Du Maurier: A Lament

Jeremy Harding

  • Cigarettes Are Sublime by Richard Klein
    Duke, 210 pp, £19.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 8223 1401 0

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.

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