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Marcel Danesi on the history of kissing

Courtesy of M. Danesi

Courtesy of M. Danesi

“Why do we experience such an unhygienic act as beautiful and romantic?” a student asked semiotics professor Marcel Danesi in one of his classes, in which they were discussing kissing in romantic movies. “I’ll get back to you on that,” Danesi replied. His response ended up being a book, The History of the Kiss!

In the book, Danesi looks back at the act of kissing from the medieval period, when it was used to express many different things. A kiss could be a precursor to a betrayal, could express carnal desire or it could be a sacred act of breathing into a spouse’s mouth as a symbolic exchange of souls and expression of fidelity. Danesi writes that in that time period, the romantic kiss started to appear in narratives, poetry and celebrations of legendary figures and love affairs. He tracks kissing through time, showing how it’s evolved into a symbol of love that also empowers people to seek their own romantic destiny apart from their family’s wishes or customs.

“The origins of the kiss coincide with the birth of popular culture, or at least of a proto-version of it, and of women’s gradual liberation,” says Danesi. “Overall, I claim that kissing is not imprinted in our genes; rather, it is a product of cultural events that took courtship away from the control of the family, making it a matter of personal choice. The need for love is universal, but the enactment of love is culture-specific. Because of the electronic global village in which we live, the kiss, like popular culture itself, has spread throughout the world, finding its way into, and changing (or at least upsetting), traditions and practices of romance everywhere.“

Danesi shares some examples of the role of the kiss throughout history and around the world:

Kissing as a greeting

As a greeting sign, kissing spans time and cultures. The act of blowing kisses, for example, originated in Mesopotamia as a means to gain the favour of the gods. It is still around today, even though it has just evolved simply into a form of greeting — blowing a kiss with the fingertips in the direction of the intended recipient conveys affection. As recorded by Herodotus, in Persia, a man of equal rank was greeted with a kiss on the lips and one of a slightly lower rank with a kiss on the cheek.

Kissing as a sign of status

The ancient Romans kissed to greet each other. But an individual’s social status dictated what part of the emperor’s body he or she was allowed to kiss, from the cheek down to the foot. The lower the part of the body kissed, the lower the rank of the kisser.

Kissing as an act of betrayal

Kissing became an act of betrayal in the early medieval period, suggesting that someone (especially a female) could express her love freely, even outside of marriage. The classic case is that of Dante’s Paolo and Francesca. The love affair between them as described in Canto V of the Inferno epitomizes the unrequited love that began as part of courtly love traditions. Needless to say the Judas story is perhaps the best known story of the kiss as betrayal.

Kissing as revenge

Revenge and betrayal are often confused in the recounting of romantic stories. From the same Arthurian tale comes the legend of two other star-crossed lovers, Tristan and Isolde, retold over and over in many versions and forms. The story is about the knight Tristan who fell in love with the Irish princess Isolde, who was, however, betrothed to another man — King Mark of Cornwall. A love affair ensues between Tristan and Isolde. Mark seeks revenge. The two lovers escape to the forest where they live happily ever after. The story may predate, and most likely influenced, the story of Guinevere and Lancelot. It has had a substantial impact on Western art and literature since it first appeared. It was given musical expression, for example, by Richard Wagner in his eponymous opera of 1859. And it has been portrayed in movies, such as the recent 2006 film Tristan & Isolde, directed by Kevin Reynolds. In the movie version Tristan dies as a hero, with Isolde by his side.

Kissing as theatre

The kiss is distributed throughout the theatre with its various meanings. None is more famous than the Romeo and Juliet play. The list of versions of the story in popular culture would fill a large tome. Suffice it to say that it continues to represent the power of romantic love as a subversive act against the will of traditions and as a liberating force in the world of human folly. The kiss between Romeo and Juliet in that play has become emblematic.

Kissing as romance

Kissing is the first act of “free romance” liberated from the yolk of arranged courtship. That is the theme in Romeo and Juliet. The kiss is an intrinsic part of romance in countless stories. It would be considered bizarre today to read a review of a movie about romance without the kiss playing a major role in it.

The History of the Kiss! was published by Palgrave MacMillan.