A cigarette has a more poignant flavor when it is the last. The others have their own special taste too, peculiar to them, but it is less poignant. The last has an aroma all its own, bestowed by a sense of victory over oneself and the sure hope of health and strength in the immediate future.
When I was sixteen and not yet a smoker, Allen Ginsberg gave a poetry reading at my Manhattan private school. He performed Blake’s “Tiger” self-accompanied on a hurdy-gurdy, and I still hear his stroke-slowed slurry voice whenever I read the poem. For his next act, he produced a pair of clacking Malian or Xhosa rhythm sticks and he sang a little jingle of his own:
Don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, click-click,
Smoke dope, smoke dope, smoke dope, smoke dope,
click-click, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke.
Don’t smoke, click-click, click-click, click-click,
Suck cock, suck cock, suck cock, suck cock,
suck clit, suck clit, suck clit, suck clit,
Click-click, click-click, don’t smoke.
In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris. Now I know that when shaggy, Dionysian Allen Ginsberg takes on the role of forbidding father, and you still take up the habit, you must really be on the wrong side of history.
In a reactionary age characterized by the end of public-service progressivism as we know it, the few who cling with hope to New Deal values of a state concerned to improve the lives of its citizens can also hang on to studies like Oxford’s International Smoking Statistics, a report that records a consistent decline in European and American smoking since a high point in the early 1960s. Even if the data is skewed by underreporting, the progressive can find comfort by noting that the impulse to lie about smoking is greater than ever. Shameful denial to total eclipse is but a step.
From the standpoint of medical enlightenment, the end of smoking is a necessary part of the American civilizing process, like the decline of laudanum use, the advent of hand-washing, and the introduction of health inspections for food plants and restaurants at the beginning of the 20th century. We are living through a long moment that ought to prolong, if not improve, American life. We may still gorge ourselves, drive big cars, spread gluttonously over the earth, and kill for sport, but smoking is taboo. That marine photographed smoking a cigarette over his M16 in the ruins of Fallujah—an icon that returned us briefly to that “Greatest Generation” when cigarettes were the soldier’s friend and soldiers were our friends—led newspapers to print dozens of angry letters protesting the glorification of smoking. It has now become possible for us to imagine a smokeless future, as people once less modestly imagined an end to poverty, the abolition of private property, or universal justice. And smokers too, defiant or ashamed, can see it coming. Whether we want to or not, it’s time to quit.
Granted the liquidation of smoking is being achieved mostly through an unpleasantly punitive and regressive campaign of individual reeducation. The tobacco companies have proved resilient, despite lawsuits. They benefit from America’s aggressive international-trade policy, which slaps sanctions on nations that adopt antismoking laws now common in the US, and they wisely have spread their holdings to include just about everything we put in our mouths: processed cheese, light beer, cheap cookies, imported chocolates. So the burden falls on the individual. Higher sales taxes disproportionately affect the poor, who continue to smoke the most.
It’s difficult to convince anyone in the hypersanitary middle classes to take an interest in the injustice of this, since smokers have become a class unto themselves, an embodiment of abjection. Recent laws, like California’s and New York City’s bans on smoking in bars and restaurants, treat individual smokers as bearers of lethal weapons, subject to more stringent pollution regulations than automobiles or coal-fired power plants. A self-destructive act has been turned into an act of aggression, further stigmatizing smokers, already—we know—a very guilty party. Even the tobacco companies believe in the importance of health and fitness. A former Philip Morris CEO, without apparent irony, described himself as a “physical cultist” and claimed that someone who’s fit can do a better job.
Latent puritans, efficiency drones, anticorporate as well as New Age activists: given the forces of right and left, of control and permission, arrayed against it, why does smoking persist? Why do so many take up this cancer-causing social cancer, this useless, pernicious pleasure that erodes our lungs, hardens our arteries, alters our DNA, damages our senses, and darkens our way to dusty death? Why do people continue to resist the inevitable last cigarette? Why do I, after ten years, knowing what I know, continue to do what I do?
