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Society, Politics & Law

What does a kiss mean?

Updated Tuesday 14th April 2015

The kiss has changed its cultural meaning across the century - from a sign of favour to a marker of desire. How did that happen?

Laurie Taylor:
A statue replica of the famous 'kiss' photograph in Times Square marking the 65th anniversary of the VJ Day. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com A statue based on an iconic VJ kiss in New York's Times Square We have a few fundamental questions about the kiss.

What is more romantic than two people embracing, looking into each other’s eyes and then kissing each other on the lips?

Why is this physical act so meaningful and emotionally powerful?

Why does the same kind of lifting experience not come about by touching knees or elbows?

What is it about the romantic lip kiss that turns ordinary people into passionate lovers?

Is kissing part of human nature, as instinctual to courtship as salivation to digestion or is it something we’ve inherited from our past?

Well, I’m pleased to say that without even phoning a friend we can now have some definitive answers from the author of a new book called The History of the Kiss. And he, the author of this book, poses just those very questions in his preface. And the he is Marcel Danesi who’s Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto – and Marcel should now be on the line from that city. While here in the studio I’m joined by Karen Harvey editor of The Kiss in History and she is Reader in Cultural History at the University of Sheffield.

Marcel, the romantic kiss, it does seem really pretty well as natural as the air we breathe but as your book shows it’s far from being a universal and instinctive act which takes place across time and culture, tell me a little bit more about the history and the anthropology of the kiss.

Marcel Danesi:
First let me say hello. And let me say that I’m delighted to be talking to Karen because I’ve read her book and it really inspired me to look further into the kiss, so I’m delighted to be here.

Laurie Taylor:
That’s enough kissing – that’s enough kissing already, on we go.

Marcel Danesi:
Okay, so I didn’t really start out to prove anything, it was a question that one of my students asked in class one day and it had implications of whether this act was natural, instinctive, rather than culturally acquired. So I really wanted to start out and do a typical academic book of looking at the origins, the sources and trying to explain it – how they’ve evolved over time. So I went back and looked at texts, being a linguist and a philologist I said let me find out in the ancient world – I can read some Latin, a little bit of Greek and I had students who would help me read other languages. And lip contact of all kinds with the body is really found throughout time and across cultures and it has many meanings.

One of these, of course, is greetings and even to this day Slavic men will kiss each other on the lip as greeting with no romantic tinge to it whatsoever. Respect – where you kiss an emperor or a cleric on the hand or the foot is a sign of respect and on and on. I also found that of course there is sexuality with lip kissing in ancient texts – I mention the Karma Sutra in my book which has four different kinds of kisses that are supposed to be sexual stimulants controlled by the woman. And of course Catullus and his marvellous poetry about romance and kissing talks about all kinds of kissing but nowhere – in fact one of my students who read the same things with me said this is a turn on, her quote, it’s a turn on, it has nothing to do with expressing love or romance.

So the first thing I did I said we’ve got separate the sexual lip contact from the romantic and being Italian and I have Italian origin and also being familiar with that language I started to realise that from the Medieval period the kiss starts to play a role in poetry, in legends and that it started to have a certain significance for me because at that time women were actually bartered in marriage and they were sold sometimes in marketplaces for the highest bidder and all of a sudden you start getting poetry – in Italy it’s called [Italian words] narratives, the romances, the so-called romances. And incidentally those were written with the poetry and the romances were written in vernaculars – in romance vernaculars not in Latin, which meant that they were tapping into a popular imagination.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me just hold you there because I want to bring in Karen, because I mean you explain very, very clearly your concentration upon the romantic kiss and the way in which you want to privilege the romantic kiss. I mean do you regard the romantic kiss as having quite the significance as Marcel is attributing to it?

Karen Harvey:
Well I think Marcel’s book is really important because it tells us something about ourselves, you know, and that is that the kiss now does mean romance, I think that’s what it means to us now and I think it also means sex and desire.

But as Marcel touched on in the comments that he’s made so far it hasn’t always meant that and in fact I think it’s only meant that very recently really. So if you look back you can see that kissing has always been about making relationships, it’s always been about intimacy, about forming groups and also marking the boundaries of the edges of those groups but they’re not always romantic groups, it’s not always a romantic relationship, they’re relationships of homage and subjection, you know if you were in the Court of James I or Charles II and you received a kiss, that’s a sign of favour, that’s not a sign of love or romance at all.

If you were in a Medieval Guild on joining that Guild you might be kissed by every member of that Guild. Up until the early modern, the 16th and 17th Century, that was still a practice. So it’s about forming relationships, it’s about forming groups. I do think that increasingly in the 18th, 19th and certainly by the 20th Century lots of those other meanings have fallen away and the kiss does mean amorousness and it’s a kind of specific heterosexual sexual love that we see.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean now when we see people kissing we are inclined to attribute some version of romanticism to it aren’t we, I mean despite the context we still push – we think oh just a minute they’re kissing there must be something going on there?

