By Special to The Washington Post · Robert Zaretsky · OPINION, OP-ED
The coronavirus pandemic has just reminded the world of the complexity of kissing in France. At a news conference last Saturday, the French minister of health, Olivier Véran, discussed the government's measures against the disease's spread. Observing that "the smallest gestures offer the greatest protection," Véran urged the French to avoid shaking hands with others. But does this apply, a journalist asked, to faire la bise, the traditional French greeting of kissing another's cheeks? With a wan smile, Véran replied that he had already been asked this question several times. After a pause, he added that the French should, for now, ban la bise.
The foreign press is making the most of it. (One headline warns, "No kissing, please.") This response is understandable. Facing the threat of a pandemic, there is no harm in a chuckle or two over this very French tradition. But the response is, in a way, also unfortunate. It glosses over not just the complexity of this tradition but its symbolism, too. As a symbol, the bise reveals something vital we risk losing - that is, apart from lives - in the effort to defeat this virus.
When the Romans came, saw and conquered Gaul, they gave the locals not just viaducts but verbs to build upon. The French word "baiser" comes from the Latin "basium" - denoting a friendly kiss - unlike "saviolum," which means, well, a French kiss. The Romans thus introduced in France not just the growing of grapes for the making of wine but also the grazing of cheeks for the making of society.
Among the aristocracy, cheek grazing continued until the 14th century, when the Black Death put paid to the practice. Dead it remained for the next several centuries, only to be resurrected a little more than a century ago. Though historians cannot explain why, this resurrection may have a link to the era's "democratization of luxury," when goods once limited to an elite became available to a wider public. In short, la bise is, like all traditions, an invention. It is just that it was invented a bit later than, say, the wearing of tartan kilts in Scotland and a bit earlier than the swearing of the Pledge of Allegiance in America.
But an invented tradition is not an illegitimate invention. With the re-creation of la bise, it was no longer the few but the many who now practiced it. While hands were pecked in aristocratic salons, cheeks were smooched in working-class cafes. Yet as the practice shifted and shimmied over time, the planting of lips on cheeks became the general rule. It is an accordion-like rule, however, that expands and contracts according to region. While in Paris the rule is two bises, it is four in parts of the north and west, while three is the practice in Provence. (In parts of Corsica, five bises is the rule, which helps to explain why the buses rarely run on time there.)
But these variations beg the big question: why la bise at all? Why the complicated choreography of two sets of lips brushing simultaneously against two sets of cheeks? Why not a nod of the head, a wave of one hand or the shaking of two hands? Or, for that matter, why not the air kisses that have become an American tradition?
The answer to the question aligns with the question posed by the spread of the coronavirus in France. For many scholars, sociability is the foundation of French culture. In a nation that places such importance on this particular trait, la bise, as sociologist Dominique Picard observes, "represents the maximum of social contact." It is, she argues, "an integral part of our value system and, in this sense, is specifically French."
What happens, though, when practices that maintain the "maximum of social contact" lurch to a full stop? In his account of the plague in Athens, ancient historian Thucydides was the first, and hardly the last, to trace how the decay of social practices mirrored the progress of the disease. "As the disaster deepened," he wrote, "men became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane."
While la bise began as a profane practice, it has achieved a quasi-sacred status in France. While agreeing that the suspension of this practice makes a world of sense as a prophylactic measure, we might also recall that, as a psychological measure, it underscores how easily such a world is unmade. This reminder is especially poignant for a people for whom a kiss is not just a kiss.
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Zaretsky, who teaches history at the University of Houston, is the author of the forthcoming book "The Subversive Simone Weil."