“Addiction” doesn’t explain very much. We know the physical symptoms and systems, the aching of nerves as occupied receptors suddenly become free: headaches, irritability, weight gain, alternating diarrhea and constipation, the bodily howls of protest that accompany every effort to stop. As I’m writing this piece, scientists announce that they’ve isolated the gene that controls nicotine addiction. They promise medical treatments along the line of antidepressants, but even more targeted and effective. Elegant research, but it doesn’t reveal why addiction is so much our problem. The native Americans, who—as though in revenge for smallpox—can claim a tally of millions of white victims of their peace pipes, did not have to worry about tobacco addiction before they were pushed onto reservations.
Our addictions are a part of our modernity and a response to modernity, a choice to surrender. Addictions are also attitudes; at first a fact of the body, they become a perspective on the world. We still don’t know why, when given the chance, a rat willingly doses itself to death with nicotine. But if I were a lab rat I would smoke too. If addiction or the oral-compulsive character were truly destiny, why not simply embrace it? “Enjoy your symptom!”—as the Lacanians say—with the hope that a particular object of desire will, some day, fail to satisfy the primal urge. On that day, we will be free, for an instant, to choose the next thing we wish to dominate our lives.
Something about cigarettes resists this easy story of biological boredom. I’m past the point of pure enjoyment, and I often ask myself before the goodnight cigarette, or shortly after morning coffee, or when I find that I’m picking through the garbage, sifting coffee grinds and fruit peels for the half-finished pack I’ve jettisoned in another resolution I’m about to break: what am I doing?
Time to commence some fumo-analysis. It’s a semiparodic enterprise, and not even an original one. Italo Svevo, Triestine-Jewish novelist and friend of James Joyce, coined the term and inaugurated the genre with the character of his painfully ridiculous bourgeois underground man in whose indecisive and self-defeating image I often recognize myself. I can’t even read Zeno’s Conscience without flinching with a sense of personal embarrassment at the character’s tortured inaction. Fumo-analysis is not psychoanalysis. There is no psyche here, only something that substitutes for the soul. What came before was rhetorical tamping. Now I’m unwrapping myself and the discourse of smoking in which I’ve placed myself from the time I first lit up to the moment I decided I no longer really wanted to, and kept doing it regardless. Imagine, for a second, that some dried leaves of my experience have been mixed together and packed along with some additives of other people’s experiences, wrapped in a fine white paper of external events and influences, a full century’s worth of mass-produced cigarettes rolled out into production. Consuming them, I consume myself, and watch the curling rings, knots, arabesques, and drifts of personality go up and out.
Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette,
but usually not more than once.
After another in a week of greasy and barely digestible meals at the cafeteria, my freshman-year roommate L. goes into his trunk and comes out with a satchel of Drum. While he looks for papers, he hands me the pouch—cooling deep blue—and the whole thing feels pleasantly old-fashioned, like a prop in a children’s game of pirates and explorers. I open the pouch and sniff a variable smell: sometimes like raisins and wet earth and grass, others like bitter chocolate and almonds. For a few minutes, there’s no need to burn it. Used to the stale air of diners where I watched my high school friends smoke Camels, I never knew tobacco could be this good. The air in this part of Ohio smells far worse—a mixture of cow shit, highway exhaust, and the cafeteria fry. It needs an antidote and L. has one. We wander off a little way to the edge of a field and L. rolls me my first cigarette. It’s not memorable. Do I cough? Do I fail to inhale? Puff nervously? Spit out little, hairlike pieces of tobacco? Probably. In any case, I’m lightheaded and, amazingly, at peace. Amid so much forced socialization during the first weeks of college, here at last is a moment of shared privacy and trust. L. didn’t ask just anyone to smoke with him. He chose me—the start of a beautiful friendship. A few weeks later I start rolling my own, albeit ineffectively. I’ll never attain the grace or speed to allow me to keep it up as my need grows, but I’ve passed through the sudden nausea that sometimes follows a deep drag, and almost no meal ends without a cigarette. L. and I smoke closer to our room, sometimes as a study break, never alone. One day we realized we’ve smoked five each. “We’d better stop,” says L., a person whose sense of self-discipline I admire as much as his smoking; amazingly, we do.
