Cigarettes Are Sublime 
by Richard Klein.
Duke, 210 pp., £19.95, February 1994, 0 8223 1401 0
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Last year a BBC documentary about the war in Bosnia showed the town of Travnik besieged by Bosnian Serbs. Conditions in the town were dismal; hunger and fortitude were the order of the day. The programme was watched by 1.8 million viewers, none more attentive than a Mrs Willis of Bath, who wrote to the broadcasters complaining about the amount of smoking in the programme. She wanted to know why the inhabitants of a dying town could only discuss their problems in a cloud of smoke.

Richard Klein, Professor of French at Cornell, could supply Mrs Willis with a number of answers, one of them being that, in wartime, smoking keeps up ‘courage and endurance in the face of intolerably stressful circumstances’, not only because of its physiological effects – a burst of ‘discomfort’ followed by ‘a marked feeling of release and relief’ – but because, Klein argues, cigarettes are a palpable trace of the ordinary life that has vanished under arms: ‘they are the most important thing to a soldier ... all that remains of civility when war has blasted away the imprints of a liberal education.’ These are lofty thoughts to set before the anti-smoking lobby, which likes to lay down the law much sooner than debate it.

Klein’s study is largely about cigarettes in the context of creative work and the imagination: a cultural history of the gasper, in cinema, poetry, fiction, on stage or as an adjunct to philosophy – and also in the lives of those who have smoked as they thought and rethought the world, or imagined themselves to be doing so.

A book of this kind, full of ironies and elaborate conceits, requires patience from its readers, and a sympathetic exercise of fancy, both of which are rare among modern anti-smokers. Adherents of the present vogue have some remarkable antecedents, among them Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler, for whom anti-smoking was merely a sideline. Contemporary anti-smokers, though they may sometimes seem equally despotic by temperament, have a more limited area of concern: their own bodies – and in some cases, those of their nearest and dearest. From this tender little shrine, however, it is a stone’s throw to the cathedral of ‘personal space’, with its ornate sense of grievance, and on from there to Bath and Mrs Willis – or, in Klein’s view, back to Salem, Massachusetts: ‘It is no easy task to praise cigarettes at this time in America. We are in the midst of one of those periodic moments of repression, when the culture, descended from Puritans, imposes its hysterical visions and enforces its guilty constraints on society, legislating moral judgments under the guise of public health, all the while enlarging the power of surveillance and the reach of censorship to achieve a general restriction of freedom.’

The language is too hyped up for the charge to stick. The ‘right’ to smoke, after all, is a minor freedom, and those who defend it can make fools or fusspots of themselves as quickly as the opposition. For Klein, this is a rare lapse. Until the end of his book, he refrains from scaling the great molehills of the smoking debate, although he alludes to the problem of why prosperous and active cultures, mainly Anglo-Saxon, are given to behaving with a valetudinarian self-regard, which he calls ‘healthism’ and which, in America, has sought to ‘make longevity the principal measure of a good life’. ‘To be a survivor,’ Klein notes, ‘is to acquire moral distinction.’ Few people would say they wanted to die young, but in England, at least, tobacco addicts have a knack for smoking out the contradictions in the enemy camp. Smokers soon learn to distinguish the most prevalent form of anti-tabagisme, the ‘me-and-my-body’ school, from the campaigning kind, which is alert to a public-health issue. They also know when the first is masquerading as the second, which only confirms them in their own hypocrisies – conceiving the ruin of their health as an act of courage, to take one example.

To Klein, who believes that no modern society has managed to get along without tobacco, a catalogue of intolerance on both sides is of no great interest. His business is the rehabilitation of the cigarette as a valuable, ubiquitous little marker that has glowed proudly at many points in the last hundred and fifty years of Western culture. ‘It is the premise of this book,’ he writes, ‘that cigarettes, though harmful to health, are a great and beautiful civilising tool and one of America’s proudest contributions to the world.’ We learn early on that Klein was once a committed smoker. ‘Writing this book in praise of cigarettes was the strategy I devised for stopping smoking, which I have – definitively; it is therefore both an ode and an elegy to cigarettes.’ As such, it works well: so well in fact that few smokers or ex-smokers will be able to read it without their own homage to tobacco taking shape and drawing alongside.

The ‘sublime’ is reckoned by Klein to be a co-existence of good and bad, or a sequence of positive and negative so rapid and dependable that the two become inseparable. ‘Cigarettes are not positively beautiful, but they are sublime by virtue of their charming power to propose what Kant would call a “negative pleasure”: a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.’ An aspect of this eternity is ‘the indifferent reiteration of pure number’, since ‘each cigarette is the recapitulation of all the identical ones smoked before and after.’

