Take a long, deep puff on a cigarette: fill yourself up with its venomous smoke; let it touch the innermost convolutions of your lungs; then exhale it, slowly, past nose and lips in a swirling, expanding stream about your head. Tout est là. The smoke penetrates sharply, then exudes, softly envelops you in the experience of extending your body’s limits, no longer fixed by the margin of your skin. The tobacco’s vapor is atomized into atmosphere that halos your exterior form, after having been condensed within the cavities that harbor your most intimate interior. Joining inside and out, each puff is like total immersion: it baptizes the celebrant with the little flash of a renewed sensation, an instantaneous, fleeting body image of the unified Moi. An inhaling moment of concentration, centralizing the self to make it more dense, more opaquely present to itself, ecstatically in a smoky jag – as it grows increasingly tenuous, progressively less differentiated from the exterior world it becomes.
The double postulation of centralization and evaporation (which marks the rhythm of smoking, tapped out in every puff on a cigarette) has decisive psychological and aesthetic implications for poets, writes Baudelaire; it mimes the movement of the romantic lyric self, whose oscillation swings between the poles of fascinated immersion in the world and intense self-regard. In Baudelaire’s mythology, the worldly figure of poetic experience who best embodies those two impulses, simultaneously, is the dandy: he exercises the most cruel, centralizing aesthetic constraints over the most vaporous, immoral imagination. A continuous self-invention, the dandy is both ruthlessly rigorous and infinitely ephemeral, the subjective correlative of a sonnet’s mathematical effusions, or of the meticulously repeated satisfaction of a cigarette. The aesthetic religion of lyric dandyism, the morality of making a work of art out of a way of life, finds its most precious relic in the cigarette, whose invention roughly coincided with the invention, in 1830, of the Parnassian dandy, who called himself Art and whose doctrine was “Art for Art’s sake.”
Photo by Mary Kuzmenkova