Intimacy, infamy | The problem with kissing

I had my first kiss when I was fourteen years old, at Young Life Christian Camp, and what I remember most was that the boy’s tongue was cold, or at least colder than mine, which was not a possibility that I’d considered, when I’d imagined what kissing might be like. I kissed that boy for a lot of reasons, but the one that looms largest in my memory is that I’d been tormented all summer by an advertisement for a skin cleanser – Noxzema – that seemed to leap out at me from every magazine I opened. Jennifer Ann Somebody, the ad read. Fourteen years old, and never been kissed. I interpreted this ad as both an instruction and a threat: Jennifer Ann had extremely clear skin and long curly brown hair and she was obviously very pretty and normal, so if she’d got to fourteen without being kissed then it could happen to anyone . . . but if you made it unkissed to fifteen, God help you – something was definitely wrong with you, most likely your disgusting, acne-ridden face.

The Kiss: Intimacies from writers, edited by Brian Turner (a poet and memoirist), is an anthology of writing about kissing. In it, people share first kisses, both bad and good. There are romantic kisses but also aggressive kisses and unwanted kisses and affectionate kisses and religious kisses. People kiss their parents, people kiss their children, people kiss their brothers and their sisters and their opponents in sporting events and also their teammates. People kiss animals and dead bodies. They kiss each other mostly on the mouth, sometimes with tongue and at other times without, but they also kiss each other on the cheek and on the forehead and on the hand and on the feet.

Kissing! Why do people do it? As a character on my favourite television show, The Good Place, recently objected, “Kissing is gross. You just mash your food holes together. It’s not for that!” We may not know why we kiss, but we do it all the time, which is disturbing in itself. As Turner puts it in his introduction:

The kissing doesn’t stop when the bombings take place in Aleppo, Madrid, Paris, or London. It doesn’t stop when members of Pussy Riot are beaten and thrown in prison. It doesn’t stop to consider Banksy’s latest offering on the politics of art. It doesn’t stop when Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap the Reichstag in fabric and even when Christo says that it takes “greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain”.

That “even” kills me: we just can’t stop kissing, not even when Christo is lecturing us about the meaning of art.

No, I’m being unfair. The cynicism the anthology evoked in me when I tried to read it all at once was largely a function of compression and repetition. By the time I’d even finished the introduction, I’d completely lost the word “kiss” to semantic satiation: it had emptied itself of meaning and transformed into a purely silly sound. Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss. Themed anthologies all face this problem: too much of anything all at once becomes strange and ridiculous; it’s like watching one of those YouTube supercuts that splice together all the movie scenes ever shot that feature, say, someone getting hit by a bus. I appreciated the anthology much more when I slowed down and read only a piece or two at a time. The Kiss contains material by some excellent and well-known writers, many of them poets, including Nick Flynn, Mark Doty, Terrance Hayes, Téa Obreht and Andre Dubus III. Perhaps because of the supercut effect, I found myself most enjoying the pieces that actively worked to puncture the inflated romanticism of The Meaningful Kiss. I liked “Bazooka Smackdown” by Patricia Smith, in which a boy at her high school (this seems to be memoir, though it’s not entirely clear) tries to kiss her in the hallway – she spits on him and punches him in the face (“I knew this knee-jerk tryst was the biggest risk of Dan Mikros’s muscle-headed little life”), and I loved Hayes’s “Half Fable”, which muses at length on the logistical problems with kissing faced by a giant called Tall Paul (“Tall Paul just about freaked out when a foreigner at one of his events decided, upon realizing that he could not kiss Tall Paul on the cheek, to kiss the giant’s large narrow hand. Any kiss in the region of the waist, which was just about all kisses when they happened, made Tall Paul blush”).