Every experience has its innocence. Even hardened, compulsive smokers will sometimes be returned to a sense of primal joy, the fugitive spice of their first cigarette. One cigarette in a thousand will remind them. It will taste either disgusting or wonderful, but it will suddenly stop being a habit and become, once again, a new experience. Cigarettes do vary in taste, and some brands are better than others. Cheaper cigarettes really do have more chemicals and less tobacco. I like to think I’m a snob, but out of desperation I’ve smoked some very bad cigarettes (the Israeli Noblesse being by far the worst). The longer one can retain a sense of the purely physical, the better one’s chances of becoming that rare creature, the merely social smoker.
The best and worst of social smokers are cigarette gourmets—the sort of people who would eat scorpions, grasshoppers, and blowfish out of curiosity to see what their bodies can take, or out of hospitable willingness to participate in the bizarre-seeming rituals of another culture. They may enjoy it, but going through the trouble of catching and pickling their own grasshoppers is unthinkable. They are Chad Newsome in The Ambassadors, their own self-confidence proof against any corrupting influence. Their actions do not alter their sense of themselves or pierce their aura of immortality. Smokers can only envy these people—and pity them for what they’ll never know.
“No Civilization Without Cigarettes”
“So, what, you got cigarette burns too?” Gitanas said.
Chip showed him his palm. “It’s nothing.”
“Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”
“Different kind of prison,” Chip said.
I’m under attack and my world is collapsing; my father is dying and has turned against me. He threatens to disinherit me unless I leave the Ohio college he thought wasn’t good enough for his son and return home to the Upper West Side. In the end, I agree to do it, but I’m bitter and distraught, crazed with anger and guilt and sorrow. For almost all of my adolescence my father was terminally ill, but he’d always insisted, as though it were an article of faith between us, that his illness shouldn’t affect me. I loved his nobility, even though it meant that we all tried to behave as though nothing were wrong. And when the contract is suddenly and so brutally revoked, everything holding me up goes away with it. Worse, he makes my capitulation look like greed, a son motivated only by his father’s money. Once I agree to return, he goes back to the usual habits and wants me to continue to study as though nothing were wrong.
I agree and an old application to Columbia is revived. Since I’ve been admitted to the college of his choice, my father sees no reason for me not to go. When I arrive there, a few subway stops from where I grew up, I’ve no one to speak to honestly. I’m too angry to live at home, but the only available housing is a small room in the middle of the Barnard campus on a floor with Orthodox Jews and Korean girls with fiancés who visit on weekends. One night, around Yom Kippur, I realize I’m looking for razor blades, the old-fashioned “injector” kind for slicing myself up; I’ve already punched a hole through the cheap closet door, and have to remind myself not to stand too close to the window. Not suicide, I want violence—and now somehow I’m on the subway, roaring downtown, riding between the cars. I conceive the project of waiting until the train is almost empty and insulting the first tough-looking black guy I see so he’ll beat me up. When I haven’t carried out this resolution by the time the train is at Chambers Street, I give up, get off, and begin to walk uptown. On a deserted stretch of Eighth Avenue, I flip a garbage can. Sometime later, I stop in a Korean deli and buy a pack of cigarettes. My high-school friend W. L. smokes Dunhill Blues and, as this is the first name that comes to mind, I buy a pack. I walk and smoke and start to feel sick and sorry for myself. When I reach my room, I’m exhausted and I fall asleep with my clothes on. The pack is there in my pants pocket, slightly crushed, when I wake up.
