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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 runs through the book. One of the chief witnesses for the defense of cigarettes is the poet and aesthete (and probably my distant cousin) Théodore de Banville, the originator of the phrase “l’art pour l’art” and a leading proponent of the fin de siècle philosophy of dandyism. Baudelaire and Pierre Louÿs also contribute strong evidence against “antitabagism” (Professor Klein’s own neologism), though Proust, who believed smoking was a relief for his asthma, is not mentioned. However, the book’s main epigraph comes from a Spaniard, Manuel Machado (brother of the more famous Antonio, and hence known by the cruel nickname “Manuel el Malo”):

La vida es un cigarillo
Hierno, ceniza y candela
Unos la fuman de prisa
Y algunos la saborean.

Life is a cigarette.
Cinder, ash, and fire.
Some smoke it in a hurry,
Others savor it.

At the close of the nineteenth century Banville wrote: “Soon there will be no more real cigarette smokers left,” for he saw smoking as an essential component of the dandyism by which he and the rest of his small, dying breed lived. “For Théodore de Banville, the resignation cigarettes promote, being the opposite of ambition, is closely linked to the conditions of poetic expression.” Pierre Louÿs, in his erotic story “Une volupté nouvelle,” written in 1896, points out that smoking is the only pleasure the modern world has that was unknown to antiquity. Professor Klein says: “It is tempting to think that Aristotle could not have known tobacco even if he knew it,” since tobacco “defines modernity: its use is an index of whatever revolution in consciousness may have occurred to transform the culture and the mores, the ethics and principles, of antiquity.” Madame de Girardin, writing to the Vicomte de Launay in 1844, comments on the classlessness of smoking. Recently she had witnessed a worker asking a prince of her acquaintance for a light and the prince had given the man his cigar. She concludes: “If Prometheus had stolen fire from heaven in order to light his cigarette, they would have let him do it.”

As you would expect, an entire chapter of the book is devoted to Mérimée’s and Bizet’s Carmen, of which Nietzsche was such an admirer:

Its gaiety is African; fatality soars over it, its happiness is short, sudden, merciless. I envy Bizet because he had the courage of his sensibility…I mean that southern, coppered, ardent sensibility. What happiness those golden afternoons impart!

In the dark-skinned gypsy cigarette girl, destroyer of men, Professor Klein sees the perfect emblem for the cigarette itself, that dark beauty dressed in diaphanous white which introduces into men’s very innards its acrid, pleasurable poison.

And, increasingly, into the innards of women. Klein has interesting things to say on the rise in smoking among women, especially young women. He sees the trend as a declaration of independence, a “brazen, transgressive act” that challenges male power and male-imposed taboos.

For many women, at certain moments, lighting a cigarette is the socially countenanced mode of signaling hostile or aggressively sexual feelings aroused by the intrusion of another subjectivity. In circumstances when a man might display anger or come on to her, a woman will often light up, summoning fire and smoke, jabbing with the tip of her cigarette between nails or teeth. That explains why, among women, smoking began with those who got paid for staging their sexuality: the actress, the Gypsy, the whore. Such a woman violates traditional roles by defiantly, actively giving herself pleasure instead of passively receiving it. Lighting a cigarette is a demonstration of mastery that violates the assumptions of feminine pudeur, the delicate embarrassment women are expected to feel, or at least display, in the presence of what their innocence and dignity are supposed to prevent them from desiring.

One of the finest sections of the book is the chapter devoted to Italo Svevo’s masterpiece, the novel La coscienza di Zeno. Its English title, The Confessions of Zeno, is incorrect, says Klein, since coscienza means consciousness or conscience or conscientiousness, but not confessions:

If this novel is a fictional confession, it is principally a philosophical one: it traces a certain logic of consciousness…at the same time that it discloses dramatic moments of the narrator’s experience, exposing and probing his moral conscience.

Zeno in the novel has spent a lifetime trying to give up smoking, consuming over and over again his “last” cigarette: only at the end, when he realizes that “health” is a chimera and that life itself is “a manifestation of disease” and has no cure except death, does he lose interest in cigarettes and finally give them up. Professor Klein observes: “Doctors want us to believe that we can be free of illness—but that freedom belongs only to nature, which is not free,” and he quotes Zeno/Svevo: “Every effort to procure health is in vain. Health can only belong to the beasts, whose sole idea of progress lies in their own bodies.”

Klein is very good on the emblematic, almost heraldic role of cigarettes in wartime, and the chapter “The Soldier’s Friend” is both perceptive and moving. For the soldier in the midst of war the cigarette is a consolation and also a source of courage. Klein calls in Heidegger to explain why this should be so. The nicotine hit that comes with the first drag of the cigarette transforms the soldier’s anxiety in the face of the unknown (death, injury, loss of nerve) into a specific though subliminal “fear” of the cigarette itself, after which “the anxiety which has been made ambiguous as fear, is passed off as a weakness with which no self-assured Dasein [Being] may have any acquaintance.” I don’t know that a thinker as lofty as Heidegger would be pleased to find himself thus quoted in support of an argument about so lowly an activity as smoking, though one cannot but admire Professor Klein’s democratizing spirit.

