rulers, literally licked the dust. Isaiah promises that kings and queens “shall bow down to thee with their face before the earth and lick up the dust of thy feet.” Nobles in The Thousand and One Nights kiss the floor before their sultans. When Raskolnikov confesses his murder to Sonya and asks her advice, she says, “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and kiss the earth you’ve defiled.” He does, amid the hilarity of onlookers.

People have kissed altars, idols, and temples out of veneration. Cicero says reverent kisses had worn away the lips and beard of the statue of Hercules at Agrigentum. Kissing the cross is an especially holy act. People kiss images of the Virgin Mary and of saints, and kisses eroded much of the right foot of a statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Square. A kiss on a saint’s relic has cured ailments for centuries, and Pascal’s niece overcame disease, we learn, by kissing one of the thorns of Christ’s crown.

The intimacy of the kiss suits it for insults. The devil demanded kisses on his behind, and certain secret societies have required this act in initiation rites. In “The Miller’s Tale,” Alison pulls a similar trick on the mocked suitor Absolon. We have the slur “Kiss my ass” and the Germans say, more delicately, “He can kiss me where I have no nose.” The Latin word for kiss is osculum, whose first syllable, os, denotes the mouth and the second two the rear end. In one story from ancient Rome, a man begged a kiss from a married woman, and she rejected him laughingly: “My first is for my husband, not for you. But you’re right welcome to the other two.”

A kiss is a promise. The kiss of love vows fidelity and hence caps marriage ceremonies. The kiss of respect implies fealty. A kiss could seal a feudal alliance. After dubbing a new knight, the master of ceremonies often kissed him. In The Song of Roland, Ganelon swears to betray Roland by kissing the hilt of the Saracen king’s sword.

But the promise can be shallow. On July 7, 1792, with the members of the French Legislative Assembly quarreling and the Austrian and Prussian armies marching on Paris, Antoine Adrien Lamourette eloquently urged deputies to swear eternal brotherhood. In response, they ran into one another’s arms and exchanged kisses of reconciliation. The feuding recommenced the next day, and Lamourette died on the guillotine two years later.

The promise can also be false, and a kiss an ill omen. A Judas kiss is one with treachery at its heart. As St. Ambrose wrote, “A kiss conveys the force of love, and where there is no love, no faith, no affection, what sweetness can there be in kisses?” Ambrose called Judas one “who by a bestial conjunction of lips bestows a sentence of death rather than a covenant of love.”

We kiss objects in superstition, hoping to wring good fortune from them. Gamblers kiss dice for luck and tourists lean down to kiss the Blarney Stone. To prevent a lightning strike, some rustics make three crosses before themselves and kiss the ground three times. To cure a toothache, they kiss a donkey on its mouth. If a book or a piece of bread falls on the floor, they kiss it when they pick it up. Mothers kiss their children’s scrapes to “make it better”-perhaps less a superstition than a pacifier.

Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed one of the most famous public kisses in history: a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square, on the day World War II ended. It’s a balletic movie-poster pose, in which the man swings the woman’s torso almost parallel with the ground, leans deeply over, and kisses her. It suggests a passionate reunion, but Eisenstaedt says the sailor was drunk and weaving down Broadway kissing every woman he met. It was a kiss of giddy relief and celebration.

But public kisses are not always so tolerated, even between intimates.

Cato (234-149 b.c.) punished a senator named Manilius for kissing his own wife in public, in front of his daughter. Plutarch criticized Cato for this act, but added, “How disgusting it is in any case to kiss in the presence of third parties.” Clement of Alexandria (150?-220? a.d.) advised married couples to avoid kissing before their servants. The inimitable Nyrop writes, “One evening at a large party I saw a young girl ostentatiously kiss on the mouth the gentleman to whom she was engaged. Cato would certainly turn in his grave if he knew that such immodest behavior was actually tolerated by people of refinement and position.”

Even in the West today, public kissing can spur censure. In 1991 a Los Angeles condominium association warned a fifty-one-year-old resident against “kissing and doing bad things” in public. She sued, claiming she now had to endure “degrading remarks and questions from strangers.” The group apologized, alleging mistaken identity.

Asian and some African peoples traditionally have avoided public mouth-kisses, viewing them as purely private and substituting bows, “sniff-kisses,” and other gestures. In 1897 French anthropologist Paul d’Enjoy noted that the Chinese looked upon Western mouth-kissing with horror, as almost a cannibalistic act. The assiduous Malinowski found no evidence of mouth-to-mouth kissing in Trobriander foreplay, but plenty of mouth-rubbing, tongue-sucking, tongue-rubbing, lip-sucking, and lip-biting.

Sniff-kissing, or nose-rubbing, is common in many cultures, and signifies an intermingling of two people’s breath or spirit, the equivalent to life itself. Maori greet strangers by touching noses softly, twice. It brings two faces within a tight circle and establishes a closer bond than a handshake. But it’s far from a kiss.

A kiss transfers a spark of soul, even into a foot or earth. It’s a touch of tenderness, an oath, a weld of identities, and for a Westerner, at least, it’s hard to imagine the world without it.
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