According to one study on the psychology of smoking, cigarettes are “a form of self-therapy to stay normal.” Their power as a drug doesn’t rely on a deregulation of the senses, a feeling of transport. Cigarettes offer stability and an illusion of control for people who are already on the brink. For M., my only Columbia friend during those months, cigarettes are part of a long mastery of harming herself, the next sublimating step from cutting her arms with razorblades. Nicotine is a drug for those who fear losing it in rage or weeping. They cannot afford to do so when the rest of the world seems harsh, menacing, and untrustworthy and they themselves are the last line of defense for their family or friends. Before and even with Prozac, it’s the favorite drug of the clinically depressed and terminally anxious.
I would go further: cigarettes are self-therapy for the violent in a violent world. The modern, mass-produced cigarette is the same age as mustard gas, total war, and, also, psychoanalysis. When General Pershing was sending doughboys over the top, he wrote back to the war department, “You ask what we need to win this war. I will tell you. We need tobacco, more tobacco—even more than food.” Wherever there is war, destruction, and fear, you will find smoking. After the Twin Towers were destroyed, New Yorkers briefly began to smoke again in greater numbers.
For Richard Klein, author of Cigarettes Are Sublime, a book written with an odd intellectual boosterism about all aspects of smoking, the cigarette transforms anxiety at the overwhelming sense of impending death—your own or someone else’s—into a manageable death by bits and pieces:
By smoking a cigarette, ingesting a certain quantity of nicotine, the organism is hastening its death, is producing in itself more noxious effects than if it endured the discomfort of anxiety. But the death it is hastening is its own death; it substitutes its own path toward death for the process over which it otherwise had no control. Using cigarettes to master anxiety may be understood as preferring a certain form of dying over an intolerable form of living.
In this way, cigarettes are little packs of everyday dishonesty. Each one bears a message, like a fortune cookie: “You are free,” “You’re in charge,” “You can take it.” Yes, as my friend S. H. remarks “there can be no civilization, no culture, without cigarettes.” Culture, as we know it, requires cigarettes because culture requires sublimation, not only of sex but also of violence.1 That so many on the left support a movement to abolish smoking is itself a surrender to pessimism. It aims to remove unpleasant effects rather than unpleasant causes.
When I first begin to smoke again in New York, the violence is on the surface. I’m frightened of the match flames; I can burn myself or the room; I fantasize that my butts will ignite a forest fire in Riverside Park on the dry fallen leaves, or that a flicked match will catch an oil slick on the street. Whenever I strike a match I wait for the world to end, but I light a cigarette instead. And then it goes out.
The romantic violence of cigarettes fades with use, as with driving. The more I smoke, the more I find cigarettes simply beautiful. They are social and erotic objects. The geometrical neatness of the pack, the primary colors, the neat roundness of the things, all appeal to a sense of order and proportion. The faux heraldry of crests, chevrons, bars, and rampant lions catches a longing for a nonexistent age of order and aristocratic leisure. Apart from sex, smoking is the only activity that is considered to be so mimetically powerful that it can no longer be shown in films or in advertisements. The mere sight of someone smoking is supposed to inspire us with longing to do the same.
As erotic objects they are not the phallic symbols of legend. Cigarettes are sexy not because of what they mean or substitute for, but because of what they do. They focus attention on the lips, the hands, the smoker’s voice. More than satisfaction, they promise attenuation and languor. Although they used to signal availability and brazen expectation, in the age of ass cleavage and mainstream B&D wear, they now point to the sensuality of the repressed and the uncertain. Smokers are usually self-absorbed and catching them in the act captivates the catcher, like watching someone eat or sleep. Before them, you are insignificant but also a necessary spectator. At a bar or party, they are bored; or is it nervousness? Aloof and in need, calm but anxious, the sexuality of the smoker lies in this uncertainty and the invitation to voyeurism. Watch me do this private thing—why are you watching?
