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Fusing Mouths: Tactility and the Kiss in Modernist Literature

Bryony Armstrong,  Durham University

In January 1923, the newly registered brand, Kissproof, advertised its lipstick with the words: ‘New! Different! Exquisitely modern!’.[1] As lipstick entered the realm of acceptability, the lips became the fleshy recipient of intense colour sculpting. Yet Kissproof’s unsmudgeability is suggestive not simply of attentive lip care in the twentieth century mode of toilette, but of attention to the touch that makes lipstick smear. The ‘new, different, exquisitely modern’ product – with a slogan that could be an epithet for modernism itself – was foregrounded by changing cultural understanding of the romantic-sexual kiss in the early twentieth century.

Kissing emerged in sexology through the theory of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud. In the fourth volume of Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1905), Ellis theorised the lips’ ‘highly important position as a secondary sexual focus in the sphere of touch’.[2] In the same year, Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in which he also contemplated the peculiar secondary nature of the lips in the aim of sexual pleasure. He theorised a perversion as sexual activity that extends, and lingers, beyond the genitals. The kiss, he writes, could be considered ‘one particular contact of this kind’, held in ‘high sexual esteem […] in spite of the fact that the parts of the body involved do not form part of the sexual apparatus’.[3]

As sexological theory developed, the kiss was also increasingly exploited on the visual plane. Early cinema frequently exhibited the kiss in the lingering manner that so intrigued Ellis and Freud. The Kiss (1896), an eighteen second re-enactment of a scene from a Broadway musical, was one of the first commercial films shown to the public. A contemporary review marvelled at the osculatory possibility of the close-up, claiming, rather ironically, that ‘for the first time in the world it is possible to see what a kiss looks like’.[4] Public appetite for the new visual paradigm of the “real” kiss was fed as the cinematic medium developed. Virginia Woolf responded to such developments in ‘The Cinema’ (1926), pondering that ‘a kiss is love’ with both curiosity and disappointment.[5] Woolf’s interest in the kiss here is largely semiotic, but elsewhere she describes the tactile experience of kissing flesh like ‘cold iron’.[6] Indeed, the cultural development of the kiss, as Santanu Das has pointed out in his writing on World War One, sees it slip ‘from a sign to a sensation’ at the beginning of the twentieth century.[7] Both historically and critically, the kiss has been upheld as a legal, religious, political, and social signifier. In this article I depart from semiotic modes of analysis, focusing instead on the essential tactility of the kiss as it emerges in the modernist period. Drawing primarily upon the writing of D. H. Lawrence and Marcel Proust, as well as contemporary sculpture, I argue for the modernist treatment of the romantic-sexual kiss as a particular subspecies of touch.

This treatment of the kiss as sensation is exemplified by Proust in The Guermantes Way (1920), the third volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. When the narrator kisses Albertine’s cheek, Proust draws attention to the ‘tactual experience’ of the lips at the moment of ‘actual contact between flesh and flesh’.[8] Recent criticism, which posits the modernist period as a crucial point in the chronology of haptic theorisation, points out that the human hand is a commonly imposed ‘synecdoche’ for whole-bodied ‘tactual experience’.[9] Yet, though critical discourse has traced varied forms of touch, the mouth and its particular set of osculatory practices, like those illustrated by Proust, have been overlooked. As suggested in ‘The Kiss Poetical’, a 1904 article in the Fortnightly Review, ‘the touch of a hand may be eloquent enough, but the hand-shake of daily life will hardly kindle any tender self-communings’.[10] A touch of the hand can facilitate distance between toucher and touched, authorising space required within systems of formality. A kiss, in contrast, usually necessitates a totalising, almost exhaustive form of (‘tender’) bodily contact.

We see this illustrated in the fusing mouths of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). A kiss between Paul Morel and Clara Dawes is described in a process of cutaneous coalescence:

He flashed with a small laugh, shut his eyes, and met her in a long, whole kiss. Her mouth fused with his; their bodies were sealed and annealed. It was some minutes before they withdrew.[11]

The text here follows a thermic parabola, tracing a process of sealing and annealing as mouths interlock and fuse. By invoking the trope of the closed-eyed kiss, Lawrence surrenders Paul and Clara to a sphere of typically Lawrentian darkness, but, this time, under the plain light of day. In so heightening their tactile sensitivity, he uses the kiss to locate the skin’s sensory faculties in the mouth. Aristotle, one of the earliest thinkers on touch, was troubled that touch was the only sense which could not be definitively localised in the body.[12] Through this sealing and annealing, Lawrence draws the sense of touch through the body to the mouth, progressing, to adapt a phrase from a kiss elsewhere in his corpus, like a hot flame licking from the belly upwards.[13] This sense of bodily fusion in the kiss was shared by kiss-interested artists of the period. A plaster cast of a sculpture, The Kiss (1908), was displayed at the International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913, the same year that Sons and Lovers was published. The sculptor was Constantin Brâncusi, the Romanian artist and Parisian resident whose works include a portrait of James Joyce in the form of swirls.[14] He sculpted many versions of The Kiss from 1908. The two subjects are carved from one block of stone.[15] Their fused mouths protrude beautifully from sealed bodies.

