The Magic Kiss of Death

POPE SOUTH SUDAN RETREAT VATICAN

Pope Francis kisses the feet of South Sudan President Salva Kiir April 11, 2019 at the conclusion of a two-day retreat at the Vatican for the political leaders of African nations. The pope begged the leaders to give peace a chance. At right is Vice President Riek Machar. (Photo Catholic News Service/Vatican Media via Reuters)

In an article that came out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy laments how the kiss is now in danger of disappearing from practice in public. “Who can think of kissing a stranger […] without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk?”
In her remarks, I recall my culture shock as a twenty-something graduate student in Germany, when I was often greeted by women and sometimes men with two kisses on each side of the cheek, and back again. “But that’s the right way!” they would remind, everytime I stopped at one cheek or offered my hand instead, which was considered rude. I would retort out of ignorance, “Well, that’s the European way!” When I came home, and perhaps with increased social interaction, I was dumbfounded at how the Filipino beso-beso (double kiss) found its way from Manila’s mestizo “high society” to being a petit-bourgeois convention. The number of kisses became a mark of sophistication, if not social standing. I cringe at this confession, but such was the pressure to conform sometimes, that I made sure to do it right with certain people as a subtle way of brandishing my European education.
Arundhati Roy was certainly not alone in scrutinizing the kiss amidst the rampage of an epidemic. In 2009, the French seriously considered banning la bise (kiss greetings) during the short-lived panic over the swine flu. In her question: “Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet?” I recall the lessons from Ioan P. Culianu’s book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance and re-evaluate, under the lens of magic, our day-to-day gestures as part of a psychosocial complex currently undergoing an overhaul.
In his essay “On Magic,” Giordano Bruno talks about Pope Julius, who rejected and dismissed those who would pray, beg or cry. “But if someone approached him with humour and wit, after kissing his foot, that person would be able to get from him whatever he wanted.” For centuries, people ritualistically kissed the crosses on the pope’s shoes until Pope Paul VI completely discontinued the custom of kissing the papal foot.
Bruno’s anecdote also underlines practices and taboos around kissing as beliefs that are subject to cultural conventions and relationships of power. On one hand, there are areas in Southeastern Europe where you can tell the ethnicity of a person by the number of kisses given on the cheek. This is often said as a joke, but not without basis in truth. The Socialist fraternal kiss, on the other hand, has an ideological meaning. As a special form of greeting between socialist leaders, the act demonstrated the special connection that exists between socialist countries, consisting of an embrace, along with a series of three kisses on alternate cheeks. While Communist leaders in Asia consented to receive kisses from Europeans and Cubans, they themselves did not practice the kiss. It became famous via Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev, who were photographed exercising the ritual during the 30th Anniversary of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik. The photograph became so etched in popular culture, that it was subsequently reproduced into a graffiti painting on the Berlin Wall named My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love. We see a number of parodies of this morte di bacio (kiss of death) in politics, the most recent being between Trump and Putin, Trump and Netanyahu, ad nauseam.
In relation to the cultural and ideological unions represented by a kiss, we learn from Culianu that for Pico di Mirandola, the kiss is the supreme expression of mystical union. Pico digs into the concept of the Binsica, otherwise known as “death by God’s kiss” from the 11th century Guide of the Perplexed by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. Pico embroiders on the theme the ideas of another Jewish thinker, Gersonide, whom he read in Latin. The idea of the binsica originated in a sixth-century Jewish Midrash on the Song of Songs. According to this work, the soul of Moses was taken by God with a kiss. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon interpreted this kiss to mean ecstatic death, while later Jewish theologians had a different view: the kiss was a metaphor for the soul’s abandonment of earthly attachments and ascent toward God’s presence.
Pico della Mirandola later adapted the concept into Christian philosophy through his Commentary on a Canzone by Benivieni. Pico believed that “unless the operator uses a medium, he will soon die of Binsica, or dryness of the brain.”
Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont opposed him. The Binsica does not result in death. First, because the instruments of phantasy do not operate towards death. But anyone given the Binsica may fall into a coma, “as if they did not exist.” Van Helmont believes that because the act originates from God, that it is a principal act of divine mercy. Van Helmont further defines binsica as a form of divine illumination that does not damage life, because God Himself is life and light. The kiss of God is to be a supreme act of divine love, and being in proximity with God, the amorous soul experiences liquatio mentis (a liquefaction of the mind), equivalent to a drowning in the light. Achieving interface, the mind essentially becomes a true mirror of God, “reflected in the glass of its own divinity.”
For all practical purposes, the intellect becomes God in that single instance. However, Van Helmont retreats from the potentially heretical affirmations of the complete loss of identity in divinity, or the assumption of divinity by the mind. He insists that the mind remains the Image of God, not God Himself:
…although the intellect in the intellectual act transforms itself into the species of the thing understood: yet it keeps its own unmixed property and essence to which it immediately returns once this act ceases.
In contrast, the Italian Qabbalist Menahem ben Benjamin Recanati in Be’ur ‘al ha-Torà, makes the binsica the culmination of a mystical journey in which “death by kiss indicates the union of the one who kisses with the beloved, since in that moment his soul joins the Shechin,” the divine spark that inhabits every man, even the most wicked.
One principle of magic from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus which according to Culianu was revived by Nicholas of Cusa is the principle of no differentiation in the cosmos, neither ontological nor spatial, between “high” and “low,” “above” and “below.”
That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.

