Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I sometimes kiss my dogs. I know. I am turning into one of Those Women. I like to think that because I am not Paris Hilton, and because they are sturdy working dogs, and because I do it with a degree of irony, it's all right. It's probably not.
The point is: it means absolutely nothing to them. They usually regard me with a patient look of disdain when I do it, or just carry on sleeping. Let's let the old girl get it over with, they seem to say. Maybe they think, in the degree that dogs do think, that I have some kind of nervous condition which induces a strange lip sound. For me, it is an explosion of love. Sometimes I look at them and they are so good and sleek and beautiful and funny, such a bounty of loveliness in my life, that I must give my affection expression. So: the kissing. For them, it is entirely meaningless. It made me think of how curious it is that humans have given the kiss such a freight of meaning.
For a start, who first decided that love should be declared by a pursing up of the mouth, accompanied by a sort of clicking sound? Which of our cave-dwelling or savannah-roaming ancestors worked that one out? How did the open-mouthed tongue kiss become a marker of sexual interest? And who named it the French kiss? Why not the Norwegian kiss or the Japanese kiss? Then there are the mysterious, almost formal categories of kiss, with all their attendant indicators. There is the social kiss, the polite peck on the cheek. In Britain and America, this used to come in singles, but now is almost always a double, to show a sophisticated European sensibility. The Continentals themselves, not to be outdone, are now starting to favour the triple kiss. There is the air kiss, confined almost entirely to high fashion and some areas of high society. This has nothing to do with love and everything to do with status: I am too important even to touch you with my delicate skin.
In some cultures, only men greet each other with cheek kisses. In others, this is considered too girly and terrifying for words; if there must be public affection, it will be shown in the gruff and manly hug. The kiss on the hand is almost dead now, but is occasionally revived to show old-fashioned courtliness. The reverent kiss survives in certain religions: the bishop will still hold out his ring. The kiss can mean luck: people kiss dice, or betting slips, or even job applications. It is considered so important that some inventive person even came up with a way to write it down: XXX. Three Xs mean three kisses: how on earth did that come about?
There is the iconic kiss of pure, yearning love, as in Robert Doisneau's famous photograph, which for a while hung on the wall of every single student room. This kind of kiss is considered a thing of such intimacy that it is more important than actual sex. When Julia Roberts said to Richard Gere in Pretty Woman that she didn't kiss on the mouth, everyone assumed that was true of all prostitutes, and everyone assumed it made perfect sense. Hookers can lie on their backs and think of England during shagging, but one tiny kiss will pierce all their professional defences. The magical properties of the kiss are seen in fairy tales, where random princesses run about kissing reptiles, or transform hairy beasts into beautiful men through the simple application of lips. At the opposite end of the scale, there is the Shakespearian kiss of betrayal.
How did one minute physical action come to produce such a plethora of myth and meaning? That is my question of the day. Meanwhile, the dogs, unheeding, continue with their slumbers, dreaming of rabbits.
Pictures of the day are of the kisses we all know and love.
The Sailor and his girl on VJ day, by Alfred Eisenstaedt:
Rodin, casting it in stone:
The magnificent Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity:
And finally, how could you not want to plant a great big smacker on faces like these?