Kiss of Death, Kiss of Life: Two Views on Love in Literature

To the Greeks, love was rarely positive. Hesiod talks about the nature of Love in what we might call Lovecraftian terms today. Love is a creature of the primordial void; a child born of chaos.

Love then arose, most beautiful among the immortal gods, who loosens the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and mortal men.

-Hesiod

This negative view of love can be seen in many Greek tragedies, where the affections of heroes or heroines – whether they be Oedipus, Dido, or Ariadne – rarely turn out for the best. In modern western literature, however, we have largely abandoned this view of love in favor of the Christian romantic view, which prizes romance as a symbol of Christ and the Church, His bride.

But tropes which adopt the more dismal, classical view of love remain, some of them stemming from the classical sources themselves. Others add a surprisingly Christian twist to the old view, leading to a disturbing fusion.

The kiss of the death falls neatly into this latter category. In this trope, a person either knowingly or unknowingly causes the death of another person through a display of affection. This particularly cynical understanding of love is peculiar to Christianity. It would never work in a pagan sense because the pagan never had a high view of love to begin with, and so it could not be horrifying.

Indeed, the New Testament is probably the original source of this idea. Judas’ kiss is one of the most iconic moments in the New Testament, and every Vampire or Femme Fatale that came afterwards have something of Judas in them.

Vampire, by Edvard Munch

The first type of kiss of death which is most similar to the kiss of Judas is the vampiric kiss. The affection that a character gives is used as a cover for their own selfishness. This type of kiss can be familial in nature, such as in the case of the notorious ‘Mafia’ kiss, popularized by the Godfather, where a Mafioso uses a kiss to signal who he wishes to kill. It may also be sexual, such as is in the darkly amorous advances of Dracula.

It can be used as a euphemism, as seen in the case of the Dementor’s kiss in Harry Potter, where a creature bestows a symbol of affection without any pretense of good intention, and the word kiss is simply used a euphemism for the hunger of a shadowy, ghost-like figure. It can also be used ironically, such as the case with Kissing Kate Barlow, in the book Holes, where a notorious outlaw kisses those she kills, as a way of demonstrating how she was betrayed in turn. In every case, the life is destroyed by the pretext of love.

There are times when the romantic view of love and the twisted Christian version intersect in this trope, and that’s when the kiss of death is not intended to be fatal, but nevertheless kills. A straight example of this concept can be seen in X-Men’s character Rogue, who inadvertently draws the life force out of anyone she touches, at one point, nearly killing her boyfriend in the process.

Nathaniel Hawthorne takes this idea even further in his short story Rappaccini’s Daughter where the kiss of death never actually happens, the main character is simply warned that the kiss of his beloved is poisonous, and brings tragedy on himself in his attempts to cure her. Here love finds its way back to the Greek status of being fundamentally tragic.

The Kiss of Death requires a high view of love for its horror take root. In it, the bond of affection which is often used for the betterment of both individuals is either used by one individual to exploit the other, or unknowingly part and parcel to the destruction of them both. In many ways Christianity, by holding love in very high esteem, also paved the way in literature to unseen depths.

The relationship in literature between fathomless heights and unfathomable depths is exemplified by the existence of an inverse trope: the kiss of life. We are well aquainted with this story, which goes by many names, including ‘love’s first kiss’, ‘true love’s kiss’ and other alibis. It is so well-known at this point that it now appears mostly as a parody.

Image result for sleeping beauty kiss

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam

In the kiss of life, a stone-cold corpse is kissed by a lover, who may very well be acting in despair that moment, without any hope that his love will be realized. And just like that, the corpse awakens, and the moment gives way to rapture as an impossible dream manifests: death is not permanent. Love conquers the grave.

If Judas with his betrayal of Christ exemplifies the kiss of death, then Jesus Himself may be a precursor to the kiss of life, for we are well acquainted with the tragedy of His death on the cross, and the despair of his disciples as all hope seemed to be lost, and they congregated together hiding from unfriendly enemies. The moment of His resurrection is a triumph that has echoed for two thousand years.

Elsewhere on this site, my colleague has written about the relationship between fantasy and horror, and the dichotomy of love expressed here is a good example of it. The astounding moment of triumph following a moment of bleak despair, described by Tolkien as a eucatastrophe, enables – through its subversion – the astounding terror of a world where that despair is never conquered, and the triumph is never realized; where love is indeed a grim facade for death.

Book Notes: On Russian Literature, and Western Minds

Editor’s NoteSometimes Brendan and I randomly get interesting ideas when writing a good book. These observations will now be published in the category of Book Notes. Let me know what you think about this!

Russian Literature is both fascinating and daunting to the Western reader. Even Westerners who read and enjoy Russian literature tend to find themselves somewhat confounded by its contents. The whole of a Russian novels feels like a mystical experience, and often leaves reviewers rambling and raving about it in much the same way that the characters in Russian novels rant about their life experiences.

To explain why, one must first explain something about Russian characters that makes them qualitatively different from Western ones; especially what makes Russian heroes different from Western heroes. If one thinks of a Western Hero like Batman, the Doctor or King Arthur, almost all of them are fettered by some deep code that drives all of their actions. Even allegedly chaotic Western heroes, such as Iron Man, Robin Hood, or Brer Fox are always driven by some deep internal set of laws that they will never violate.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.