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Filipino Luis Tuason and American Dimples Cooper in 1926 in front of the ruins of a church share the first real kiss in Philippine Cinema. (Photo Esquire Philippines)

If the kiss is magical in the sacred realm, then it must also be the case in the realm of the profane. A kiss in the movies presents to us the diametrically opposed equivalent of a divine kiss given to and by the Pope.
The ability of the kiss to move the story forward is magical enough. Beyond that, we believe that a kiss, as a concrete expression, is underpinned by a transcendent power of projecting the desires of a repressed multitude of sinners through the power of the camera. This, afterall, is the power of cinema, is it not?
The world’s first kissing scene captured on film was shot in April 1896 at Edison Studios in New Jersey. It was between May Irwin and John Rice, a re-enactment of the kiss from the stage musical The Widow Jones. The 18-second kiss—which includes rubbing of noses and pecks—shocked the church and the conservative establishment who called for its censorship.
It was not long before passionate displays of affection became routine in American movies. But the most explicit was performed by reel and real life lovers, Greta Garbo and Gilbert Roland, in the movie, The Flesh and the Devil, shown in 1926. Their torrid, open-mouth kissing was the first French kiss in an American film. Their moment of osculation was photographed by William Daniels, using natural lighting (such as a lit match stick), and was described as “very erotic.”
I learned recently from a magazine article in Esquire, that the first on-screen kiss in Philippine cinema came in the same year. A US-trained filmmaker, Vicente Salumbides, began a film project with the title Tatlong Hambog (Three Braggarts), a silent romantic comedy starring the Luis Tuason, a nationally ranked boxer and the Filipina-American actress named Dimples Cooper, who appeared on the vaudeville stage.
The film story called for a kissing scene, which directors usually simulated using tricks such as fading out the lights before the lips of the actors touched or shooting from the back so as to hide the actors’ lips.
Salumbides and his stars dared break the kissing taboo by performing the real thing—a full mouth-to-mouth kiss that was shot against the ruins of the old Guadalupe Church in Makati, then a suburb of Manila. The kiss is recognized as the first historic osculation in Philippine movies. The event not only paved the way for more expressive kissing scenes in future Philippine movies, it also served as a barometer of society’s changing moral outlook.
Culianu in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, writes that “the capacity for and understanding of magic was, before the scientific revolution, understood as an achievement of desire, the ascension of eros to a certain potency.”
I think of cinema this way. As a particular present-day medium with the capacity to arouse the eros to a certain potency for massive social feeling. That’s why cinema is an instrument that is indispensable in the toolkit of any modern day politician or social magician. We think of cinema as a modern mass medium but it definitely has cultural roots in ancient theater and religion. That the first kiss in Philippine cinema was done in the ruins of an old church, cannot be more poetic.
Cinema began in the Philippines through the production of religious movies, among them, the Pasion (Passion), the filming of a religious play, and Los Milagros de la Virgen de Antipolo (Miracles of the Virgin of Antipolo). The first “blockbuster” in Philippine cinema was a 1911 silent film called the Life of Moses, which is said to have shown the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Ten Commandments. It would be interesting to know if this movie showed the “death by the kiss of God” that I mentioned earlier.

