A Brief History of Cuddling

“The most important event in cuddling history.”
 —Samantha Hess

In the beginning, everything that existed in the universe, all the matter, was compressed into a single spot, an infinitely narrow point, a singularity, a cosmic cuddle. How long did it last? We cannot say, because a singularity allows for no time. The world we know was born when that endless cuddle ended in a big bang that rudely thrust that cuddle apart. Empedocles, an early Greek philosopher, imagined a world of elements dominated by love and strife, pulling together and pushing away. Legend has it Empedocles declared himself an immortal god, and jumped into the fires of Mt. Etna. But he seems to have been right about fundamental forces.

For a long time, cosmologists wondered whether gravity would bring everything together again into a final cuddle, but lately it’s been found that a mysterious force is scattering creation apart. Cuddles, in the time of scattering before life, were a somewhat random, haphazard thing, as clouds of elements circled warily before slowly cuddling into stars. Smaller booms and busts made innumerable comets, asteroids, and planets, great and small, when, from the cuddling perspective, things started to get more interesting. Liquid water finally precipitated into oceans on the earth’s cooling crust. Organic molecules found each other, and around each other began to grow and wind. Such a kind of cuddling was the birth of life.

Is the gentle pull of moon on earth and earth on moon a cuddle with invisible arms? I tend to think so. In point of fact, matter never actually touches, arms wrap around and press their electric forces in opposition, everything being more or less a buzz of electric hope through the mostly empty space that makes up atoms. Meanwhile, as life, sloshed in the seas by the moon’s tide, sloshed together, some single-cells, budding, found themselves cuddled right inside others, and out of this symbiotic relationship eukaryotes were born. So far, cuddling is a kind of cosmic longing of matter for itself, from the mote of dust to a planet and its moon, then a sort of vague stumbling of life into other life, until increasing complexity stumbled on a new impetus for cuddling, sexual reproduction. Life actively sought other life out.

There it was. For hundreds of millions of years cuddling was more or less mercenary, when not accidental, and often fraught with danger. Fish, in their cool, armored shimmering, did away with it altogether. For babies, the oceans were wombs. Then one arm of life blundered up onto land, tentatively, then with conviction. Eggs had to get hard, and needed warmth to incubate, but it took the emergence of hot blood in dinosaurs to get parents to hatch their eggs by cuddling them. Did the dinosaurs cuddle? Their descendents, the birds do, just look at swans leaning upon each-other’s necks. Furtive little mammals had hot blood too, and huddled in their nests, may have felt the benefits of cuddling with each other, of their internal heat.

Cuddling was a family affair, parents to children and couples. Packs expanded the idea of family, and cuddling became a tool, too, for settling questions of hierarchy. With this new, expanded social dimension, some of the well-known cuddling techniques were born: the subconscious, slow creep, closer and closer; the last second dive in; the single paw or nuzzle; the while the other one is asleep cuddle; all we can observe in our furry pets today, as well as techniques for getting away. Four-legged friends mastered the art of spooning, while lovebirds nestled upright against one another on the branch.

The next great evolution in cuddling came with the arrival of arms. Our simian ancestors could reach across the twig-crossed sky to grab and pluck a red-hanging fruit, could ply off husks with their fingers, and lope on arms, from branch to branch. And so, could reach an arm over shoulder, or around the back, could find a partner’s other arm, and hold, really hold. So our modern cuddling was finally born. In Tanzania, at Laetoli, the footsteps of three of our hominid ancestors, walking upright now, were covered by the ash of a volcano more then 3 million years ago. Two walked side-by-side, with another following close behind. Perhaps the two walked arm in arm, cuddling.

The heroic human pioneers of cuddling are lost to us in the mists of prehistory and myth. Who were the real Cupid and Psyche, cuddling for eternity in marbles the world around? Unknown are the first cuddle on a hill, with the red sun spilling down onto a vast plain, the first cuddle in a tower, with the moon and stars a little closer, the first cuddle on the steps of a theater while the masked actors danced below. Even in historic times, cuddling gets short shrift. Do we hear about the cuddling of Alexander, or Caesar’s more tender moments, and what about firsts? Surely there was the first cuddle on the slopes of Everest, for warmth, or the first, ruffled cuddle on a hot-air balloon, or in space?

What is a cuddle? Does it take two? Temple Grandin brought technology into the cuddling game, invented a machine to cuddle. She also invented the chutes that cuddle cattle to their ends in slaughterhouses; a reassuring pressure that keeps us from spiraling out of our skin. The cuddle is a share of warmth, physical and emotional, but it’s also a reminder, and comfort, of the original oneness of matter. Dogs and cats will cuddle themselves, backing up into a den or hiding place touching on several sides. A memory can cuddle from within.

We relive the universal history of the cuddle, each on our own. From the initial, broken connection with the womb of our mother, to the first, furtive reach, the practice of closeness, the shoulders, the touching arms, the first cuddle to yesterday’s on the couch in front of a movie, with the blanket half falling off. One can only hope, thinking into the distant future, that the history of cuddling will, one way or the other, never be done.


Benjamin Harnett (@benharnett) is a senior digital-infrastructure engineer at The New York Times, and publishes the newsletter, “Don’t Read Me” (http://www.tinyletter.com/benjaminharnett). In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Quarterly, Wag’s Revue, and the Columbia Review.

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