The Boston Globe discusses a couple of books chroncling the cigarette’s fortunes in the 21st-century. Here they are:
- "No Smoking (Assouline), by Luc Sante, uses hundreds of photographs to make the case that a visual history of our culture is impossible without including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes."
- "In their own guarded, flirting-with-bad-karma way, the authors collected in Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (Reaktion) defend and even praise the smoker variously as an adventurer, an artist, a dissident, a hale fellow, a boon companion, and a defender of pleasure against the forces of moralism.
For anyone who enjoyed Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime, these two sound like a couple good books to check out. Recall that although Klein wrote his book in order to stop smoking (and did), he argued that there was something important about this "only pleasure not to be discovered by the Romans." Klein himself may not want to smoke any longer, but he certainly things that stamping out smoking would leave our world worse off.
The Globe article agrees, making this keen observation:
It seems more than a coincidence that the increasing blandness of the cultural landscape and the eradication of smoking have proceeded together.
From what the Globe piece says about Smoke, it sounds like this book hits many of the same notes as Klein does. It sounds as though both books portray smokers as adventurers and dissidents and both are making a case for a world that is tolerant of cigarettes.
Interesting, No Smoking notes that the post office, when issuing stamps, has removed cigareetes from the images of many prominent 20th century artists, including Robert Johnson and Jackson Pollock. One could argue that the cigarette was as essential to these artists’ art as was their intellect or their tools. Further, in removing the cigarette (probably on the off chance a teen would see a Jackson Pollock stamp and think "Boy do I wanna start smoking now!"), the U.S. government has rewritten history and wilfully obscured something about the great artistic tradition of the 20th-century.
Smoking goes even farther than this, though, saying that undermining smoking is no less than undermining our modern sense of community and humanity.
For Gilman and Zhou, smoking is an activity that helps define what it means to be human. Whether we smoke with friends or strangers, ”the very act of smoking reinforces our relationship to that network we call humanity." Smokers were once thought to make the best conversationalists, the best soldiers, even the best husbands. But today, in another ”sign of the postmodern," smoke is understood as ”the miasma…that infiltrates the unsuspecting body of the bystander and destroys not only the social network but life itself." In our health-obsessed age, smoking more than any other human activity seems to define ”the predicament of modern autonomy: do we choose to do something that destroys our ability to choose again?"
This once again fits right in with Klein’s observations. In Cigarettes are Sublime, he analyzed one of the best smoking books ever written, Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno, concluding that the anti-smoking message was linked to the modern fixation with being healthy (as opposed to simply not being sick). Klein argued that Svevo’s book said that living itself was a sort of illness that could only be cured by death, and that taken in that light cigarettes were, to a certain extent, curative.
I think that Svevo’s and Klein’s arguments carry even more force now than when each author first made them. We’re certainly more obsessed with health now than in Svevo’s time, and we’re probably more obsessed than when Klein wrote his book.
It seems that the lack of any significant retort to the efforts to stamp out smoking are indicative of our age’s inability to articulate anything a human could aspire to loftier than the accumulation of wealth and health. Perhaps then these two books are the first in a line of argumentation that runs counter to these rather simplistic, black-and-white views of health and well-being that we’ve colelctively adopted.
I’ll also say that it may be more than coincidence that 90 years ago Svevo used smoking to critique a culture that suffers from several of the same problems that ours does right now.
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