In a long getting together marked with a hundred advances and retreats, cigarettes keep M. and I from walking away prematurely, before we’ve learned that all the initial ambivalence was right after all. We learn to smoke together, meeting in front of Low Library, sometimes late at night when she needs a break from work at the student newspaper. There are models: Belmondo in Breathless, Bacall always, any film noir, the tall boy on my hall who has clearly spent more time studying these films than we have.“Sex,” Michel Houellebecq says in Elementary Particles, “is the last reservoir of play left to adults.” He forgets smoking. Like sex, smoking also suggests that there are levels of mastery. You begin with inhaling and move to French inhaling. As far as I can tell, M. smokes partly from the stress of the overcommitted student, partly because of her love for an ex-boyfriend, partly because it allows her the only excuse she’ll give herself to be idle, and, in some part of herself, because of the fine scars on her forearms. She’ll call me and I’ll stop what I’m doing to bring her a cigarette, or we’ll arrange to meet at a given time and she’ll bring them. She likes to walk and smoke. I prefer sitting and people watching. One night, when we’ve compromised and stand in front of her dorm, smoking two or three before she goes up to bed, I begin to think that she might be looking for excuses to stay. Timid, I turn back then, but with hope. Even though she has the pack, I buy another one from the all-night kiosk on 116th. I smoke on my own to remind me of M., as though I can conjure her with enough sacrificed lung tissue.
After our first breakup, I consider stopping. Instead I smoke more and more to remind me of her. For a long time, it’s possible to console myself with the idea that I’m smoking with M. even when I’m doing it alone or in a group of smokers at a party. Everyone I smoke with smokes with M. and all smokers are M. Of course when I catch sight of her smoking with another boy I’m instantly jealous. Those were supposed to be our cigarettes! Worse, I wonder how I am going to stop if M. keeps going without me. We were supposed to be unified in our addiction, to grow up together on it, get tired of it simultaneously, and see ourselves into health. Deflected from that happy end, I’m left as the hopeful smoker—I smoke to keep faith with M. so she will return to me.
In a lover’s discourse, smoking symbolizes longing. Tendrils of smoke drift toward and away from the beloved. Breath mingles visibly. Early cigarette advertising figured this out, transforming smoke into women and women into smoke. Yeats, a creature of those fin de siècle days of “My Lady Nicotine”: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” Do I still love M. then because, having left me, she frees me to smoke and think of her? Has she given me what I wanted after all: the freedom to brood and scheme and sulk and dream endlessly and self-sufficiently; the freedom to always want what I cannot have and not even to want it but to remain refined by self-imposed suffering? It’s a question that M. herself brings to my attention one night after we’ve come back together. Despite the longed-for result, I’m still pathologically jealous. As with all jealous lovers, I create the grounds for the realization of my fears. M. is clever enough to feel herself driven toward betraying me, but that doesn’t stop her. Instead she reminds me that, at the very beginning, she told me to read Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The short of it: That girl is poison! But, as the pale heroine, armored by her father to survive in a hostile world, says to the naive young man with dreams of rescuing her from herself, “Oh was there not from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine.”
Hours of Idleness
Et pour tuer le temps en attendant la mort
Je fume au nez des dieux de fines cigarettes.
At once self-regulatory and rebellious, cigarettes are both an alternative form of keeping time and a way of killing it. Jonathan Franzen: “My best guess about my own attraction to the habit is that I belong to a class of people whose lives are insufficiently structured. The mentally ill and the indigent are also members of this class. . . . We embrace a toxin as deadly as nicotine because we have not yet found the pleasure or routines that can replace the comforting, structure-bringing rhythm of need and gratification that the cigarette habit offers.” This is Franzen at his self-loathing middle-class best. Cigarettes are a way of structuring the void, doing something when doing nothing, creating a simple awareness of one’s body akin to meditation. It turns breathing into something like eating. Just standing around becomes a weighted and purposeful activity. This is part of cigarettes’ appeal to travelers, and one of the reasons that smoking bans in airports and railway stations are especially cruel.
