Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “An Unromantic History of Kissing,” by Evan Silver. Evan is a hybrid writer, director, and composer creating new work across theatre, music, video, and the literary arts. Raised in the vibrant city of Chicago by a banjo-playing printmaker and an architect, Evan developed a passion for multimedia storytelling from an early age. Evan studied creative writing at Brown and holds master’s degrees in theatre and classical reception from RCSSD and King’s College, Cambridge. Evan has had work published in Artists Book House and The Mays, and has written and directed thirteen original theatre productions on three continents. Evan is a Luce, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholar. This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
My first kiss was with a ten-year-old redhead disguised as an alcoholic Marilyn Monroe. It was Prohibition-era Chicago, 1929, a time and place when gangsters and revelers and all species of riffraff descended upon sleazy speakeasies for debaucherous entertainments and good fun. I was disguised as a penniless Casanova saxophonist disguised as a sexless millionaire, as well as a boisterous lady in the brass band. It was the first time I wore a dress, though it would not be the last.
I do not know why a grown man decided to stage a musical theatre adaptation of Some Like It Hot with an ensemble of prepubescent children, and could not tell you whether such a move is boldly progressive or wildly inappropriate. Whatever it was, I found myself tongue-to-throat with faux Monroe as the other kids looked on. I suppose it is fitting that my first kiss was a rehearsal, not least because I would later pursue a career in the theatre but because it would not be until some years later that I discovered a serious taste for kissing boys. That, and a flare for making out with perfect strangers in public.
The closet opened the spring of my sixteenth year, and I came out like a nymphomaniac after the plague. My first Chicago Pride as a budding homosexual, I kissed about every stranger who returned my gaze. Sometimes the exchange was entirely without words, as though saliva had always ever been enough. I didn’t dwell on what it was that we were doing, but for whatever reason, I knew, kisses don't, no they don't, kisses don't lie.
I sought out any excuse to smooch: truth or dare, spin the bottle, or the game my friend and I used to play at parties where we would chew Starbursts and then trade flavors (usually pink, often yellow, sometimes orange, never red). Once I cut a line of thirsty queens and kissed the bartender in exchange for a pale ale. I made it out like it was the beer that I wanted, but in truth it was the kiss. I never had much of a taste for beer, anyway––I always favored sour, spicy, and strong. (My passion for citrus is so pronounced that someone once barged into an active rehearsal to hand me a plate of limes, in reference to the fact that I had waxed relentless on the sublime miracle of such fruits at a party the night prior. While I had no recollection of the rave, the friendship was instantaneous.) Still, nothing tickles my palate quite like a kiss.
All this time, it never occurred to me that kissing is, really, when you think about it, a rather strange thing we humans do. From my lips to yours: how did we get here?
Some researchers propose that the origins of kissing can be found millions of years ago in mouth-to-mouth feeding practices in early homo sapiens, much the way penguins regurgitate premasticated krill for their young. Professor of anthropology and archaeology Vaughn Bryant has suggested that such behavior would have primarily taken place between mothers and their offspring. Kissing in the modern sense, on the other hand, is a learned behavior. A new study shows that under half of human cultures practice romantic kissing, and that many cultures did not engage in such behavior until it was introduced to them. The Mehinaku tribe of the Xingu in Brazil have described the practice as “gross.”
In fact, one kiss can pass on as many as 80 million bacteria. The Egyptians would not kiss Greeks because the Greeks consumed the flesh of the cow, an animal that was sacred to Egyptians. Perhaps this is the origin of the adage, “lips that touch meat will never touch mine.” (Never kiss a Komodo dragon: as flesh rots in its cavernous jaw, a buildup of decay renders its lips toxic––a taste of poison paradise). One wonders whether the construction of vampire myths had to do with anxieties about kissing; this might explain why such creatures flee at the presence of garlic.
The earliest recorded kisses of affection can be found in Vedic Sanskrit literature dating back to 1500 BCE. These texts describe the custom of rubbing noses together in an intimate manner. One theory is that, in Bryant’s words, “Eventually, someone slipped and found that the lips were very sensitive and found it pleasurable.” I like the notion that such a tale winds down to an accident of pleasure, that vibrating compass that creates the world.
Half a millennium later, instances of tender mouth-to-mouth are sealed like kisses in the Mahabharata: “She set her mouth to my mouth and made a noise and that produced pleasure in me.” Even at this clinical remove, the operative sensation is nonetheless pleasure. As follows, the Kama Sutra, 2nd century BCE, includes an entire chapter on kissing techniques. There are thirty-five instances of the Hebrew word nâshaq in the Old Testament, written between 1200 and 165 BCE. The word has been translated in English to mean “to kiss, literally or figuratively,” and “to touch,” as well as “to equip with weapons.” Most of these instances describe the act of kissing fathers and sons and brothers, as greetings and as blessings. In the Song of Songs, however, it is written, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine.” What is wine but intoxicant, aphrodisiac, seduction?
Kisses can be found in the Homeric epics sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. In the Iliad, King Priam of Troy kisses Achilles’ hand, and begs in desperation for the body of his slain son Hector––“Think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.” Achilles weeps and returns Hector’s abused corpse to the father and fatherland both. I suspect it was the kiss that did it––no one had touched Achilles that way since his late lover Patroclus was impaled by another man’s spear.
It is still unknown whether cultures outside of the Indian subcontinent engaged widely in romantic kissing before the 4th century BCE. In 326 BCE, however, when Alexander the Great and his conquering armies invaded India, the wider Western world was exposed to the practice. Kissing was taken up by the Romans, who popularized it throughout Europe and North Africa. Other war generals split off from Alexander’s military forces and headed for the Middle East. What happened between those generals we may never know. As to whether or not Alexander was a Great Kisser, this too is shrouded in mystery.
