Book Review: The History of the Kiss! by Marcel Danesi

Part of the series Semiotics and Popular Culture, The History of the Kiss! focuses on the romantic kiss and its role in the advent of a truly “popular” culture. It’s aimed at students of cultural studies, but all it takes to enjoy this is a minimum of interest in social history and pop culture.

Cover of "The History of the Kiss! The Birth of Popular Culture" by Marcel Danesi, 2013.

The two premises of the book are quickly explained: Danesi argues that the notion of romantic kissing (as opposed to kissing as part of the sexual act, or friendly kisses) was first established in the Middle Ages, when courtly love became a popular trope among all parts of society. It has since spread to all forms of art and has become the norm for romance in popular culture. The genre of courtly love was developed as an act of defiance and rebellion to the way marriages (and as such, love) were conducted before the 1100s, which was mainly a business transaction decided upon by the couple’s parents. Wooing and secretly kissing became the way in which lovers could express their true feelings, and the sentiment was spread through the emergence of courtly love writing. For the first time, romance started to be seen as essential to courtship and marriage. Lip-kissing, which was until then reserved for certain spiritual acts in Catholic practice, or seen as an uncouth sign of infidelity and betrayal, quickly became the signifier of romance, and remains so until today. Danesi also sees the growing social acceptance of the romantic kiss as a liberating force for medieval women, who could start making their own decisions when it came to their choice of partner.

After these rather brief statements, substantiated by passages from medieval texts, Danesi moves on to the second thesis, that of romantic kissing paving the way for the rise of a popular culture. He does this by charting the way medieval courtly love writing turned into ever more popular art forms like the commedia dell’arte, opera, and films. He discusses popular love symbols and rituals before moving on to famous examples of kisses in sculpture, painting, songs, and movies. This is where the books moves from informative to plain entertaining. Because who doesn’t love kissing, right? Reading through the list of film kisses makes you want to rewatch all those movies, or watch the ones you have missed. Danesi’s theory of romantic kissing being the most popular trope of popular culture seems pretty solid just by the way all those examples unfold. But there are also little thoughts and observations that add a bit of substance to the otherwise pretty straightforward and one-dimensional argument he presents. What is it about kissing? Why do we do it, and why do we love it? There’s an interesting interpretation of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s painting Paolo and Francesca from 1819:

"Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca", painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1819.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This is a visual portrait of the dual meaning of the act of secret kissing — passion and betrayal. […] The young couple wears flashy, fashionable garments, while Gianciotto stands, sword drawn, in the background in a gloomy dark robe. The contrast is stunning and stark, mirroring the moral ambiguity of secretive kissing itself. (p. 81)

Romance is always somewhat rooted in fantasy and wishful thinking because it’s what gives it its power. We want nothing more than that which we can’t have, and secretly kissing is the moment in which fantasy and desire move into the reality of doing something which we shouldn’t. “In the end, romance is an ideal; it is part of the way we wish to fantasize about the world (p. 156).” This not-quite-there moment is the culmination of such fantasies, and this is what gives the kiss such power over the imagination. Most famous kisses in literature or film are not kisses between couples; they are stolen, secret, or first kisses. Married partners kiss differently, and certainly not as memorably as those famous movie couples. Like the way Disney gave me a distorted idea about romance, any “famous” kiss is an ideal, not the real thing. This idea is not elaborated upon Danesi’s book, which is a pity, but maybe it just wasn’t part of what he set out to prove. There’s certainly a lot more that can be said about kissing, and I’m willing to read a lot more about it.

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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