Nothing is too trivial for Klein’s attention. In the chapter “‘L’air du temps,”’ which is mainly a brilliant, deconstructionist reading of the film Casablanca, he points out that the men smoke without pause, probably wreaking more harm on themselves than all the Nazis in North Africa could do, while not a single woman is allowed so much as a puff: “The conjunction of love and sacrifice is represented in the film by the innumerable cigarettes that are smoked.” This chapter contains fascinating bits of information, for instance that Franklin Roosevelt screened Casablanca in the White House on New Year’s Eve in 1943, ten days before he flew to—yes—Casablanca, for a meeting with Churchill in which the Allies put their full support behind De Gaulle and the French National Committee, the main propagandistic aim of the film.

Humphrey Bogart was of course one of the great emblematic smokers (cigarettes probably killed him: he died of throat cancer), and no doubt many an adolescent boy bought his first pack of smokes after seeing a Bogart movie. Professor Klein is shrewd on the narcissistic element in smoking. The main difficulty the male smoker encounters when he tries to give up is that it is not just a habit or an addiction that he must renounce, but what he perceives as a way of life. The awful prospect arises that on the morning of New Year’s Day, having stubbed out his last butt at midnight, he will wake up a New Man, clean limbed, clean living, clean of lung. Gone will be that raffish, suavely Mephistophelian fellow who used to drift about the world trailing a pale-blue wreath of smoke behind him, and in his place will be an irritatingly virtuous, rosy-cheeked bore. And for women it is even harder:

A woman smoking may be thought to be less “feminine” because more active, aggressive, masterful, but she is not therefore “masculine”—in her own eyes or in those of many men: she may in fact be more desirable because she appears to be more free. No wonder it is so much harder for women to give it up.

The book is filled with such insights and illuminations. Now and then, it is true, the professor allows his own cleverness to run away with him, or from him. For example, discussing the importance of the cigarette in Norman Mailer’s war novel The Naked and the Dead, he quotes a passage in which a soldier on patrol in the jungle burns a caterpillar with the tip of his cigarette: “The insect writhed, and lay prostrate again, its back curled into an L, and its legs thrashing helplessly in the air.” Professor Klein glosses: “The soldier turns the loathsome excretion of the jungle into a letter of the alphabet, itself the insignia, perhaps, of a woman’s Love—’legs thrashing helplessly in the air.’ ” Is this an example of close reading or of critical invention? Norman Mailer himself, surely, would not claim such subtle allusiveness for his great sprawl of a novel. This is the downside of deconstructionist poetics.

There are other flaws in the book. The author occasionally repeats himself, and his weakness for puns and double entendres jars now and then (“Vichy’s soi“; “Barthes likes pictures that wound him—that prick.”). This is nevertheless a work of great subtlety, humor, and seriousness, a tract that is apt indeed for the era of New Puritanism we seem to be entering.

Cigarettes have become the focus or fetish of puritanical prohibitions like those that, in the past, periodically constrained freedom and censored pleasure in the name of protecting the collective well-being from harm, but always under the darker suspicion of wishing to increase state control or to conceal other interests…. The freedom to smoke ought to be understood as a significant token of the class of freedoms, and when it is threatened one should look instantly for what other controls are being tightened, for what other checks on freedom are being administered.

Against such constraints the lover of cigarettes is a natural rebel. “Putting thumb to nose, with a cigarette between his fingers, is the gesture repeated hundreds of times a day by the smoker defying the inescapable everydayness of his fate, an existence whose every pretension to transcendence collapses before the derisive fact of death.” Cigarettes Are Sublime is a remarkable achievement, an excursus on an artifact so familiar as to have become invisible, a set of noble variations on a humble theme. It is a plea for tolerance and freedom, a championing of adult pleasures, and an affirmation of the poetry at the hear of life.

If cigarettes were not also good for you, so many good people would not have spent some part of their lives doing them uninterruptedly, often compulsively—them, or some drug or other. One thinks of the many great men and women who have died prematurely from having smoked too much: it does them an injustice to suppose that their greatness did not depend in some degree on the wisdom and pleasure and spiritual benefit they took in a habit they could not abandon. And the same could be said of others. Healthism in America has sought to make longevity the principal measure of a good life. To be a survivor is to acquire moral distinction. But another view, a dandy’s perhaps, would say that living, as distinct from surviving, acquires its value from risks and sacrifices that tend to shorten life and hasten dying. A life, in that view, is judged by the suicide it commits.

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