The noxious effects of tobacco have been observed since the moment of its introduction into Europe at the end of the sixteenth century. Since the early nineteenth century, it has been recognized that the alkaloid of nicotine, administered to rats in pure form in minute doses, instantly produces death. No one who smokes fails eventually to get the signals that the body, with increasing urgency, sends as it ages; in fact, every smoker probably intuits the poison from the instant of experiencing the first violent effects of lighting up, and probably confirms this understanding every day with the first puffs of the first cigarette. But understanding the noxious effects of cigarettes is not usually sufficient reason to cause anyone to stop smoking or resist starting; rather, knowing it is bad seems an absolute precondition of acquiring and confirming the cigarette habit. Indeed, it could be argued that few people would smoke if cigarettes were actually good for you, assuming such a thing were possible; the corollary affirms that if cigarettes were good for you, they would not be sublime. The noxious character of cigarettes – their great addictiveness and their poisonous effects – constitutes the absolute precondition of their troubling, somber beauty.
Cigarettes are not positively beautiful, but they are sublime by virtue of their charming power to propose what Kant would call “a negative pleasure”: an inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity; the taste of infinity in a cigarette resides precisely in the “bad” taste the smoker quickly learns to love. Being sublime, cigarettes, in principle, resist all arguments directed against them from the perspective of health and utility. Warning smokers or neophytes of the dangers of smoking only entices them more powerfully to the edge of the abyss, where, like travelers in a Swiss landscape, they can be thrilled by the subtle grandeur of the perspectives on mortality opened by the little terrors in every puff. Cigarettes are bad. That is why they are good – not good, not beautiful, but sublime.
It is no easy task to praise cigarettes at this time in America. We are in the midst of one of those periodic moments of repression when the culture, descended from the Puritans, imposes its hysterical visions and enforces its guilty constraints on society, legislating moral judgments under the guise of public health, all the while enlarging the power of surveillance and the reach of censorship to achieve a general restriction of freedom.
We may speak of censorship with respect to smoking because smoking cigarettes is not only a physical act but a discursive one – a wordless yet eloquent form of expression. It is a fully coded, rhetorically complex, articulated discourse with a vast repertoire of well-understood conventions that are implicated in the whole literary, philosophical, and cultural history of smoking. In the present climate, the discursive performance of smoking has become a form of obscenity (just as obscenity has become an issue of public health). Of course, censors always claim that they work on behalf of the moral and physical well-being of the body politic, which they wish to protect from the harm that is supposed to follow from the proscribed symbolic behavior. Since smoking is wordless, it is a form of expression especially vulnerable to suppression by censors who hesitate before banning speech. Like the Gypsy dances that were banned at French carnivals, smoking cigarettes has become an act that arouses irrational fears and excessively repressive impulses.
The world can only be grateful for the precision and insistence with which doctors remind it of the dangers of smoking poison; that is their job. But the passionate excess of zeal with which cigarettes are everywhere stigmatized may signal that some more pervasive, subterranean, and dangerous passions are loose that directly threaten our freedom. The freedom to smoke ought to be understood as a significant token of the class of all freedoms; when it is threatened one should look instantly for what other controls are being tightened, for what other checks on freedom are being administered.
Anti-smoking forces in this country have not yet succeeded in banning cigarettes, only in changing the value of the signs that surround them. I wish to recall the other, secret side of cigarettes, the side that has been all but repressed in the current climate of public disapproval. For a moment I want to reverse the reversal of judgment and, instead of decrying cigarettes, to celebrate them – not in order to recommend them or to minimize the harm they do to the body but to recall that, despite their many disadvantages, which have always been known and widely proclaimed, they present benefits, universally acknowledged by society. Those benefits are connected with the nature of the release and consolation that cigarettes provide, with the mechanism they offer for regulating anxiety and for mediating social interaction; they serve as well to spur concentration and, consequently, to permit the efficient production of many different kinds of work.
Nevertheless, I wish to praise cigarettes not chiefly for their utility but rather for what the nineteenth-century French poet Theodore de Banville called their “futility.” Cigarette smoking, like a Kantian work of art, does not serve any purpose, has no aim outside itself. It is this very uselessness that ensures the aesthetic appeal of cigarettes – the sublimely, darkly beautiful pleasure that cigarettes bring to the lives of smokers.
In 1856 a journal devoted to smoking, called Paris fumeur, had as its motto “Qui fume prie“: “Smoking is praying.” The moment of taking a cigarette allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and a time of heightened attention that give rise to a feeling of transcendence, evoked through the ritual of fire, smoke, and cinder connecting hand, 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. Yes, cigarettes are bad for you. But if they were not also good for you, so many good people would not have spent some part of their lives smoking them constantly, often compulsively. 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 yet writing in praise of cigarettes was the strategy I devised for stopping smoking, which I have – definitively; this is therefore both an ode and an elegy to cigarettes. Perhaps one stops smoking only when one starts to love cigarettes, becoming so enamored of their charms and so grateful for their benefits that one at last begins to grasp how much is lost by giving them up. 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. The act of giving up cigarettes should perhaps be approached not only as an affirmation of life but, because living is not merely existing, as an occasion for mourning. Stopping smoking, one must lament the loss to one’s life of something immensely, intensely beautiful, must grieve for the passing of a star.
Cigarettes Are Sublime (1993)