Fatal Attraction

Cigarettes Are Sublime

by Richard Klein
Duke University Press, 210 pp., $21.95

Cigarettes Are Sublime is a wise and timely book: it is also sly, funny, and peculiarly seductive. It aims to be, the author tells us in his preface, “simultaneously a piece of literary criticism, an analysis of popular culture, a political harangue, a theoretical exercise, and an ode to cigarettes.” Richard Klein is a firm postmodernist (Jacques Derrida is listed among the acknowledgments), but he is blessedly free of the pomposity and obfuscation that characterize so much of present-day critical writing. His method is elegant and playful (he is prepared to “slide into fiction or provocation in order to avoid being boring”), but despite, or because of, this neo-dandyist approach, his intentions are never less than serious. He wants to bring “literary criticism to bear, with a certain frivolity, on urgent social issues.”

The author does not tell us his age, but he points out ruefully that in comparison to many of his colleagues he is “quite old” to be publishing a first book, the writing of which was, he says, partly a strategy he devised for giving up cigarettes. He insists that he has indeed given up—“definitively.” I wonder: Is this the tone of one who has truly kicked the habit?

It is the premise of this book that cigarettes, though harmful to health, are a great and beautiful civilizing tool and one of America’s proudest contributions to the world. Seen in this light, the act of giving up cigarettes should perhaps be approached not only as an affirmation of life but, because life is not merely existing, as an occasion for mourning.

The title of the book, as well as expressing the renouncer’s wistful backward glance at the dispersing smoke of his positively—“definitively”—last cigarette, also identifies one of the main strands of the author’s argument, which is that cigarettes fulfill the definition of the sublime as set out in Kant’s Critique of Judgment:

It is not the utility of cigarettes…that explains their power to attract the undying allegiance of billions of people dying from their habit. Rather, the quality that explains their enormous power of seduction is linked to the specific forms of beauty they foster. That beauty has never been understood or represented as unequivocally positive; the smoking of cigarettes, from its inception in the nineteenth century, has always been associated with distaste, transgression, and death. Kant calls “sublime” that aesthetic satisfaction which includes as one of its moments a negative experience, a shock, a blockage, an intimation of mortality. It is in this very strict sense that Kant gives the term that the beauty of cigarettes may be considered to be sublime…. The sublimity of cigarettes explains why people love what tastes nasty and makes them sick; it elucidates the conflicting policy of governments like ours that campaign against smoking while they provide large subsidies to tobacco growers.

Richard Klein is a professor of French at Cornell, and although the breadth of reference he displays is impressive, a strong francophile strain…

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