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14 February 2012

Words you do NOT need to know: “Philematologist”

My friend John Harrison, the Moscow-based painter and part-time climatologist, sends me a script from his radio programme “Climate Change”, which is broadcast weekly on the Voice of Russia (www.ruvr.ru/english). He talks about everything from vulcanology to global warming. The subject this time is kissing which, on one view, could be said to combine the two.
     I learn many interesting things from his script, but perhaps the most astounding fact is that in the good ol’ U.S. of A. people actually spend their time making physiological studies of the act of kissing. Sheril Kirschenbaum of the University of Texas is, apparently, “the scientific queen of kissing”. 
     I am sure Professor Kirschenbaum (as I take her to be: all American university staff above the janitor seem to be professors) is a good and kindly person. But one of the many things Russians could learn from Americans (by reverse inference) is that activities like the scientific study of kissing are a waste of waste life’s precious essence. I am with Dostoyevsky here. He appreciated that there are certain things which are simply not knowable, and that to study them is a form of blasphemy in that to do so reduces the beautiful to the commonplace, usually by means of statistics.
     I suggest that “philematology”, which is the word someone has coined for the study of kissing, is one of these blasphemies. I have lived a long life without ever feeling the need to use the word, just as I have managed to survive many moons without appreciating that a kiss uses 6.4 calories a minute, and that French kissing exercises all 34 muscles in the face. Cool.
     But none of this says anything about Jimi Hendrix’s approach to the act, which seems to me much more interesting. Professor Kirschenbaum tells us that kissing allows people to sample “a section of a potential partner’s genome called the major histocompatiblity complex (MHC). The MHC is a code for the immune system.” So we use kissing to select future partners.
     Hendrix, as we all know, said, “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.” Despite his enormous lips, most people at the time did not take this literally, thinking of it instead as a beautiful metaphor for transcendence. But were we right? Professor Kirschenbaum’s work suggests the mundane possibility that there may have been a more functional and commonplace purpose at work here, even if the doomed singer was unaware of the fact. Hendrix sung those words just three years before he died. Might that  kiss in Purple Haze have really been a subliminal attempt to make an exploratory exchange of his major histocompatibility complex with God’s, given that “the sky” could be taken as a metaphorical synonym for The Almighty? Professor Kirschenbaum does not say.
     Probably she is too young to remember Jimi Hendrix. But John Harrison is not. Neither am I. We often work together. Yet he has never once kissed me, nor even, so far as I am aware, attempted to. That is another mystery of life which I think Dostoyevsky would allow me to refrain from investigating too closely.