The Kiss and its History/Chapter 8

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Les coutumes, quelque étranges qu'elles deviennent parfois à la longue, ont généralement des commencements très simples.


Usages, however strange they may sometimes become in the long run, have generally very simple beginnings.—Translated from the above.





With most civilised and many uncivilised nations kissing is the natural expression of love and its kindred emotions.

How can it be explained that a kiss has succeeded in getting so deep and comprehensive a significance? How can a trivial movement of the lips interpret our innermost feelings in so eloquent a way that there is not a language which has at its command words approaching to it in argumentative power?

Are we face to face with something primitive, or something conventional and derivative? Is it as natural to kiss when we are transported with love as it is to smile when we are mirthful, or weep when we are sad? In other words, is Steele right when he says, in strict conformity with a Cypriot folk-song previously quoted, that "nature was its author, and it began with the first courtship?"

I shall try to answer this question in the following pages, but, nevertheless, I wish at once to state most expressly that we are now approaching ground where we know nothing, and where no one can with certainty know anything. We can only advance more or less likely hypotheses.

In the first place, it is important to bear in mind that there are many races of people who are quite ignorant of kissing as it is generally understood. Thus it is unknown in a great part of Polynesia, in Madagascar, and among many tribes of negroes in Africa, more particularly among those which mutilate their lips. W. Reade, in one of his books of travel, tells us of the horror which seized a young African negress when he kissed her. Kissing is likewise unknown amongst the Esquimaux and the people of Tierra del Fuego. Certain Finnish tribes appear, from what B. Taylor tells us, not to practise it much. In his Northern Travel he relates that "while both sexes bathe together in a state of complete nudity, a kiss is regarded as something indecent." A Finnish married woman, on being told by him that it was the usual custom for husband and wife to kiss each other, angrily exclaimed, "If my husband were to attempt such a thing, faith, I would warm his ears in such a way that he would feel it for a whole week."

If the question arises as to what these people substitute for kissing, the fact is well-known that, amongst uncivilised races, there is an endless number of different ways of salutation; some smack each other on the arms or stomach, others blow on each other's hands, others again rub their right ear and put out their tongue, etc., etc. Here, however, we must confine ourselves to the salutations which are suggestive of kissing.

In many places people are in the habit of saluting with their noses. This is the so-called Malay kiss, which consists in rubbing or merely pressing one's nose against another person's nose. This nose-salute is found among the Polynesians, Malays, Esquimaux, certain negro tribes in Africa—in short, just among the majority of races which are ignorant of kissing as we understand it.

Darwin thus describes the Malay kiss: "The women squatted with their faces upturned; my attendants stood leaning over them, laid the bridge of their noses at right angles over theirs, and commenced rubbing. It lasted somewhat longer than a hearty hand-shake with us. During this process they uttered a grunt of satisfaction."[1] The French savant Gaidoz, who has also described this custom, remarks, "I have many times observed that cats which are fond of one another greet each other in this way; and I myself once had a cat which always tried to squeeze its nose against mine as a mark of affection."[1]

Everything is in favour of this nose-salute being a very primitive custom, and its origin may be sought beyond the sense of touch; no doubt, in the sense of smell.

Spencer has arrived at the following conclusions: The sheep bleats after her little lamb which has run away. It sniffs at several lambs that are skipping about near her, and at last recognises her own by means of the sense of smell, and undoubtedly feels great delight at recognising it. In consequence of assiduous repetitions of this a certain relation is developed between the two factors, so that the smell of the lamb excites joy in the sheep.

As every animal has its peculiar smell, so, too, has every human being. When the patriarch Isaac grew old his eyes began to get dim, and he could not see. He wished to bless his eldest son, Esau, but Jacob deceived him by clothing himself in his brother's garments, and giving himself out as the latter. Isaac then said to him: "Come near now and kiss me, my son." And he came near and kissed him, and he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: "See the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed."

The sense of the smell peculiar to some one we are fond of is capable of exciting pleasure. Timkowski writes of a Mongol father that the latter time after time smelt his youngest son's head. This mark of paternal tenderness serves with the Mongols instead of kisses. In the Philippine Islands, the sense of smell is so developed that the inhabitants, by simply sniffing at a pocket-handkerchief, can tell to whom it belongs; lovers who are separated send one another presents of bits of their linen, and, in their absence, keep each other in mind by often inhaling each other's scent.

That the delicate perfume that exhales from a woman's body plays an important part in love affairs even with modern civilised nations is too well-known to require more than a passing mention on my part.

Certain races of mankind now actually salute each other by smelling; they apply their mouth and nose to a person's cheek, and draw a long breath. In their language they do not say "Give me a kiss," but "Smell me." The same sort of kiss is also met with among the Burmese; and with many Malay tribes the words "smell" and "salute" are synonymous. Other races do not confine themselves to smelling each other's faces, but sniff their hands at every salutation.

Alfred Grandidier, a French traveller, says of the nose-kiss in Madagascar: "It always excites the merriment of Europeans, and yet it has its origin in an extremely refined idea. The invisible air which is continually being breathed through the lips is to savages, not only, as with us, a sign of life, but it is also an emanation of the soul—its perfume, as they themselves say—and, when they mingle and suck in each other's breath and odour, they think they are actually mingling their souls."[2]

Then the origin of the nose-kiss, it seems, undoubtedly ought to be sought—at any rate partly—in the sense of smell. The love of another human being involves, as a consequence, one's loving everything belonging to this other being; and this love is shown in casu by drinking in his or her breath, whereby, little by little, a peculiar nose-salutation is very ingeniously developed, which, naturally, is capable of gradually assuming various conventional forms.