Travelers, however, like the poor, are not people whose lives are “insufficiently structured,” as Franzen would have it. Their lives are structured from above. The poor are also time-poor. They own their time as little as they own anything else. They are waiting in line to cash checks, or in front of an employment office, or at soup kitchens. Much of their lives are spent waiting, not for handouts but for real opportunities commensurate with their potential. Cigarettes are there to offer consolation and a feeling of choice amid the monotony, to transform waiting into hanging out. For people lucky enough to have a job, the smoke break becomes a momentary transgression against the time clock. It’s a little protest against time management which those on the side of time management, the managerial classes, cannot really share. For such people, including writers like Franzen, smoking is either an affectation, a form of reverse snobbery, or done out of a deep sense of estrangement from one’s own regulatory impulses. It’s this alienation from self-discipline in the very discipline of smoking that makes it an antibourgeois drug, and while writers may be lower class financially, they are virtual aristocrats of time.
What Franzen secretly laments, in the form of a wish for a fully administered life, is the propensity shared by writers and nonwriters alike to become bored. Boredom is not class specific and people do not become bored because they are insufficiently regimented. Boredom is dissatisfaction with the existing regimens, a sense of confinement and limitation. At a deeper level, the feeling of boredom records an aesthetic disgust with time as we experience it in daily life.
Boredom is a moment of danger. Cigarettes can be a way of harnessing this danger, the crisis of confidence that ensues when a writer is stuck or lonely and wonders whether his regimen is really a regimen, an honorable structure independently chosen, or, as he has doubtless heard throughout his American life, an extravagant form of shirking. He must prove everyone wrong and show what a good worker he is. Type, pause, light up, type, type, type, ash, type, inhale, type. The cigarette is there to restore concentration and free will, to prove one’s mastery of time, yet, with every repetition, cigarettes risk substituting for concentration and replacing free will.
They also become a style. At some moment in my third year of consistent smoking, my writing begins to slow down. The paragraph is no longer a unit but a challenge. Sentences on their own are enough and barely. I like to think I’ve entered a phase of Flaubertian aestheticism, “Je veux écrire un livre qui ne consiste que des phrases.” I enjoy finding quotations and using them in epigraphs, stand alone little units of potential nourishment. Like smoking, excessive quoting is a vice of those who like vague satisfactions in discrete packages. Exegesis is labor-intensive and not equal to the quick hit of following up one line from Wilde with another from Flaubert and a third from Walter Benjamin. I develop an odd writing rhythm of typing a quotation, having a cigarette, and then waiting. I find that I’ve spent an hour looking around my long single room, leafing through books, thinking about girls or sports. I smoke constantly and with the window open in all weather. Despite smoking, I remain a fresh-air fanatic. I stretch deadlines and write at the last minute. Smoking gets me through the growing sense of shame, the sense that I’ve failed some part of myself. As long as I smoke I keep this feeling at bay, long enough to graduate, long enough to enter graduate school, just long enough. Eventually, I’ll sit in front of my computer and smoke, exclusive of anything else, until I become nauseous and lie down, an invalid and fit for nothing.
A plumber comes to repair a massive leak in the house I’m now renting in Philadelphia. He’s a big guy, almost a foot taller than me, and he stomps over my living-room rugs with caulking-stained Timberlands. He begins hauling out the refrigerator to get at the pipes, grunting. I ask if he’s all right. “I can do it, I’m a man,” he says. Wondering what that makes me, I go out to the garden to read a novel. When he finishes, he comes out to say so. He spreads out on the stoop, notices I’m smoking, and fishes out a battered pack of Monarchs that proves to be empty. I offer him one of mine—still Dunhills, now lights. He has homemade-looking tatoos on his hands and forearms, and I wonder if he’s been in prison. He tells me he replaced the broken pipe with a good old-fashioned copper one, because copper is still the best. He pushes back his bandanna and wipes his forehead. He was no good at school, he says, but he learned that to do the best, use the best. I agree it’s a good principle. His boss is the smooth one, the negotiator. He’s just a worker, he says. He likes to do good work. Things are broken, he fixes them. He’s a neighborhood guy, Italian. I’m from New York. We talk Eagles. When we finish smoking, we shake hands.
