Versus Smoking – Part Two

Oscar Wilde and his writing companion

Welcome back. I’m trying to quit smoking, and I’m using literature, philosophy and the President of the United States to do it. Let’s continue.

Addiction, as we have seen, is tied to emptiness – a hunger. Smoking belies satisfaction and has carcinogenic, mutagenic and ultimately deathly properties. So, in order to overcome the real crux of the issue I’ll ask a question that I have not yet asked: why do people do it? If I trackback this far then I may be able to overcome that feeling of want. Maybe.

Key factor number 1: stress. Why does the Leader of the Free World smoke (hypothetically)? He smokes because his job is a 24/7 speedball of stress. So why does smoking calm the nerves? Well, because nicotine has mood-altering properties. But contrary to this is the concrete proof that smoking actually increases physical stress on your heart. I, and the Leader of the Free World, sacrifice physical harmony for psychological de-stress. I say de-stress because you actually become distressed (forgive me) about the fact that you are killing yourself. This suggests that smoking to relieve stress is irrational and that the Leader of the Free World is vulnerable to the seductions of irrationality which run anathema to the model imago he is supposedly supposed to represent and is possibly dumber or at least weaker and less god-like and more like us than we thought (N.B the fact, however, that people are taking photos of him smoking, the global media circulation of which will make his stress levels incrementally more unbearable, kind of justifies the fact of his smoking in the first place).

This is rubbish. The Leader of the Free World is evidently not weak, no, but he is susceptible to the oddities of life and is thus human. A little more like me than I first imagined. This is comforting, both in the sense that I am not so inferior to the Leader of the Free World and that he is a human being, with feelings and faults and maybe even a soul. Even if he can’t quit maybe I can. Yet this resolves nothing and still begs the question; why do human beings (including the Leader of the Free World) smoke?

At this junction there is one particular virtue, unscientific and simple, that must be extolled. In the stress-inducing 100mph slipstream of life when do we get time to think, time to ourselves, time for contemplation and introspection? The answer is we rarely do. Now, what does the act of smoking offer, in specific accordance with the laws which ban smoking in enclosed public spaces? Well, it forces oneself – the marginalised smoker – to go outside on their own for 3-4 minutes. What does one do in this time? Think through whatever they like – breakdown and create – look around them and think about whatever the hell comes to mind without the snafus and havoc and bombardment of day-to-day life spinning around their head. Maybe this is why writers smoke, because smoking presents itself as a time for contemplative and reflective moments alone in which the creative juices can flow over and above the racket of the 100 mph slipstream. Maybe this chimes with a certain chord in Moliere’s belief that ‘no matter what Aristotle and the Philosophers say, nothing is equal to tobacco; it’s the passion of the well-bred, and he who lives without tobacco lives a life not worth living’. Tobacco allows one to live, to retreat into oneself on a philosophical level. Then should we not advocate a leader who practices such reflective activities, should we not raise our arms in salutation and recite John Clare’s Song of Tobacco?

The Leader of the Free World is evidently not weak, no, but he is susceptible to the oddities of life and is thus human.

No, I am quitting. I had to remind myself of that just then because the above is tainted by traces of addiction. For example, tobacco does not allow us to live; it is diametrically opposed to living in a strictly literal sense: we die. Furthermore, it is an addictive substance and, as I stated earlier, addiction is an abandonment, an alienation from oneself, a giving up of oneself and not a ‘retreat into oneself’ (reminiscent of Foucault’s research into the Greek culture of selfhood and hypomnemata). Addiction makes you think that you need when you don’t. You kid yourself and make up justifications for the thing that you know is bad. For instance, addiction even led me to extol, to posit the practice of elevating to magisterial status and saluting Clare’s Tobacco Song, an act that would imply giving oneself up to an ideology laced with death, sundering ones autonomy to a culture of tobacco deification. This is not contemplative and reflective, is it?

Further, John Clare’s ‘Song’ conflates ‘love’ of tobacco with what might be called ‘addiction’. Love is the drug, as we know, and this metaphorical/experiential symmetry is well established and trite. But still, is there not some delirium in loving the inanimate, loving the thing that kills you? This is kind of Freudian, kind of everyday neurotic and fetishistic – augmented cathexis. Is this love not closer to Stockholm Syndrome, i.e. you love your jailor, the thing that alienated you from yourself, the thing that compelled you to addiction because you had no other choice, the thing that demands you give yourself up to it without question, the thing that makes you lifeless? Maybe it is actually love and not addictive ramblings. But it could equally be part of the addiction’s intricate safeguard, disguising the addictive substance as something exciting and pleasurable – hang on, doesn’t love, on its flipside, contain danger and pain also? Maybe love and addiction really are true analogues. For tobacco to be so romanticized there must be something special or unique or whatever about it; you wouldn’t (or maybe you would) write a poem about vaping after all, would you? Maybe I should have a cigarette.

So, why does the Leader of the Free World smoke? Inconclusive; probably because he is situated somewhere on the spectrum of addiction. Why do writers praise smoking? Because they are addicted. Do we know why people began smoking? No, the addiction covers this up. But this again is too simplified; there are myriad reasons, all complex and convolved, for why people smoke and it seems I have gotten no further. Literature (Twain, Wilde, Orwell, Svevo, Clare, Gray) has let me know that I am not alone but denies me resolution; maybe that’s because there is no resolution, maybe that’s because the literature is shit (I’m getting irritable now) and the writers were all smokers. It appears that either quitting is impossible and I am in an insatiable double bind, or that I should give in and praise tobacco because it gives value to my life as an activity that promotes contemplation and introspective thought. Literature won’t help me quit, not directly anyway. Maybe I’ve learned something useful. Here goes: all I can say is that we are human beings and part of the point is that we never know for sure, we are not constant and addiction is one of the few things that makes us so, we become ubiquitous and uniform under the thrall of addiction, all wanting, all desiring, all unsatisfied.

It appears that either quitting is impossible and I am in an insatiable double bind, or that I should give in and praise tobacco because it gives value to my life

I still want a cigarette, by the way. The jitters haven’t ceased. I am left wanting, and Wilde’s sardonic ‘what more do you want’ is playing on repeat to the tune of my little minions’ tap tap tapping. But, as I stated, I am quitting.

Let me ask a few questions in conclusion: do I want to end up like the hookah smoking Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, lost in the narcosis of dreamy nonsense or, even worse, nihilistic and self-loathing like Svevo’s Zeno, or, worse still, dead? No. Do I care about what the Leader of the Free World does and how his personal life affects my life or if it even does? No, not at all. Was the Leader of the Free World even reaching for a packet of cigarettes? Maybe, maybe not. Who cares? Am I going to quit? Yes. Why? Because smoking is bad for me. Am I really going to quit? Yes. Do I want to quit? N/A. Do I still want a cigarette? Yes.

Words by Patrick Anson


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