Now we will proceed to the kiss proper—that on the mouth. How can its origin be explained?[3]

It does not seem very rational to assume that the motion of the muscles in breathing should of itself be the natural, purely physical reflex of a feeling of love in the same way as, for instance, certain half-spasmodic contractions of several muscles in the upper part of the face can be the immediate expression of wrath. I do not believe either that the mere contact of the lips with another person's face was originally sufficient to express "I love you." Naturally, the longing to touch the beloved one's body, to approach it as closely as possible, is a very essential manifestation of erotic emotion; but so far as the contact of the lips is concerned, there is reason for assuming that, originally, without its being the direct object, it had been, moreover, and perhaps in an equally high degree, a means of attaining a definite sensual gratification—a gratification that can be realised by the co-operation of the lips and mouth.

As the nose-salutation partly originates in smell, so the mouth salutation may, to a certain extent[4] at least, have its origin in taste, or—which is even more probable—in both smell and taste? These latter, as you know, are very closely related to each other.

The dog shows his joy at his master's presence by licking the latter's hand. Why is this? It would not, I suppose, be too rash to assume that he as good as "tastes" him; loving his master, he therefore loves the taste and smell peculiar to him.

The cow licks her calf, and in this one may presumably see the expression of a feeling which is to some extent satisfied by this action. And why so? Undoubtedly by recognising by the tongue (and nose) the taste (and smell) peculiar to the calf.

Now, is it not exceedingly probable that the human kiss, in its original form, can, as to its passive element, be accounted for in an identical way, viz., as a purely sensual assimilation, by means of the nerves of taste and smell, of another person's peculiar qualities with respect to gustus and odor? These qualities have probably been much more conspicuous in primitive mankind than nowadays, just as it is quite certain that its faculty of taste and smell were far more developed than ours.

And have we not still, especially in the love-kiss, but also in kisses between women, very numerous representatives of the primitive kiss, which I should like to term the "taste-kiss." I have many times pointed out, in the preceding pages, the part which taste plays in kissing; and I shall now add what I have often heard young girls say to a lady they had kissed amorously: "Your kisses taste so nice."

From being a natural expression for love the sucking, tasting kiss has, in course of time, become reduced to nothing more than a simple inspiratory movement of the lips, which, by analogy, has come to express many other feelings, such as gratitude, admiration, compassion, tenderness, etc. It has become at length so degraded as to be used as a purely conventional salutation.

If this reasoning be correct, then the mouth-kiss, in the course of its development, presents a perfect parallel with the nose-kiss. Both these forms of greeting were originally closely allied, but the mouth-kiss had better conditions for development than the nose-kiss. It has become a salutation of a considerably higher sort, and whenever savage tribes come into contact with civilised nations the nose-kiss is gradually discarded. Such, for instance, was the case in Madagascar. There is no doubt that savages can express very deep emotions by the nose-kiss. A French missionary tells the story of how he was received when he went back to the island of Pomotu: "When we approached the country all the population assembled on the beach. They had harpoons in their hands, for they imagined we were enemies; but, as soon as they saw my cassock, they shouted, 'That's the Father, away with the harpoons,' and when we reached the shore they all rushed forward to kiss me by rubbing their noses against mine, according to the custom of that country. The ceremony was not very agreeable to me, and I was not altogether pleased at having to take part in it."[5] Civilised people, on the other hand, regard the nose-kiss as something highly ludicrous, and I doubt if any poet has the power of casting a halo of romance over it.

The mouth-kiss, on the contrary, is redolent of the purest and most delicate poesy. A German minnesinger rhapsodises thus: "The radiant sun is darkened before mine eyes when I behold the roses that bloom on my darling's mouth."

"He who can pluck these roses may rejoice in the depth of his heart. Many are the roses I have beheld, but never have I looked on any so splendid."

"How beauteous are the roses one gathers in the valley; nathless her delicate, ruddy lips conjure up thousands that are lovelier still."

  1. 1.0 1.1 Retranslated from the Danish Version in the Text.
  2. Retranslated from the Danish Version in the Text.
  3. Naturally, I am not concerned here with the various explanations given by the poets as to the origin of the kiss. Gressner, in an idyll of Daphnis and Chloe, has told us how both the lovers observed the sport of the doves in the grove and then tried to imitate it by pressing their mouths together as the doves do their beaks.
  4. Besides the passive or receptive element of the kiss, which is essentially the object of my investigation, there is also, as we have previously noticed, an active element which must not be overlooked, viz., the contact and muscular sensation at the pressure. During the erotic transport, which excites the desire for something further of a brutal and violent nature, the body trembles with powerful muscular tension, and a pressure or bite of the mouth is one of the forms by which the passion of love finds expression. It is difficult, in these pages, to go further into this aspect of the kiss, which is regarded by certain philosophers as the main one, which it really is in respect to certain kisses under certain circumstances; but there are other kisses which are equally so originally, and in which the passive element seems to me the most essential. The origin of the love-kiss ought scarcely to be sought in any single source, whether in the sense of touch or in that of taste and smell combined. Unquestionably both these elements co-operate in its production, but under constantly varying conditions, just as the active or the passive element predominates, the kiss accompanies and interprets according to the erotic phase. In what follows I shall confine myself exclusively to the receptive element in the kiss.
  5. Retranslated from the Danish Version in the Text