The Stolen Kiss, Jean-Honore Fragonard, 1756-61
by Justin E. H. Smith
I get some of my best writing done at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, where I now sit.
I could use my time here otherwise; I could learn the layout of the place, something that after countless visits remains entirely mysterious to me. I’ve made out at least a vague resemblance to some coiled viper that has, at intervals, swallowed several large rodents, causing it to bulge in spots and to narrow in others. The whole snake surrounds a mass of concrete curly-queues, traffic roundabouts at various elevations, each serving its own class of vehicle. Everything is concrete: concrete slabs of ceiling supported on concrete pillars, concrete ramps blocked off by concrete barriers. The ghost of General de Gaulle himself haunts this grey mess. It sings of French third-way-ism, flimsy viennoiseries at certain narrowings along the viper’s vertebrae, sad succursales of the Hippopotamus chain at others; the shells of abandoned Minitel cabins: all the sagging, unsustainable sadness of a half-Soviet hybrid. It looks to be on the verge of collapse, and indeed great chunks of it have collapsed. Scrap metal litters the runways and has been known to trip up Concordes. The arrivals screens have been seen to report as retardé what they might more accurately have described as disparu.
I sit and stare at my computer screen and write because, in truth, this place terrifies me.
But I’m sitting here, obviously, because I’ve been going around France again, which means also going around exchanging bisous. This is problematic for me, as I am an American, and even among Americans am exceptionally awkward when it comes to physical contact. But over the years I’ve practiced, and have now reached the point where I am able to kiss strange cheeks with passable elegance.
But why all this kissing, anyway?
Something needs to be done to inaugurate social interaction. There must be some signalling of a transition from each doing his or her own thing, to each participating in a shared moment. The Japanese mark this transition by a subtle bow, Americans by a handshake (or sometimes a half-assed ‘hug’, a concept to which I’ll return shortly); bonobos mark it by genital displays. But the merely visual presentation of the Japanese does not seem transformative enough, and in the bonobos’ case it seems to misread the character of the impending interaction (or at least to read it in a way that human beings would rather not acknowledge too soon). The American handshake is indissociably linked to commercial interests, to deal-making and to vulgar Mammonism. One needs, as the Europeans have understood, to get the lips involved, to make a little suction noise that announces that two human bodies are in the same place doing the same thing, in order to set a properly human encounter in motion.
Some etymological considerations. The verb ‘to kiss’ in many languages is formed by onomatopoeia. In Sanskrit the verbal root is chumb– (giving us the lovely syllabic redoubling of the third-person singular perfect form: chuchumba, ‘she kissed’). ‘Kiss’ and ‘küssen’ hear the sound differently than their Indo-European ancestor, but somehow no less accurately. When the verb is not onomatopoeic, it often emerges from a semantic cluster that is even more revealing than the natural sound of a kiss. Thus the Russian tselovat‘ is connected to tsel‘, which is to say ‘target’. And isn’t that what kiss-compressed lips in fact are? Isn’t that what bodily orifices are?
It is the orifical nature of the kiss that scares the Americans and the Japanese away, and that also inevitably associates it with other possibilities of greater consequence. Of excessive consequence for some is that sort of kiss that involves the meeting of two parties’ lips. Think of the caricatured American puritan in Alain Resnais’ wonderfully titled Pas sur la bouche –which is in turn an ecranization of some early-20th-century operetta– who will permit labio-buccal contact with the sundry, implausibly desirous demoiselles, but not labio-labial. The association with greater possibilities is clear in French from the (presumably recent) semantic split between the noun baiser and the verb baiser. You can innocently give someone un baiser (n., masc.), but if you offer to baiser (v., inf.) them, you had better be prepared either to passer à l’acte or to endure a vigorous slap. In Spanish the verb besar retains the innocence of the French noun, though if your point of access to the Italic tongues is French, then that Schlager staple ‘Besame mucho’ will always sound rather less innocent than it should.
As I said, I’ve attained a certain elegance in the performance of introductory baisers –which perhaps we should keep diminutivizing as bisous in order to avoid any ambiguity–, though certain difficulties remain in respect of their application. I have to be cautious, for when I give them, I give them right. There will be no air-kisses, the two parties silently agreeing to remain strangers; nor will there be any bovine-materteral mmmuhs. There will be a sound, a proper high-pitched sucking sound, there will be mutual labio-buccal contact, and it will happen on both sides of each party’s face. There will be no Mediterranean excess, no repetition of the bi-cheekal tour a second or third time, no grabbing of the back of the other’s head, no tears.