Karen Harvey:
Yeah, well I think what you say Laurie is really interesting – there must be something going on, I think that’s – there’s something quizzical about the kiss. We don’t automatically read the kiss as a self-explanatory representation of people’s true love, we sometimes think ah they don’t really mean it, what’s really going on? And I think that’s why the kiss is so endlessly fascinating, what does it mean?

Laurie Taylor:
I mean Marcel for you – I mean because this – the romantic kiss is important to you because it signals, if you like, the birth of popular culture doesn’t it, tell me – explain that to me.

Marcel Danesi:
Well you see in these new romances, these legends, you start having star crossed lovers. I mentioned – Paolo and Francesca’s a case in point – which then become emblemised – they were actually true characters in Dante’s Inferno, were put there because their kiss was an act of betrayal, she was supposed to marry the brother of Paolo and not betray him. This starts to become a seam in the popular imagination and then starts to become depicted, not in all modes – painting, sculpture, song – the Troubadours talked about kisses which were desperate and so on. I do agree with Karen – they had many meanings at that time – but this particular one emerging in this particular area was charged with rebellion on the part of women and romance. In other words it seems to me that women said I’m going to do – I’m going to love and I’m going to marry who I want and not who society expects me to.

Laurie Taylor:
So the kiss is signifying true love as opposed to say forced or arranged marriage. Let me just ask Karen’s response to that.

Karen Harvey:
Oh there’s so much to say. I don’t think that kissing women changed the world and certainly not for women and certainly not for liberating women. I think that Marcel’s on to something, I think that we do see a new kind of culture of love and romance that places women on a pedestal, that could be seen as favouring women but you know that could be interpreted as controlling women just as much as it liberates them.

Marcel Danesi:
May I – may I just…

Laurie Taylor:
Yes please, please.

Marcel Danesi:
Well I agree totally, in fact it still is in that certain sense but it was an initial act that I think started the ball rolling. Without that initial act the relationships may have been vastly different. To me it’s a sign, a sign that – almost like a meme, the term used today – it starts to spread and change people, it is still not universal. I have Chinese students who say we would not be allowed to do that in our cultures back home because it would be considered disgusting and Western and too much empowering women – that’s her terms. So – and I agree with you Karen – there are a lot of things going on here but that initial act that stimulated the popular imagination – and you’re right it did put women on a pedestal, in Italian it was called [Italian words], I can’t find that before this period.

Laurie Taylor:
Now I want to – where – I suddenly realised when I was just sort of talking in the office about the role the kiss plays in the evolution of cinema and this struck – immediately people were coming up with their favourite kisses from cinema and some television and I’ve got a film clip here, for example, one many will remember, this is the moment when it looks as though Rhett is first going to kiss Scarlet.

From Gone With The Wind:
Open your eyes and look at me. No I don’t think I will kiss you although you need kissing badly, that’s what’s wrong with you – you should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how.

Laurie Taylor:
Now I mean this screen kissing, Marcel, this is a rich – kind of rich treasure trove isn’t it for looking at concerns about race and gender and changing social attitudes.

Marcel Danesi:
Yeah. That scene is particularly meaningful because the kiss does not occur, it provides the anticipation which movies in Hollywood have embedded into the romantic movies that are the most powerful ones, it will come later as a climax leading to a denouement. That’s a marvellous scene by the way and it should be also said that one of the first movies actually with vitascope was called The Kiss, it was Thomas Edison, it’s from a play, it’s a 45 second movie of which 20 plus seconds is about two people kissing and nothing else.

Laurie Taylor:
Karen, I can see you longing to come in here, yes.

Karen Harvey:
Well I just – you know I loved hearing that clip again but did you notice how Rhett was going to discipline the woman with the kiss, you know, he wasn’t liberating her, he was going to discipline her.

Laurie Taylor:
And what about your representation – let’s have your representation, your favourite representation of the kiss, is there some democratic equalitarian?

Karen Harvey:
Well – no, no – even though I’m an historian of 18th Century Britain I think my favourite representation of the kiss is actually a film kiss and it’s not just one kiss, it’s many, many kisses and it’s that final scene that Marcel also writes about and as an Italian will also love I’m sure and it’s Cinema Paradiso, the 1988 film where Toto, the grown up Toto, the boy we’ve seen in the film, the boy watches these reels that Alfredo has kept for him, the projectionist Alfredo, has kept for him and he watches them and he cries and we all cry with him, there’s nothing erotic about it, there’s nothing loving or romantic about it, it’s sad – it’s about mortality and time passing and a lost childhood.

Laurie Taylor:
And the other sadness is that we really have to stop there but it’s been – we could go on for a long time. I mean I know how much this got people going when we started talking about these film representations, by the way do send – do let me have examples of your favourite movie kisses and tell me why they’re favourite – remember this is a serious programme. You know the address anyway don’t you. But Marcel Danes over in Toronto and Karen Harvey here in the studio thank you very much.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 2nd April, 2014. You can listen to the whole episode online.

 

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