That Old Feeling: The Great American Smoke

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"The habit of smoking is disgusting to sight, repulsive to smell, dangerous to the brain, noxious to the lung, spreading its fumes around the smoker as foul as those that come from Hell."
—King James I, 1604, a few years after Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to England

"This is sharp medicine, but it will cure all disease."
—Raleigh, 1618, just before he died (not from lung cancer; on the guillotine)

The time: a decade or two from now. The scene: the First Church of Christ, Smoker, the only place where nicotine addicts can find sanctuary in a society that has declared their pastime illegal. Communicants file up to the altar rail for a long drag on a cigarette — a precious, stale relic from the last carton of Marlboros sold before the U.S. government banned smoking in 2007. The priest blesses the faithful, they cough in response, and all exeunt to today's hymn, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

It could come to this. Smokers may soon need to organize themselves into an underground religion, elevating cigarettes to sacramental status, as the Mexican Indians did to peyote. For what was once a seductive pleasure is now an endangered cult, subject to demonization by the fuming, nonsmoking majority.

This week — as every year, the Thursday before Thanksgiving — we celebrate the Great American Smoke-out. It is the anticigarette lobby's holy day of obligation, the Good Friday of bad habits, the Yul Brynner Yom Kippur, when the largest tobacco-producing nation on earth tries to get the 25% of adults who still smoke to quit for a day, but not so many to endanger the state and local revenue from cigarette taxes (something like $6 a pack in New York City).

It happens that I am a smoker. It also happens that, each year at this time, I'm on vacation on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten / Saint Martin, which, being a joint satrapy of the Dutch and French governments, has no smoking restrictions — you can light up at work, on the beach, in the restaurants and casinos — and where a carton of cigarettes, from Europe or the U.S., costs $11. So I am 1200 miles and one time zone removed from this noble experiment in summoning the will to tell other people to stop doing something they enjoy.

To anyone who joined the Smoke-out this or any year, I offer my good wishes. Buck up, stub it out, and watch the minute hand of your cigaretteless day creep like an hour hand. My aim here is not to defend smoking; I freely acknowledge that, as a hobby (all right, a habit), it smells, and that Woody Allen was probably being satirical when, in "Sleeper," one of his scientists from the future announces that smoking does not cause cancer but cures it. I might even say that the Nick Tosches quote I cited last time about Las Vegas — that it is "a religion, a disease, a nightmare, a paradise for the misbegotten" — applies with equal acuity to smoking.

The intent of this column is not missionary but analytical. Using two main texts — Richard Klein's wonderfully suggestive book-length essay "Cigarettes Are Sublime," and Ross McElwee's documentary film "Bright Leaves" — I want to take a calm look at smoking, and its place in the culture, from the inside — from the smoker's hot mouth, wheezing heart, sooty lung and vivid, endlessly rationalizing brain.


In his John Belushi biography "Wired," Bob Woodward asked Dan Aykroyd why he joined Belushi in shooting heroin. Because, came the reply, it makes you feel wonderful — that is, before it kills you. Why would anyone take a drug simply because it kills you? The potential consequences have to be considered a side effect, however likely and looming, to whatever pleasure the drug offers.

What pleasures does smoking provide? We turn to Klein, who may be trusted because, after writing his witty defense of smoking, he gave it up. Cigarettes, he says, "present benefits, universally acknowledged by society. These benefits are connected with the release and consolation that cigarettes provide, with the the mechanism they offer for regulating anxiety and for mediating social interaction. They serve as well to spur concentration" — all smoking writers know this — "and, consequently, to permit the efficient production of many different kinds of work."

A cigarette is also a pill that relieves stress. On a flight from St. Martin to New York a few years ago, the captain announced that smoking was permitted in the last four rows of the plane. Some of the smokers, who had psyched themselves into a few hours without a cigarette, now realized they might light up if only they were in the right seats. A frantic bidding war arose for those seats, stoking a commotion that the captain finally quelled by rescinding his order and declaring this a nonsmoking flight. If Klein had been captain, you could've smoked 'em if you had 'em. He calls the airlines' no-smoking rule "a sign of the dangerous lengths to which antismoking impulses will go to deny others the freedom to enjoy the consolation and mastery cigarettes provide in moments of stress or fear. Many people who do not normally smoke take up smoking during times of personal or public crisis, at moments of great anxiety when self-control and concentration are required."

Smoking, Klein argues, nudges the user into a state that is not so much narcotic as contemplative. "The moment of taking a cigarette allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and time of heightened attention that give rise to a feeling of transcendence, evoked through the ritual of fire, smoke, cinder connecting hands, lungs, breath, and mouth. It procures a little rush of infinity that alters perspectives, however slightly, and permits, albeit briefly, an ecstatic standing outside of oneself."

As Klein suggests, the pleasure of smoking is both aesthetic and metaphorical. Aesthetic: the votary aspect of lighting a cigarette. The very phrase "cigarette lighter" can refer both to the machine that provides the flame and to the person who clicks his Bic — or, if he's using matches, snicking his stick. Metaphorical: Smoking can represent passive surrender (one ingests the drug without a much greater expenditure of energy than an opium den denizen) or an active assertion of ego (exhaling smoke extends your "space," creates a cloud, a gentle miasma, a box around you). A cigarette is an undomesticated pet: a tiny dragon (drag-on) between the fingers, allowing you to emphasize a verbal point with a plume of smoke or, when puffed, with the dragon's flash of fire.

I must mention, just in passing, another of cigarettes' metaphorical potencies. "Smo-kin'!" exclaims Jim Carrey's frenetic alter ego in "The Mask"; and we know he is referring to a different -king. Smoking is, at heart, oral gratification. There is, shall we say, a certain sexual implication in putting our lips around a long, thin object, ingesting its essence into the mouth, perhaps swallowing it, then expelling it. Put this way, the act of smoking is, literally, a blow job. And the ritual "smoke after sex" — is this not the reward for all the exertion of coupling? For some smokers, is getting down not the foreplay to lighting up? As Freud or someone said: a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.


I could say I smoke for the same reason I do many things I write about in this column: out of nostalgia for times, and cultures, and pleasures, and bad habits of a more glamorous day. I could say I smoke because my father did, and his mother, though both were dead (cancer) before I started, at 23. The immediate cause was unusual. A friend from California, a magical child named Albert Beach, was coming to New York to visit. He said he was bringing some marijuana, which I'd never tried, and that if I was to appreciate its full efficacy I'd better practice inhaling something. Like cigarettes. The grass never did much for me, but oh, those Benson & Hedges! I can recall sitting in my Brandon Films office after lunch, my brain a-buzz on a contact cigarette high.

I say contact high because I never did inhale — never have, since trying it once as a kid and thinking, "People take this stuff into their lungs?" But I must have become habituated to the act of smoking. I took a year off in the 70s, then tried a pipe, some little cigars, and back to cigarettes. In the 80s, while at the Cannes Film Festival, I discovered a brand with a droll name: Time. Turned out they were the French version of the American brand, More. (More, in French, sounds like the word for death. "Donnez-moi un packet de Mort, s'il-vous plait." In Italy, they're pronounced Mor-ay: nearly the Italian word for love.) Since the mid-90s I've bought Capri Menthol 120s, a cigarette so svelte and mild that, I joke, smoking them makes you live longer.

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