That’s the rough choreography of it. But when, precisely, will it happen? This question would be easy to answer if all meetings were with individual European women of roughly the same age and social status as I. But the problem is that one often (and often regrettably) meets groups, mixed company, some of whose members appear right away as appropriate tseli, others of whom one would rather avoid, and others still whom one must avoid whether one would rather or not.
The first rule is this: I will not exchange bisous with other men. There can be five-way, ten-way inter-sex and same-sex kissing going on, but I will stick to my rule: bisous for the women, handshakes for the men (or fraternal American bear-hugs for old friends: awkward but necessary). For the most part, the handshake reflects exactly the amount of intimacy I hope to have with men: practical intimacy, exchange of goods and services. If it is an exchange of ideas that I am after, then the kiss hardly seems initiatory to that either. There is in fact only one man in this world with whom I habitually exchange bisous upon meeting and parting, and in this particular case I think it has something to do with his religion. It symbolizes something transcendental and divine for him, though from my side it’s like kissing sandpaper, and I give thanks to (his) God that he’s the only one.
If there is any possible perception of an imbalance of power between me and the woman in question, I avoid the bisous, even in a group where these are going around freely. If the woman is older than I am and of a higher status, then I generally let her initiate it, and if she does I throw myself gladly into the gesture. No degree of desiccation, no striation or deathly pallidity, can repel me. As long as she is European, noblesse oblige.
The most awkward of all possible combinations is the one I call ‘the cosmopolitan’: when I find myself in the mixed company of Europeans and Americans. Now nothing would be more affected, more pompous and artificial, than for two Americans to exchange bisous à la française. We just don’t do it. When we were teenagers we exchanged dumb diagonal hugs, one arm over the other’s shoulder, the other arm beneath the armpit and towards the middle of the back; perfunctory, insincere, the gestural equivalent of ‘How’s it going?’ And now everyone is all grown up, and everyone is someone else’s ‘partner’ (are they shaking hands?), and we all know deep down there’s no point in preserving this adolescent ritual that never had any significance to begin with, and certainly holds no promise now.
Allow me to denounce the hug a while longer. It is significant that one of the alternative ways to speak of kissing in French is the verb embrasser, which is in its composition identical to the German umarmen, i.e., ‘to hug’. Both verbs, when broken down, literally mean ‘to en-arm’, yet while the German word signifies exactly what it says, the French is a euphemism for something else, and indeed something more. Could this be a case of uncharacteristic Gallic prudishness? It is likely that embrasser means something more than what it says for the same reason the verb baiser does: ‘to hug’ means to kiss and ‘to kiss’ means to fuck. There is a general inflationary process going on here, one that probably has more to do with the art of understatement than with pudicity. The act of en-arming itself doesn’t register in the French lexicon at all (except for the negligible étreinte, which connotes constraint or compulsion as much as it does embracing).
Anyway, the question remains: what to do when, going down a line of same- or senior-status, coeval or elder European women, doing the sincere, physical, hopeful, two-cheek thing, all of a sudden I land upon a concitoyenne, an amerikanka, a countrywoman who knows I’m American and knows I know she’s American? I’ve just kissed a gauntlet of Europeans. What am I supposed to do now, raise my hand meekly and say ‘hi’? Revert back to adolescence and give a mere hug? Acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation and mutter ‘the hell with it, let’s just pretend for a moment’? Or am I to put on a show, and allow myself to cut that most ridiculous figure: the American who pretends he is not one? I usually go for one of the last two options, and am never comfortable afterwards. My lips tingle with after-awkwardness the way a child’s butt tingles with fore-pain when it knows it’s in for a spanking (in fact, mine still does, decades after any real possibility of such a response, when I’ve been caught doing something wrong).
All my blood relations are American, so fortunately I do not have to kiss them. Diogenes cautioned against overuse of slippery-slope arguments by facetiously inferring that to touch one’s mother’s foot is already to commit incest, since from there everything else differs only by degree. But I think there is really something to this argument, at least if bisous are substituted for digito-podal contact. And this is the very same thing that makes non-familial, intercontinental bisous such a perfect gesture: they are a slippery slope, an opening-up through nothing more than an opening, to another human being, with all the hope and danger that implies.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website