The features of these modernist mouths reflect contemporary thought on the mouth as a highly sensitive zone. Its tactile faculties can be detached from those of the hand when viewed in terms of its discrete epidermic elements. That is, the hands and fingertips occupy a cutaneous continuum, while the facial epidermis is interrupted by the sensitive, darkened skin of the lips, enclosing the mucous membrane of the mouth. Ellis described the mouth in these mucous-producing terms: a ‘highly sensitive frontier region between skin and mucous membrane, in many respects analogous to the vulvo-vaginal orifice’.[16] Familiar with the work of Ellis from his early twenties, Lawrence explores this equation of saliva production and high sensitivity in The Rainbow (1915), in which mouths are prominently featured. In the latter part of the novel, Anton Skrebensky kisses Ursula Brangwen:

And then in the darkness, he bent to her mouth, softly, and touched her mouth with his mouth. She was afraid, she lay still on his arm, feeling his lips on her lips. She kept still, helpless. Then his mouth drew near, pressing open her mouth, a hot, drenching surge rose within her, she opened her lips to him.[17]

The words mouth and lips are anaphoric to the point of parody while they are traced with detached precision, noting that Lawrence expressed a hatred for ‘close-up kisses […] that could not be felt’ in his 1929 poem ‘When I Went to the Film’.[18] In 1904, Charles Féré theorised the kiss as ‘not only an expression of feeling’, but ‘a means of provoking it’ – and here, we note the common linguistic tangle of emotional and sensual feeling.[19] In The Rainbow, Lawrence captures the kiss’ capacity for sensual provocation: the ‘drenching surge’ of desire mirrors the tactile experience of saliva exchanging between open mouths.

Lawrence’s close scrutiny of the kiss is rendered again in his little-discussed painting, Close-Up (Kiss) (1928), in which the eyes of the subjects remain wide open. Though somewhat grotesque, and a clear critique of cinematic kissing, his painting, like his writing, probes the sensory experience of the kiss: warm, drenching feeling on the lips, and strangely optic encounters of kissing with eyes open. In The Guermantes Way, Proust, too, reverses the trope of the closed-eyed kiss with the cubistic view of the ever-looming cheek, describing the ‘coarse grain’ of Albertine‘s skin pores with trypophobic dread.[20] These tactile-visual kisses probe this act as an essentially haptic encounter, a disruption and demonstration of both proprioception, that is, the perception of body position in space, and the vestibular balancing system. We cannot see our mouths, like we can see our hands and limbs – though, as a recent psychoanalyst reminds us, we can kiss our own mouths in the mirror.[21]

The sensory faculties of the mouth, overlooked in haptic criticism, constitute a fascinating point of intersection between tactility, visuality, and emotionally-loaded gesture. As the kiss emerged in the public sphere to an unprecedented extent in early twentieth century, the mouth is frequently written as a tactile agent in modernist literature. The fusing mouths of modernism call for an investigation not into representational systems of signs, and social and symbolic functions, but of a new understanding of, to paraphrase the Proustian kiss, actual contact between mouth and mouth.


[1] Advertisements in McClure’s Magazine <>.

[2] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume IV: Sexual Selection in Man (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1905), p. 23.

[3] Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII, trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), pp. 125-248 (p.  149).

[4] Quoted in: Linda Williams, ‘Of Kisses and Ellipses: The Long Adolescence of American Movies’, Critical Inquiry, 32.2 (2006), pp.288-340, p. 290.

[5] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema’, Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.172-176 (p.174).

[6] Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Moments of Being, ed. by Jeanne Schulkind (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), pp.64-159 (p.92).

[7] Santanu Das, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 120.

[8] Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, trans. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff (Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2007), p. 351.

[9] Abbie Garrington, Haptic Modernism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[10] Norman Pearson, ‘The Kiss Poetical’, Fortnightly Review, 1 August 1904, pp.291-306, p. 291.

[11] D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1999), p. 268.

[12] Mark Paterson, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, Technologies (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 17.

[13] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (London: Vintage, 2011), p. 43.

[14] Constantin Brâncusi, Portrait of James Joyce, ink on paper, from James Joyce, Work in Progress (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1929), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

[15] Marcel Danesi, The History of the Kiss! The Birth of Popular Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 86-7.

[16] Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, p. 22.

[17] Lawrence, The Rainbow, p. 277.

[18] D. H. Lawrence, ‘When I Went to the Film, The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977) p. 443.

[19] Quoted in Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, p. 5.

[20] Proust, I, p. 351.

[21] Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 99.

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