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A child sticks his neck out to kiss the foot of the Black Nazarene. 2020 (Photo Philippine Daily Inquirer)

There are instances, and it is quite rare, when a kiss is both sacred and profane or somewhere in between. I was back home in the Philippines in January where I was able to witness the annual Pahalik (kissing) of devotees of the Black Nazarene (Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno or in Tagalog, the Poóng Itím na Nazareno). The Black Nazarene is a statue of a cross-bearing, dark-skinned Christ brought to the Philippines by the Recollects around the sixteenth century. Authorities estimate that over 500,000 devotees lined up barefoot in the kissing ritual, and throughout the week, it was attended by 9 million people.
Aside from kissing the foot of the Black Nazarene, the Pahalik consists of wiping a piece of cloth on the image. The ritual is held on the eve of the Traslación (the procession), whose power is based on the folk belief that cloth can absorb the powers of a holy object (usually and specifically its curative abilities). This sanctity-through-contact descends from the ancient custom of ex brandea or the cloth wiped on the bodies or tombs of the Twelve Apostles, itself part of the wider category of third-class relics.
In the pahalik, you would line up in the morning to get to the back of a grandstand where a hole is cut from a plywood wall. You would have to stick your head in to kiss the left foot of the Black Nazarene. The only thing I can compare the experience to is being scandalized by the gloryholes I’ve seen in Parisian nightclubs. There’s a sense of haphazard construction around the whole thing. After cuing for a whole day, there are only a few seconds given to each devotee. It was not enough to whisper one “Our Father”. I managed to wipe around 20 pieces of cloth on the foot but I did not kiss it. Aside from the fact that I no longer have the same belief in religion, news of COVID-19 had just broken. Did I break the magic for everyone?
The pahalik is a postcolonial religious practice that mixes Spanish colonial Catholicism and indigenous beliefs. Manila’s robust Folk Catholicism thrives on images created by the devotees themselves which acquire a certain holiness when they become instrumental in the performance of a “miracle.” Articles of devotion such as scapulars, crucifixes, and rosaries, which are meant for use in traditional Catholic ritual, are peddled by street vendors alongside an array of charms, amulets, and herbs that promise magical cures for just about anything that ails the body and spirit from a toothache to abortifacients. In this universe, which is centered around the physical space of the Quiapo Church in downtown Manila, the distinction between devotional objects sanctioned by official religion and magical charms derived from popular piety is blurred; they are not mutually exclusive realms.
Catholic religious articles have niched seamlessly into the pre-Hispanic belief in the power of anting-anting or talismans. Indigenous Filipinos believed that wearing an anting-anting close to one’s person bestows invincibility and provides protection from evil. Residuum of this belief continues to thrive in postcolonial Folk Catholicism; it is not uncommon to see people dipping scapulars in the basilica’s holy water font and then hawking them as though they were anting-anting. Interestingly, the incongruous blending of official ritual with vestiges of primal religion transpires within the premises of a Catholic basilica, raising questions about the degree of the church’s tolerance for religious syncretism.
We can trace Folk Catholicism as an offshoot of the Reconquista in the twelfth century. Culianu pointed out that there was “a huge flux and reflux of data and cultural values” in Spain which was the center of this movement.
In proportion as the Christian kingdom of Castille advances and the Arabs retreat, “specialists” or adventurers throng the field, fascinated by the wealth and culture of the Moslems, and begin their feverish work of translation in which wonder and religious controversy intermingle. Quickly, due chiefly to the college of translators installed at Toledo, the Latin West comes into contact with the principal records of Arab culture (and of Greek Antiquity) in the fields of medicine, philosophy, alchemy, and religion.
Just as I am fascinated by the persistence of pagan pre-colonial practices, Culianu is also baffled by the reflux of Arab Culture in Spain or what carries it back. He speculates that this is due “perhaps (to) traces of Christian mysticism evident in Ibn ‘Arabi, the great Sufi master of the thirteenth century.” Catholic mysticism which reached the Philippines before the Reformation (belatedly under Protestant America) may also be at work in the rituals and talismans around the Black Nazarene. They were probably surprised at finding Islam, the very same enemy they had been fighting at home, reach Asia before them. According to Culianu, the underlying motivation for the syncretism is the “profit from the exchange of values” primarily for the Christians.