In these sections, and throughout the book, French Studies is the medium of instruction. Things can be delicious, voluptuous, cruel – and sweet. Desire is often invoked but seldom roused. One lack follows, or hollows, another, which demands ‘even more urgently to be filled’. Warming up for a grand performance on Mallarmé, in the manner of Roland Barthes on Sarrasine, Klein conducts a close reading of Laforgue’s poem, ‘La cigarette’. It is good fun but there is too much virtuosity here for a troubled English palate. Inadvertently – although in French Studies one is never sure – Klein manages one in the eye for S/Z by turning Baudelaire’s mistress into what students of more humdrum disciplines would probably want to call ‘a man’: a Jean, this is to say, as opposed to a Jeanne. It is not the first detail that Mrs Willis would have noticed about ‘Mlle’ Duval, who was probably a smoker, but she would have rumbled her in the end.

‘Mallarmé loved cigarettes,’ says Klein, ‘but, less bold or foolhardy than Laforgue, he must have blanched at launching a sonnet with rhymes in -ette’. The poem Klein gives us is ‘Toute l’âme résumée’ – the soul in a nutshell – which he subjects to some raffish imprac. crit. It quickly becomes a walk on the wild side. The letter é has an ‘acutely flying accent’; ‘inspiration is expiration,’ the word lente (‘slow’) is taken to ‘sound like l’hante’ (‘haunts it’) – as mistaken as imagining that either of them ‘sounds like’ honte (‘shame’ – mostly on Klein) – but it gets us, gasping, to the idea that the soul ‘resumed’ in the poem ‘has something ghostlike in its wreaths or wraiths’. Picking over the word abolis, Klein decides that ‘O is the null that rolls a whole Hegelian universe ... A-bol means something thrown down, like the throw of dice, marking a fatality ... the letter l sounds in French like elle, of course – a woman, who is traditionally identified with absence and negativity.’ And so on, all the way to where the ashtray used to be, and might profitably be replaced.

Cigarettes Are Sublime may sometimes be exasperating, but never for long. At its best Klein’s frivolity is always a relief from the unprofitable stand-off between smokers and non-smokers. His self-indulgence is also a thoughtful indulgence of the reader. Old habits of courtesy come back to life in the smoky ambience of the book. To Klein, the cigarette is an intimacy between strangers and a formality between friends; it fends off tedium and marks off moments of importance. With a cigarette in his hand, a certain kind of man seems complete and, in the slavery of his habit, briefly free, whether he is a melancholic and a dandy, like Théodore de Banville, or a model of rectitude in a mad war, like Paul in Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The same goes for women, but their relation to the weed is less complicit and arguably more difficult. Among women, Klein argues, ‘smoking began with those who got paid for staging their sexuality: the actress, the Gypsy, the whore.’ A cigarette in the hand of Mérimée’s Carmen, the first woman in literature to accept one, or of Callistô in Pierre Louÿs’s story, ‘Une nouvelle volupté’ (she ‘threw away the unsmoked half, where the rouge on her lips had left lipstick traces’), stands for honest-to-god eroticism – and, in Carmen especially, for availability. For the woman who smokes to seem complete in the same way as the smoking man, she has first to negotiate this barrier of easy virtue, imagined or devised by men, and inhabit more hard-won kinds of grace. Age and intelligence are great assets. A Cartier-Bresson photograph of Coco Chanel, included here, shows how smoking can augment a natural elegance, confer authority and emphasise an act of concentration, closing the smoker in on her own thoughts. Carmen, by comparison, is something of a smoking bimbo.

According to Klein, the cigarette has its origins in Brazil. The French historian, Ned Rival, says that it was introduced to Spain some time between 1825 and 1830. The style – and fags were above all a fashionable way of consuming tobacco (‘tout le chic,’ says Rival, ‘tient alors dans le papier’) – soon spread. In 1843, Louis Philippe ordered the Tobacco Monopoly to manufacture twenty thousand gold-tipped cigarettes, rolled in lithographed paper, to be sold for charitable revenue. Things did not look up again until the revolution of 1848, when cigarette consumption leapt dramatically. ‘It cannot be an accident,’ says Klein, ‘that cigarette smoking always finds propitious conditions in times of political crisis or social stress.’ Troops in the Crimea smoked large quantities of cigarettes and ‘with the enthusiasm that soldiers ever since have shown ... brought them back to their admiring compatriots’.