Paul Auster, a writer who has built a large work out of coincidence, catches this side of smoking perfectly in the script for the movie Smoke. A series of events and improbable friendships arise out of random meetings in the smoke shop, presided over by Harvey Keitel’s salesman, Augie.2 Black, white, rich, poor, man, woman, smokers have the smoker’s code and the smoker’s bond. It’s a basic form of solidarity and one of the few left. Someone asks you for a cigarette, you give it willingly: a light, no problem. From there anything can happen, or nothing else. It’s a rare moment of sharing among strangers, an almost ancient form of hospitality in the inhospitable culture of great modern cities.
When I think about quitting, I think of all such future encounters that I’ll miss and the ones I’ve had. Thanks to cigarettes I met a Moroccan man dying of AIDS waiting for a train to Casablanca, a bitter Israeli soldier, a down-on-his-luck architect who used to be friends with John Edgar Wideman. I’ve spoken to women who otherwise would have frightened me, and become their friends. These are the kind of people, who, if I stuck to the routines of my class or the imperatives of gender, would otherwise pass unnoticed. If I ever dealt with them, it would not be as an equal but as a customer or the representative of some institution: journalist, social-services provider, doctor, teacher. With condescension, I congratulate myself for not condescending. But I’m not better than they are, and that’s the point. When we smoke together we’re united by that need, and slightly embarrassed by it, too, perhaps. What seems to separate me from them is a sense that my smoking is temporary, a kind of slumming; but the sense that I’ll stop when I’m ready, that I’ll surmount my trafficking in low life and fulfill my destiny as the healthy, enlightened doctor’s son that I am, gets postponed again, postponement after postponement. These people too are postponing the inevitable: they will also stop one day. Then we won’t meet together anymore, and this is what unites us.
I have dreams about tachycardia, arrhythmia, shortness of breath, a pain in my left side. I’m moving closer to what I wanted from smoking all along, an awareness of death, a sense of impending doom. When this feeling is too strong, it’s important to light another cigarette and prove to myself that it’s not quite there yet. If I can smoke, I’ll be safe. It’s not like jumping out of an airplane or riding a motorcycle without a helmet; cigarettes are ordinary. Death too is ordinary. For most of us, it will be a slow process of decay. Organs will fail, pain will take over, become unbearable, require release. At the end, we hope we’ll be ready to die. Part of the mystery of the cigarette lies in its ability to let us survive the experience of looking into the light of our own setting sun. When I smoke alone, I have the sense that I’m no longer of this world. A part of me has wandered off into the ether, hovering about my head like a cloud of smoke. I can look down on my body from a remote plane of higher intelligence. For some, this is the sort of experience that redeems cigarettes and proves that human spirit is more than body. Cigarettes offer us the opportunity to experience a little death and master our greater anxiety by restoring us to a sense of freedom and power. They are, as Richard Klein wants us to think, sublime in the Kantian sense. But Klein forgets that Kant’s sublime is defeated by habit. The Savoyard peasant who lives in the Alps does not find Mont Blanc sublime at all. It’s part of his animal environment, likewise the ocean to the fisherman, and the cigarette to the habitual smoker. At a certain point in every smoker’s life, there is only habit left, an unreflective natural life. Habit grinds us down and turns an act of self-consciousness into a mere affectation of it. The last irony of smoking is that repetition prevents the very recognition of death that it’s supposed to provoke. Smokers: the unselfconsciously self-conscious animal.
Methinks its motion in this hush of nature /
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live…
“Frost at Midnight”
The idea to write this essay came to me as my daughter was about to be born. Already I’d kicked myself out of the house to smoke furtively on stoops, in gardens, and on fire escapes. My entire environment had united in telling me to stop, and, at the same time, I was sure I’d never needed cigarettes more. I felt displaced, railroaded by Life, suddenly a parent, more a category than a person, defined only by my new responsibility towards others. Smoking then became my last-gasp effort to cling to individuality, but it created a world manifestly false and even idiotic. Was smoking the only way I could convince myself of my own physical existence and identity?