What finds striking representation here is the Filipino’s lopsided attachment and devotion to the victim-image of the suffering Christ at the expense of the liberating image of the resurrected Christ. Understood alongside the other widely venerated victim-images of Christ in Philippine Catholic ritual, namely the crucified Christ, and the Santo Entierro or the interred body of the Christ, the Black Nazarene becomes iconic of the mimetic appropriation of the passion of Christ in actual folk religious practice. I am referring to the morbid ritual of self-flagellation and crucifixion that is an annual Good Friday devotion in Filipino popular piety, specifically among poor communities. Penitential self-mortification was a colonial import that was not accepted too easily by the native culture. Its fusion with the pre-Hispanic value known as damay or solidarity, however, caused the ritual to be viewed as empathy for and participation in the passion of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the religious syncretism found a secure place in Filipino popular piety notwithstanding its aberrance from present-day Church teaching:
In popular religious movements, belief in the need to participate in the suffering of Jesus through stress on pity and empathy. The focus on the victim-Christ in folk Catholicism reinforces the desire to personally relate oneself to the Passion through ascetic practices. Hence, the kisses on the foot of god.
I’m sure that there’s a rationality behind religious rituals and in my studies, I often wondered what basic assumptions were in play to make odd practices reasonable. I wondered whether, like Renaissance magicians, the Filipinos might have no abstract concept of magic and power as a relationship strictly between human beings. Reading Culianu’s volumes on Bruno, Ficino, Pico and following it up with my own reading confirmed that this was the case, yet they had a clear concept of ‘concrete’ power, a kind of mana (supernatural power) immanent in the cosmos, and detectable in magical objects, spirits and human beings (from the head to foot, including sexual organs). This seemed to me the key that could open the door to pursuing the concept of magical thinking across social fields. Culianu helps explain the behaviour and aspirations that would be deemed irrational by today’s sociological theories and I am delighted because he gives a different picture of the West, and sees many similarities with my own place of origin. Before the arrival of Machiavelli, the first Western political philosopher to exclude anything ‘divine’ or ‘magical’ from his thinking, there was already a wealth of study on politics and society that were repressed by waves of Inquisition and the shadow of the Reformation. The irony is that we still study magical beliefs of different societies in different areas of study.
In the Pahalik, the act of kissing is the climax of a yearlong devotion that draws mainly from partaking in the suffering of Jesus Christ who is on his way to death on the cross. It is as if by kissing the foot, the devotee is simultaneously easing the suffering of God, and physically drawing power from the experience. Coming from a reading of Pico’s Binsica, I can’t help but see a reversal of roles in this set-up. It is now man kissing his God and not God kissing the man. The Pahalik, may contain some elements of the pre-colonial rituals that have roots in Hinduism, which were practiced until the middle of the 19th century in the Philippines, but has since devolved into watered-down versions of Catholic feasts, without the sexual orgies and depictions of sexual organs. Underneath fortifications of Catholic churches, archaeologists have excavated phallic artifacts and images which can be assumed as the paraphernalia for traditional fertility rituals involving women held during the dry season in the Philippines. These festivals coincided with Catholic feasts and are celebrated homogeneously. Men who dressed as women were also able to participate in these pagan celebrations. During the course of fertility rituals, women assumed their pre-colonial status as matriarchs and men all over town were said to kiss the feet of women as a gesture of subservience. Other items in conflict were also implied to be reversed along with the status of men against the status of women: paganism against Christianity, the primitive against the civilized.
As we keep ourselves in isolation in fear of an invisible enemy that threatens our health and well-being, the Pahalik and the annual kissing devotions it descended from, might soon be extinct. Contemporary rationality makes it easier for us to believe in the virus than to believe in the magical power of devotion, not even in understanding its ability to bring people together and willingly suffer. This is what Ioan P. Culianu would think as real magic. What I learn from folk belief is that the magic is in the act of kissing and to experience its power you only have to believe that you are not kissing an image of God but God himself.

 

 

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