A chapter on war, in which the author follows the glow in the dark across the work of several novelists – Remarque, Mailer, William Styron, Hemingway – confirms this. ‘I have noted all the cigarettes that are crushed out, thrown away or unlit at night, shared and hoarded, detested and loved – instruments of torture and surgery, tokens of friendship and signs of love – in several distinguished war novels,’ says Klein. The model of sublimity works better in this context than almost any other. Characters in war novels are forever noticing the foul taste of the cigarette they just lit and yet continuing to smoke it, partly because that foulness fits their situation but also because, in a world of hardship and fear, smoking gives them ‘the taste of civilised nature, of aesthetic pleasure, to the extent that it is not beastly but civilised to taste and judge, appreciate and discriminate’.

There are two marvellous chapters in this book, one on Casablanca, a paragon among cigarette movies, and another, earlier, on The Confessions of Zeno, the definitive European novel about trying to quit, by Ettore Schmitz, better known as Italo Svevo. In both sections, Klein strays into the difficult terrain of psychoanalysis and emerges in reasonable shape. Svevo was in any case a rebel of the couch, for whom the smoking cure was a preferable way through life: ‘May 3, 1915. I have finished with psychoanalysis ... I shall let him expect me for a few days. If I could be sure of laughing at him without flying into a rage, I should not mind seeing him again. But I am afraid I should end by assaulting him.’ Casablanca, which is for Klein a ‘paradigmatically phallic film’, largely because women were ‘not allowed to be seen smoking, while men do nothing else’, is trickier. Cat-called, patronised, shoved onto the dance floor and forced, in the end, to satisfy some unnatural lusts, Casablanca has already suffered at the hands of popular-culture seminarians and dime-in-the-slot psychologists, of whom Klein is not one. Trampling the great drones of the profession underfoot, Klein rides to the rescue, arguing that the film is a classic trial of strength between belief and scepticism in an arena where ‘cigarette smoke is one of the material substances that closely resemble the substance of thought.’ In the process, he reminds us of its role in a broad anti-Fascist strategy to rouse America from isolationism.

I can only confess my gratitude to Richard Klein. There were many dead areas of memory that his book revived. Reading Klein on Sartre, who deceived himself about his ability to give up, I remembered walking behind the old man’s coffin in a massive and orderly crowd, tens of thousands of them smoking. I also recall watching Casablanca at the theatre in Leeds University and smoking roll-ups throughout – a Virginia tobacco called The Ringer Returns, which came in a blue and yellow tin with the feathered head of an American Indian chief in a red roundel at the centre. I would be hard pressed now to roll a fag by the flickering light of a black and white movie.

In the late Seventies, I dabbled with Annie Leclerc’s bitter-sweet little book, Au feu du jour, about the end of her affair with nicotine – Klein quotes it liberally in his section on Casablanca – but resolved to leave it until I too had quit the habit. I finished The Confessions of Zeno on a series of trains from Florence to Paris, maybe fifteen years ago, travelling in smoking compartments most of the way. It was a Penguin Modern Classics edition; I smoked Murattis and wrote notes in the book.

Klein confirms my suspicion that cigarettes tell the only significant story there is to tell about a smoker’s life. I was probably five years old when my grandmother’s cleaning lady taught me to draw on a cigarette like a teat, not blow into it like a whistle. Du Maurier was the brand in question. Like Zeno, in Svevo’s book, and most children no doubt, I pinched cigarettes from adults – mainly my grandfather, who smoked Kensitas, and later Guards. I have smoked almost everything. In my early teens, I would dismantle the stubs my father left in the ashtray – Players – and roll them in Rizla, or, in desperation, newspaper – the Times – when I’d exhausted my own supplies, bought at night in tens from a vending machine outside the local newsagent. At school, my history teacher smoked Gold Leaf. He had a memorable way of releasing uninhaled smoke from his lips, catching it with stiff inhalations of the nose and drawing it up into his nostrils. He made us read Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé and, preparing me for university entrance, allowed me to smoke in moderation, a discipline I would master no better than European history.

After school, I smoked in earnest: large quantities of rolling tobacco, the best of which was Churchman’s Al Virginia – ‘a country smoke’, said a London tobacconist, fobbing me off the last time I failed to obtain it. There was also an array of tailor-made cigs, including Dunhill, Bensons, Embassy – my half-sister collected the coupons – Weights, Woodbines, Players No 6, the minimalist Players No 10 (‘Down-in-one’, as they were known), sickening numbers of Silk Cut, and some oddities such as plain Bastos, a stout Virginia cigarette made in Belgium, and a Cuban smoke available in Angola, which fell to pieces in the pack. In Klein’s country I smoked Merits, Camels, Pall Mall, Parliament and Chesterfields. I believed for year upon year that I might become a poet with the help of tobacco. Auden thought of it as a labour-saving device in ‘the mental kitchen’ – but very crude, he warned, ‘constantly breaking down, and liable to injure the cook’. On the noxious effects of the fare itself, prepared by feverish and smoky little hands, he did not deign to speculate.