As kissing spread across the empire, the Romans rapidly codified it into their customs and norms. Kisses were divided into types: osculum for friendly pecks on the cheek, basium for moderately erotic lip action, savium for a kiss of passion––the sort of thing that might be called snogging in another era. Little did the Romans know, thousands of years later, a German neuroscientist called Onur Güntürkün would watch people making out at airports and beaches and determine that there were as many as 124 “scientifically valid kisses.” (Güntürkün writes, “After two years, I could feel when people were approaching to kiss.”) While such data may be legitimately called into question––Güntürkün does not know what tongues do in private––it is a great relief to know that a genuine scientist has deemed public kisses worthy of rigorous scrutiny.
The Romans passed their own laws concerned with kissing. One stated that in the event that a virgin girl was kissed passionately in public (savium), she could lawfully demand the man’s hand in marriage. Kissing was also used in everyday social interaction to reinforce class hierarchies; those of equal rank would kiss on the lips, while someone of lesser status would kiss the cheek, hand, knee, foot, or even the ground beneath the individual in the higher position. The general rule was that the distance from the lips was determined based on the degree of difference in rank or social position. Hence, a peasant was expected to kiss the ground beneath the emperor’s feet, unless, of course, some illicit love affair was underfoot.
By the late Middle Ages, kissing was widespread in Europe across the social spectrum. The Catholic Church, however, was not so enamored. They feared that kisses would lead to carnal acts (they do) and could not abide by the promise of such diabolical promiscuities. Between 1311-1312, Pope Clement V forbade the “holy kiss,” once meant to symbolize soul transference, in favor of the more demure handshake as a gesture of peace. The handshake itself was born in 5th century Greece to show that neither party concealed a weapon on his person. In Roman times, it was more like an arm grab, in which the forearms were actively checked for knives. Researchers posit that the shake may have been invented by medieval knights with the intention of dislodging any daggers up the sleeve.
As with kissing, these practices have become practically automatic over time, dislocated from their histories. More often than not, we forget how we have come to do what we do. We go through the motions. Wouldn’t it be something to situate ourselves in winding histories and lineages, among knights and legends, and to see our everyday behaviors with new eyes? Sometimes, awareness requires us to take a step back and to see ourselves at an unromantic distance.
Not long ago, in the midst of a drawn-out kiss with a romantic partner, it dawned on us how ridiculous it was that we had decided to mash our faces together and exchange saliva. We took the act to its reductio ad absurdum, licking each other like feral cats in heat, days without water. As it turns out, pleasure still abounds in the comedy of errors. The kiss was sucked dry of its romantic marrow, sure, but romance turned into humor, and humor, of course, is its own species of pleasure.
For my twenty-second birthday, we threw a party called Make Out Not War. I had learned a lot since the blind tigers of the late ‘20s and the saucy pre-teen musicals of the late ‘90s. I could have told Onur Güntürkün that there are more than 124 “scientifically valid kisses,” but I suspect he spent more time staring people down at supermarkets than engaged in acts of passion. (For my own part, I think I would not kiss the same way if I knew that a large German man was watching from the sidelines––they call this the observer effect in the field of quantum mechanics.) A salad bowl brimmed with seductive slips of paper, dares beholden only to the rule of consent. A kiss could speak a thousand words: it was a greeting and a seduction, a tickle and a tango, a whisper and a festival of fluids. I have not read the literature on which kisses were deemed “scientifically valid,” but I doubt that an upside-down Spider-Man kiss suspended from a pull-up bar in a doorframe would have made the list.
Our ritualized behaviors change with the times. Kisses were replaced in some European contexts by bows and curtsies in the wake of the Black Plague. A kiss could spread disease; these alternatives could slow the spread. It is impossible to know for sure how a global pandemic will alter our modern behaviors, but it seems likely that kissing may not fare so well in the era of social distancing. Will the elbow bump stick around? Will sensuous acts be translated to zeros and ones smacked together like cybernetic lips? Will kisses ever go out of fashion?
It was a long time in quarantine. I craved the sweat and saliva of the club, bodies heaving together in the dark. I longed for the lips, the teeth, the tongue, the throat. Perhaps I cooked as much as I did during the pandemic to make up for these lost sensations. But much as I love homemade chile crisp and garlic confit, I have found no flavor substitute for a kiss. Social isolation was the necessary cost of public health; caring for one another looks different depending on the circumstances. As the times change, so must we. Still, there was always a part of me that thirsted after those hundreds of millions of bacteria.
As I have grown, kissing has become more to me than mere sensory delight. As I see it now, there is a radical queer promise in kissing beyond the edges of heteronormative convention. When we kiss strangers in the dark, we insist that pleasure is a communal resource. When we share saliva, we literally pool our collective resources and erode the artificial boundaries that separate us. When we open our mouths to one another, we celebrate and nurture our mutual softness and vulnerability. Love and affection should not be confined to the confounding parameters of monogamous heterosexuality. We are social creatures who thrive on intimacy.
The first time I went out dancing after getting vaccinated felt like a Bacchic rite after a reign of repressive hegemonic rule. Glory! Sweat, vodka, saliva, lime. The requisite flinch still strikes at unexpected moments, and I exercise greater caution than before. I look back with great fondness and nostalgia on the days when strangers could kiss in the street with reckless abandon for no apparent reason other than the strange pleasure of other mouths. But slowly, surely, the world seems to return to a rotation where we can touch and taste one another once more. It is not the same as before, nor should it be. We’re unearthing a new chapter in our history, and my fingers are crossed that kisses have a longer story to tell.