Riversong, on the Doctor

Moral complexity in Western characters is almost always driven by conflicts in their ethical code. Legal thinking is a deep part of the Western Mind, with lengthy, tangled roots in the Roman legal system. But that’s a subject for another time.

On the other hand: heroes in Russian literature are almost entirely lead by emotion. Think Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Chichikov in Dead Souls, and Anna Karenina in the book of the same name. All are deeply flawed characters who follow their heart throughout chaotic circumstances, for better or for worse.

The most jarring idea in Russian literature is that the conflict between heart and head is rarely given any attention. Almost all Russian characters struggle between giving into one emotion or another. Raskolnikov is divided between the raw desire for power and love for his family.

Anna Karenina is divided between her erotic passion for a handsome officer and her respect for her husband. The bustling number of side characters almost always have their own set of passions. In Crime and Punishment for instance, Lebayastikov’s erstwhile desire for a socialist utopia; in Anna Karenina, Levin’s desire for a simple life. Characters with a Western-style legal mind are fairly rare, and never treated sympathetically.

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

Alyosha Karamazov

Ivan in Brother’s Karamazov is a slamming indictment of the Western mind. It is treated as a morbid, death-obsessed madness that occasionally infects the souls of well-meaning people. Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Western Nation State, Western Lawyers, Atheism, and Communism are treated as manifestations of a power hungry disease of the mind rather than ideals to be followed.

By contrast, the real struggle for Russian heroes often has to do with two conflicting desires. One is usually a higher desire – the desire for God, love of family, love of the Russian Church, joy in a simple life. The alternative is almost always nihilism, emptiness, intellectual morbidity, power, or hedonism.

Either way, both good and evil are treated as obsessions. What divides the heroes from the villains is not whether or not one is obsessed but what one is obsessed about. The heroes are obsessed with the good things in life, and the villains are obsessed with insanity. By contrast, in Western literature, obsession is almost always a strictly negative trait.

 

How to deal with smug critics

The Medievals referred to Philosophy as the handmaiden of Theology. In their view, Theology was the more important of the two, because it laid down important incontrovertible truths, while Philosophy merely analyzed the secondary truths of nature. It wasn’t that the Medievals thought Philosophy was unimportant; they just realized its proper place.

The same sort of hierarchy applies to Literature and Literary Criticism.  

Literature provides the source material for Literary Criticism. This is sort of common sense, as most of us would rather read our favorite novels than books about our favorite novels.

But Literary Criticism is important, especially for the budding writer. It allows us to analyze books and tells us how they’re shaped. Literary Criticism is to Writing what Music Theory is to Musicians. It helps to deepen your understanding of your craft, beyond the knowledge gained from practicing it.

The first sort of objection that opponents of literary criticism make is that it’s snobbish or elitist. This is the probably one of the worst objections that one can hurl at literary criticism since it’s one that most of the people who use it face regularly. If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

Why we hate critics

There is, however, a rational reason behind this reaction. Most of us have watched a movie, or read a book, feeling amazed and awed by the sheer brilliance of it. We then proceeded to log onto the internet to see what others thought about the thing we thought was brilliant, and lo and behold, the first article we read is something written by a self-important literary critic who goes on to make mincemeat of our precious masterpiece. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

Who do they think they are? That book/movie was good! The critic is just a cold, grumpy intellect. On the other hand, we get the spirit of things.

Fortunately enough, pop culture has granted us an excellent illustration of this principle only in the last few weeks. The premiere of the long anticipated Suicide Squad by Warner Bros. ushered in a tremendous amount of negative feedback from film critics, while many moviegoers found it enjoyable. This clash between popular and professional opinions culminated in a well publicized petition to shut down review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and the petition is (at the time of writing) at 22,304 supporters.

suicide

But this sort of reaction throws out the baby with the bathwater. Literary Criticism is no more the villain in this situation than Philosophy is when we’re confronted with Postmodernism or Materialism. Just because bad Literary Criticism exists does not mean we should abandon the subject entirely. By studying literary criticism, not only can you improve your writing skills, but you’ll also gain proper tools to understand why that critic you hated was so wrong. Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Instead of trying to silence the voices of professional critics who despised Suicide Squad, loyal patrons of the film should have been prepared to argue why the critics attacking it were wrong in their assessment. Likewise, if your own writing is being attacked by others, you should be prepared to listen. If you are acquainted with good criticism, you should be prepared to counter bad criticism.

Another objection to learning literary criticism, which is pretty reasonable, usually goes something like this: “But, honestly dude, I’m not trying to write some great literary work. I just want my novel to be fun. Why should I study literary criticism?”

Because honestly, to write really good pulp fiction, a writer should usually have one foot in the literary. At least get your feet wet. The reason why fiction like Firefly, Warhammer or Star Wars is so dang good is that the writers usually know their literature and literary criticism.

That being said, it does take more than just lit theory to write decent lit theory. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

Now, if you aren’t quite the literary type, I suggest you tackle some of the great works of literature before you start tackling literary criticism. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great place to start. If you are the literary type, but still sort of vague on what criticism’s all about, try Matthew Arnold’s The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.

It’s public domain, so like all things both worthy and unworthy, you can find it on the Internet.