The use of cigarettes by people in difficulty is exactly as Klein says. The heaviest smokers I have met were Palestinians. Fatah officials in Tunis and embattled residents of the Occupied Territories smoked as though there were no tomorrow and yet, for the disenfranchised, tomorrow is the only day. With regular soldiers and insurrectionaries – the comrades in South Africa as well as Palestinians – cigarettes have always eased the atmosphere, which can get very strained. The connotation of solace in hardship does not justify the idea that smoking is a democratic activity, yet sentimentally enough, it seems to me to be so, and there is perhaps a better reason, which Klein supplies: ‘Cigarettes are normally exceptions to the regime of private property ... Even now in many countries ... anyone of whatever class can ask anyone for a light, and a request for a cigarette is never refused.’

The tobacco companies have made ruthless use of this idea of a common space, filled with the aroma of tolerance and surplus, and the more they are discouraged from doing so in cultures of privilege, the greater their recourse to others, where the scarcity value of both those qualities adds to their selling power. In Africa the brand names of fags marketed by the big Western companies like BAT and Philip Morris are as pretentious as they have been in the West: Sportsman and Embassy Kings in Kenya, Berkeley, Madison and Kingsgate in Zimbabwe. A few years back, the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta estimated that smoking was declining in the developed countries by around 1 per cent a year and rising in poorer countries by about 2 per cent. On the eve of the famine of 1984-85, according to the lobby group, Action on Smoking and Health, Ethiopia imported 200 million British cigarettes. It is clearly important for producers to persuade the Third World to smoke, just as it mattered for America to flush a billion dollars’ worth of packaged nicotine through the young consumer markets in its ‘Food for Peace’ programme fifty years ago.

The relative poverty of under-capitalised countries is no obstacle to the spread of tobacco. Nor is poverty anywhere a disincentive to smoking. In Britain, men and women in unskilled manual labour are nearly three times more likely to smoke than professionals. Poor smokers die sooner than wealthy ones, but even Mrs Willis of Bath would have to concede that if a British smoker from ‘social class five’ is five times more likely to die of lung cancer than a smoker from ‘social class one’, it would be a fallacy to put the blame on smoking as opposed to poverty. The penetration of large markets by tobacco companies is one of the disgraces of being a smoker, but it is an impulse of capitalism rather than tobacco itself: the empire of James B. Duke, which formed the basis of the modern tobacco industry, began a century ago with the mass production of cigarettes on the Bonsak machine; the habit of tobacco is vastly older.

I live over a 24-hour minicab office and a forecourt full of cars. The drivers are English, Turkish, African, but they are all one nation: the nation of men, whose national anthem of arguing, cursing, stamping, shouting and gunning engines is played around the clock. The only time that they are not marching to it is when they are smoking. They stand in the forecourt, singly or in groups, and the smoke from their cigarettes lifts into the cold afternoon air. The shouting stops, the engines are quiet. From up here, there is much to be said for Klein’s idea that cigarettes are a good thing in their way. (The minicab boss, like my grandfather, is a Kensitas man.)

Last summer, I attended the funeral of a photographer called Ian Dryden, who smoked and died early, with an inoperable tumour of the lung and two more on his brain. After the service, the mourners were invited back to his sister’s house and, a few hours later, his partner, a Mexican, called us into the garden for a ceremony of her own. She unrolled some coloured crepe, about the length of a man, and covered it with loose earth. She scattered some seeds in the earth and lay down in it, as though lying with Ian. After a time she got up and emptied the contents of two cigarette packets in a stone bowl. She told us in Spanish that everyone chooses his own death – ‘only a fool fails to do so.’ She took a cigarette from the bowl – she was not a smoker – and lit it. All the mourners, smokers and non-smokers, followed suit. It was an uncomfortable affair but scrupulous for all that. A few weeks later, I gave up smoking. For twenty years or more, I had smoked heavily, to celebrate, commiserate, recollect and suppress. Cigarettes had been a dependable ally in moments of fear and faint-heartedness. ‘Everyone who is or has been a smoker,’ says V.G. Kiernan in his book about tobacco, ‘must have a private history of his own.’ That valedictory smoke with Ian Dryden was the last I saw of mine. I keenly regret them both.

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