Cigarettes are part of our modern discourse of individualism. Most persistent smokers are self-identified individualists, anti-authoritarian or actively libertarian. But smokers are also those least certain of their own individuality, vulnerable and compromised: the damaged, the insecure and socially awkward, the mentally ill or just vaguely neurotic, the indigent, the writer in search of negative capability, the torturer with a bad conscience, the regressed victim. I also suspect that I’m not really myself when I smoke. I feel part of many persons, known and unknown: my paternal grandmother (several packs a day), my dying father, who, in one of our last conversations, remembered his mother dying of melanoma before I was born, my cousin E.—a former heroin addict—the first person I saw smoking when she leaned out a bathroom window one family Thanksgiving, Walter Benjamin in Naples in an old photograph. My smoking is a communion with their suffering and their triumphs. The more I smoke the less I’m actually alive and the more I become a hysterical medium for other people’s lives. I keep company with the absent and even side with them against the here and now.
At every consequential moment of my adult life, cigarettes have played their part. I even smoked at my wedding, momentarily a stranger to my own joy. I will now always wonder if I would have been able to enjoy myself more without cigarettes or if I still need their poison to neutralize my own. As we know, smoking gradually destroys the alveoli, beginning with those closest to where smoke first enters the lungs, and, as these fill up with tar or explode, forcing the smoker to take deeper and deeper drags, going down all the way, filling them up, rupturing them, preventing the body from absorbing oxygen. Imagine life like a set of lungs, filled with little sacs—alveoli of experience—and into each one introduce a dose of a deadly reminder, something saying, “This isn’t you,” “You’re at home here,” “You know better,” “You shouldn’t,” “You must.” When I dare look back on my career as a smoker, as though it were finished, I find that my investment in it remains a mystery. I can boast no certainty about how it came to dominate my life, taking its share from my pleasures and pains. The central crisis, my return to New York under terrible circumstances, followed several months later by my father’s death, seems to have seared me in a way that remains unknowable. Did cigarettes save my life, or were they part of the crisis that outlasted the crisis, like a scar or a twitch?
We do what it takes to survive, but what we do at our worst stays with us and becomes us. In my efforts to stop, I’ve doubtless been hindered by the fears of returning to the violent, anguished person I was at the moment right before cigarettes, and by a contrarian desire to resist the medicalization of my life. This is not a good moment, historically, to do the right thing, because one always ends up doing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to obey anybody or any law aimed at reforming me. I am not a diseased person in need of assistance—though I would like to stop smoking. Yet the thought that I would stop at the end of this essay, when I had exhausted the range of actions and associations I carry with me when smoking, when I had reached bottom and could draw nothing more, is also an illusion. There can be no last cigarette, in the sense of a definitive, all-revealing smoke. Like Zeno, I’ve tried imagining myself as a happier and healthier man, and I’ve smoked to seal the pact.
Historicists will object that smoking has only recently been determined to be dangerous, and it is just now that smoking could belong to the class of pleasures related to violence and death. Yet, while no one knew exactly what was so bad about cigarettes until the 1950s, the intuition that the activity of smoking was unhealthy has been around almost since tobacco arrived in Europe. It was James I, not the Puritans, who tried out Europe’s first anti-smoking law. More recently, Zeno’s Conscience, published in 1921, is built around literal and metaphorical illness and health—societies are like individuals—and smoking is resolutely on the side of sickness. ↩
Auster’s Augie is named after the proprietor of an eponymous jazz bar on 107th Street. A chain-smoker, chain-talker, and equal-opportunity bad chess player, Augie presided over a generation of young musicians from the Manhattan School of Music and off the streets of New York. He served beer to precocious highschoolers and Columbia underclassmen. It was the kind of place where you might have a first date, discover the music of Ornette Coleman, get a cheap hamburger in the afternoon, or become addicted to heroin. It’s still a jazz club, now knowingly called Smoke. They charge $25 cover and check ID at the door. ↩