Just Above Sunset
February 20, 2005 - "If smoking was about being grown up..."

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George Blecher over at Spiked has an interesting comment on smoking.


Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

A non-smoking New Yorker misses the illicit, adult camaraderie of smoke-filled bars.    

George Blecher, 1 February 2005


Here’s the premise, with added emphases -


We always knew that smoking was bad. You didn't need to be a cancer surgeon to feel the shortness of breath, see the stains on your fingers and teeth, the burn-holes in your Izod shirt - not to mention the horrific photos of rotting lungs. But in a way, that was the point. In part we smoked because it was bad - and gaining the right to choose between good and bad, and to know both sides in ourselves, in some sense represented the demarcation line between childhood and adulthood. Children had to be good; adults could choose to be. The fact that teenagers are still the largest group of smokers makes perfect sense: instinctively they know that being grown up involves exploring, and accepting, the good and bad parts of oneself.


That knowledge of good and evil was reflected in some of the great moments in smoking, especially the American film noir classics of the 1930s-50s, and in the great smoker/actors like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Jimmy Cagney, Tallulah Bankhead. Surrounded by a comforting, mysterious fog, these people were a complex mixture of good and evil, fear and bravery, arrogance and wisdom. All were capable of cruelty, but also of tenderness. You couldn't exactly call them heroes or villains; they were just people. Indeed, getting past their less honorable qualities and discovering their inner kindness was the arc of most of the movies they made. But whatever qualities they shared, there was one that they all lacked: innocence.


They weren't kids. Good or bad, they knew what they were doing.


Ah ha!  This fellow may be onto something!


You could extend the adult/smoker theory a bit to understand some of Shakespeare's characters on the basis of who might or might not smoke. Lady Macbeth definitely would ('Out, damned spot!'); Macbeth wouldn't. Polonius wouldn't even allow smoking in the family chambers, but his daughter Ophelia might sneak a few puffs each day in back of the castle; and of course Hamlet wouldn't be able either to enjoy the habit or quit. Iago would smoke and like it; Desdemona would smoke on the sly but never with Othello, who - poor dear - must have had terrible asthma. Shakespeare himself? Undoubtedly a pipe-smoker.


Me too!  But without the talent.


But seriously, consider this -


But cigarette smoking wasn't only about good and bad; it was also about the awareness of death. (Clean-air fanatics might go much further and insist that smoking isn't about death but murder and suicide. That feels a little overwrought to me.) Though I gave it up years ago, I still miss it, and certainly don't hate those who continue to smoke. Partly thumbing one's nose at death, partly flirting with it, part defiance, part acceptance - each breath of smoke was all of these, and when we smoked together in bars and clubs, at parties or at home, the consciousness of our mortality may even have coaxed us into making the most of the limited time that we knew we had.


This is followed by a lengthy discussion of anti-smoking bans, ending with this -


… If smoking was about being grown up, the new Puritanism is about being a perpetual child, and living in a protected world that has never existed except in fantasy.


Maybe all this wouldn't be so terrible, if it weren't also profoundly anti-social. In a society obsessed with personal health, altruism takes a back seat to solipsism, risk a back seat to caution, generosity a back seat to the hoarding of wealth for a rainy day. In such a society, it's less and less likely that people will risk any sort of self-sacrifice to help each other - to help a homeless person out of the gutter, for example, or climb a tree to rescue a neighbor’s cat.


There's also a grandiosity about the cult of health, which seems to imply that if one stops smoking, eats fruits and vegetables, and slims down to one per cent body fat, one can live forever - or at least until science figures out a way to successfully regenerate us in time for Judgment Day. What's missing is humility, the kind that the attack on the World Trade Towers or the recent tsunami might evoke - a realization that no matter what we do, most things are out of our control.


Blecher claims smoking or not smoking isn't the issue.  The issue is the picture of who we perceive ourselves to be: “self-involved children pretending that we can escape death by playing God the Doctor and Personal Trainer.”




Is this defensiveness and rationalization, or deep philosophy?  Well Blecher quit smoking years ago, or so he tells us, and an extended version of this item will appear in Voltaire, a new Swedish cultural magazine, sometime this spring. 


Of course, Voltaire too is one philosopher the theocratic, puritan right doesn’t like a whole lot.


Note this


God, in His mercy, does have a sense of humor. An educated man, Voltaire, was known to have promised to stamp out the myth of Christ during his lifetime. Voltaire is long gone, and reported to have died in horror of his destination. Currently, his fine home is the center of Bible distribution for a large, well known, Bible society.


George Miller
Ketchikan, AK – USA


They hate the guy.





Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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