What is a kiss? Is a kiss a mere peck on the cheek or lips, or the sensuous nature of parted mouths waiting to accept each others physical discourse? Perhaps a kiss is defined by the mouth touching any part of human skin, sheltering one spot with warmth and tenderness inducing excessive flutters in the lower regions of the body. Well, at the beginning of a relationship at least, or maybe a lovers’ reunion after a passing of years. In Cymbaline, William Shakespeare defines “common-kissing” as “touching everyone.” In my ride classes at the gym, the instructor tells us to get out of the saddle, but your glutes are “kissing the seat” as your quadriceps and hamstrings spark the hills. My child gives me a goodnight kiss before bed each evening and it is a most precious and loving event each time.
Maybe a kiss is truly indescribable. I recently went to dinner with two friends and one of them spoke with urgency about the possibility of a relationship, but at the same time the storyteller is not sure if a relationship is what they want. She said, “We kissed three times.” Of course, we asked what kind of kiss, and she was unable to describe in words; her excited nature prohibited her from verbal explanation. Instead, she proceeded to lean over the table, cup her face in her own hands, close her eyes and make the sweetest air kiss I have ever seen. How is it that a single, physical act evokes such emotion?
In Diane Ackerman’s now classic text, A Natural History of the Senses (1990), she uses the word “pilgrimage” (109) to define what the kiss is capable of inducing. Here, the kiss is recognized in passionate terms as entry onto the body; it is the primal instigator for our hands to find their way across new and former corporeal landscapes invoking physical and emotional states as borders are crossed. Ackerman’s research also considers the cultural experience and development of ‘mouth-kissing’: “To primitive peoples, the hot air wafting from their mouths may have seemed a magical embodiment of the soul, and a kiss a way to fuse two souls” (112). Primitive or not, is there anything more intimate and mysterious than a shared breath connecting one parted mouth to another as lips, tongue, and air commingle all at once, creating a harmonious significance between two people. The kiss reveals all; it informs you about feeling a connection with another human being. If the kiss ‘fails’, does not incur, than at least one of a pair understands that a sexual pursuit of the other is unnecessary. In “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Kissing” by Sheril Kirshenbaum, a kiss essentially skyrockets the body into enlightenment when “Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associate with feelings of desire and reward, spikes in response to novel experiences, which explains why a kiss with someone new can feel so special” (Discover). However, kissing a lover from the past can trigger the same reaction even though the idea of ‘new’ is ‘old’. How can soft pale, pink lips of the past replicate rapturous enthusiasm in the now? Neuroscientist Dean Burnett writes that “long-term memories have a physical presence in the brain…Neurons make new physical connections with each other when a new long-term memory is formed” (The Guardian Web). The memory of a kiss from twenty years ago is an explicit, episodic memory, something perhaps wanting to be relived or at least remembered (Burnett). If the two lovers from twenty years past reunite and kiss again, the combination of memory and current response clusters and synapses give way to communicating the pleasure of experience.
As Ackerman writes, “In America, we “kiss-off” someone when we dump them, and they yell “kiss my ass” when angry” (113). A ‘kiss’ is not only a physical engagement, but also a verbal insult, or, if you are Al Pacino starring in The Godfather II, it is a trifecta: betrothment, disdain, and a symbol of impending death. Whatever your preference or desire, let us hope it is not the latter, but rather enjoy a spontaneous adventure through a more astounding and meaningful kiss.
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. NY: Random House, 1990. Print.
Burnett, Dean. “What happens in your brain when you make a memory?” The Guardian, Wednesday, 16, September. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Kirshenbaum, Sheril. “20 Things You Didn’t Know about Kissing.” Discover Magazine. Saturday, March 19th, 2011. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.