Perhaps the most intense surge of emotion I felt while reading this anthology, though, came during a portion called “A Small Harvest of Kisses”, which consisted of quotations about kissing drawn from varied sources. One from an essay entitled “The Osculum Infame: Heresy, secular culture, and the image of the witches’ sabbath” begins:

The kiss of shame was more than just a parody of the kiss of peace and a symbol of the heretics’ solidarity. The physical act of putting one’s lips to the anus, buttocks or genitalia revealed other attributes of the witch sect and the character of the witch. It is interesting that descriptions of the osculum infame give an alternative site of kissing: the feet.

I practically screamed in frustration – that’s what you think is interesting about this subject? The excerpt went on to discuss the practice of foot-kissing in the Gospels, and meanwhile, I closed the book, went online, and fell into a Wikipedia-hole about the history of witches ritually kissing Satan’s anus (the fabled osculum infame) from which I barely emerged alive.

Maybe I am just not the audience for this book. I would have been, once – when I was thirteen and fourteen (and, honestly, fifteen and sixteen and seventeen) I would have devoured it; I would have underlined and starred and returned to all the passages that made kissing seem the most beautiful, magical, profound. I would have underlined lines like, “Write the rain, I beg him. Write on me with your mouth”, and “There are countries in that kiss, years of experience, ghosts of past lovers and the tricks they taught you . . . . It could be the beginning of everything. You can see it. You can see him and you want him there, in all your tomorrows”. Or the book’s epigraph, from Octavio Paz: “The world is born when two people kiss”. But the task that has seemed most urgent to me in the past few years (it is one I pursued in my short story “Cat Person”, published by the New Yorker in December 2017) has been to dissolve all that sticky varnish, peeling away the pretty words I used to coat and mask my desires to reveal the actual physical experiences underneath.

In the introduction, Turner writes, “The great and recorded moments of history mostly elide the profound moments, like the kiss, that comprise the very essence of our individual lives”. History might elide kissing, but literature doesn’t, and nor does advertising or the film industry or visual art. “There are variations on the kiss that we need to explore and learn from”, he writes, as though the kiss is somehow unexplored territory, but surely, in 2018, it is almost impossible to extricate the kiss from all the millions of words that have already been written about it – would it even occur to us to press our mouths together to signify sexual desire if someone hadn’t used words to tell us that we should? One of the writers mentions, casually and without citation, that people in fewer than half the world’s cultures kiss each other romantically; this is the kind of sweeping cultural statistic of which I’m reflexively suspicious, but it does put a different spin on the anthology’s opening lines:

From Sioux Falls to Santiago to Paris, from Tehran to Khartoum to Reykjavik, Kyoto to Darwin, from the Panchayat forests of India to the Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland; in taxis and at bus stops and in kitchens and in sleigh beds and in haystacks and at airports around the globe people are kissing each other.

It’s not hard to read these as the opening lines of a dystopian novel in which an epidemic of kissing shuts down the planet, and our children collectively starve to death because we’re all too busy swapping spit.

“This is not the scripted passion of Hollywood”, Turner writes, but of course it also is; our kisses are heavily scripted for us, by Hollywood and Noxzema ads and books like this one. In the epilogue, Turner interviews some of the contributors, and asks, “When writing about intimacy, is it crucial to have an element of the subversive included in the meditation?” Nickole Brown says, sensibly,

Listen. We’re all human beings, all pretty much wired the same way. We yearn for companionship, and for love, and need to be touched. You can subvert that all you want and it may get your readers’ attention, but my guess is it won’t stick, that they won’t turn to that poem or passage again in a time of need. I’d rather encounter a weaker poem keenly felt than a clever one that leaves me cold.

Maybe, and yet by the time I’d finished the anthology, I was so numb to poetic abstractions about kissing that it was only the pieces that aimed for subversion that allowed me to feel anything at all. Brian Turner concludes the anthology with the kind of leading question that only a poet would be bold enough to pose: “Is there a connection between lyric suspension and an unforgettable kiss? That is, when the world sloughs away and time is upended, life swirling around a moment until all that seems to exist is the kiss and the singular moment of it – does this point us towards the eternal, the spiritual, the sublime?”

To which I answer, get away from me, with your creepy absurd propaganda for mashing our food holes together. Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss.

Comments are closed.