(I have decided to re-post some articles related to the novel Angel which originally appeared as guest posts on other blogs in order to have the material here. This one first appeared in 2011 on Bending the Bookshelf under the title– I never intended this to be its title but Word just titled the document with its first line– Memory is a Fragile Thing.)
Memory is a fragile thing. When you look back on your relationship with your beloved, much of it recedes into darkness. What did you do together the third Wednesday of last year? Did you see that movie together or separately? Whose turn is it to take out the garbage? (Only one of you probably forgot that last one.)
One moment that probably remains vivid for you, however, is your first kiss. It was the touch that signaled the acknowledgment of your desire to be more than you were to each other. It is the kiss, not the so-much-more-hyped sex, that is the first move from friends to lovers.
Sex scenes are easy. What is surprisingly hard to write about is a kiss.
One of the few moments in which I became truly stuck when writing my novel Angel was when it came time for my main characters, who had been dancing around each other for some time, to lock lips. Sure, I could describe what the lips and tongue actually do in a kisser’s mouth, but this would be far too clinical. It would have the opposite of the intended effect. Yet simply saying, “they kissed,” was too flat. It failed to capture the essence of an act that, poet Philip Sidney said, “tied together souls.”
A kiss, a first kiss especially, is not only a touch, it is an emotion. It is a question, an invitation that can be accepted or denied. “Will you be my lover?”
It is that most vulnerable of moments, full of nervousness and anxiety, and it is also one of the anxieties that is most quickly relieved. It melts away the moment the lips touch and the invitation has been accepted.
“And then they kissed,” was not going to cut it.
For guidance, I ventured onto Google Books and found myself reading an 1873 magazine called The Galaxy. There, in an article called “The Curiosities of Kissing” I discovered this observation by William Conant Church:
“Shakespeare calls kisses holy, lovely, loving, gentle, jealous, soft, sovereign, warm, and righteous. He has over two hundred and fifty allusions to kisses and kissing in his plays, and in the second part of ‘Henry VI.’ he speaks of ‘twenty thousand kisses.’ In the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ he calls lips ‘those kissing treasures.’ But in all his writings we find no full description of a kiss. It was a subject too vast even for Shakespeare’s mighty mind.”
Realizing that I had stumbled onto a problem that had stumped Shakespeare made me feel a little bit better about myself, and so I got back to work.
When a man leans in to kiss, he loses sight of the beloved and closes his eyes. (The face is too close to focus on.) This means that in kissing we abandon the sense we rely on most in life, sight, and continue with our more primal senses, touch, taste and smell.
Smell is that great underrated and most primal sense. It is also the most difficult to describe. We have a host of visual words, words for colors, shades and hues. When it comes to the sense of smell, we have no vocabulary. We must usually rely on comparison. “It smells like…” Yet smells are omnipresent and are more effective than any sense in triggering emotion.
“When the olfactory bulb detects something,” wrote Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, it “…sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust and invent. Unlike the other senses, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation.”
The sense of smell became my revelation, my doorway in.
I was helped in no small part by the fact that my character Ian was a smoker. He would smell of cigarettes. This was something that anyone who leaned in to kiss him should probably expect, and yet probably would not.
And so, after a great deal of tension and literary anticipation, Paul and Ian were finally able to kiss:
“It was natural—the first time and yet not the first time—because this moment had been practiced so often in fantasy. Yet the fantasies were no preparation. Paul’s imagination hadn’t the talent to get it right. He’d focused on the lips and the tongue and the building sense of arousal. But he’d neglected to include all of the senses and all of the emotions. He’d failed to include the sense of smell, the musky, smoky scent of Ian. He’d failed to imagine the twinge of fear and anxiety and the open space it created inside when he let it go. He’d failed to fully include his sense of hearing, the small short breaths and long sighs so close to his ear. He’d focused too much on his mind and his thoughts, which he now released completely. They got lost in each other, lost in the dance. Paul ran his fingers through Ian’s hair. He felt Ian’s hands exploring his back and shoulders. For a moment, he seemed to disappear into pure sensation and emotion.”
It probably does not capture all of the mystery of a first kiss and it may not be Shakespeare, but then again, Shakespeare didn’t even try. Maybe words are simply not up to the task.
*The title I chose for this post is adapted from one of Oscar Wilde’s love letters to Lord Alfred Douglas: “Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red-roseleaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing.”