Versus Smoking – Part One

Oscar Wilde and his writing companion

Welcome. I am trying to quit smoking. The following is a conduction of a kind of self-therapy through which I try to learn more about smoking and addiction by analysing both literary fragments (admittedly scant) which muse upon smoking and my own mind/consciousness, with the eventual goal being some sort of developed or more thorough understanding of the road ahead and the obstacles I’ll need to overcome. Hopefully I learn something on the way. Let’s begin.

I am done. That’s it, I’m quitting for good. As of now I will not have another cigarette in my life, ever, okay? Right, good. A great plan. I sit down.

I realise I’m not doing anything. I want a cigarette. I have to distract myself.

Check the news. Bad idea. The first story I encounter tells me directly that Barack Obama, the Leader of the Free World, was recently snapped (during what can only tenuously be described as leisure time) at the G7 summit reaching for what looked suspiciously like a pack of cigarettes. This is a complete fiasco and a publicity balls-up for Mr. Obama – if the object was in fact a pack of cigs, that is. That has been denied by internal sources, yet this article assumes that a hypothetical, projected and thus not real Mr. Obama might have been preparing to smoke and may be addicted to smoking because he represents a kind of yardstick for an exceptional human being despite being a smoker – possibly. By no means am I classifying Mr. Obama as a smoker because, especially in the American context in which smoking is considered rather déclassé, I do not want to jump to conclusions, scandalise or seem vituperative.

Yet supposedly Mr. Obama has a track record with the poison sticks, supposedly picking up the habit in college before supposedly kicking the habit in 2010 because the First Lady supposedly disapproved and he wanted to be able to tell his children that he did not smoke and thereby set a good example for them and the rest of the world. Or something to that general, clichéd and dehumanising effect. Anyway, when trying to quit smoking, what hope in hell do mere humans have if Mr. Obama, I’ll repeat: the Leader of the Free World (whatever that abstraction is or encompasses), has been pictured in the last few days cradling a pack of Lucky’s – gearing up for a crafty fag – and is evidently still at least to some degree dependent on the noxious suckers. I am only a simple human, incomparable to the demi-god Obama. Where do I turn for answers, for hope, for guidance?

So now, looking out across the bleak landscape of my insignificance, I start to feel the cravings really digging their heels in. They’ve dug down to the nerve. I’m biting my nails so feverishly that I’ll probably have reached the quick before lunch time. There’s a jittery and indecipherable voice in my head. I don’t know exactly what it is saying but I feel it. I know it knows what I want. I know I want what it knows I want. It’s a standoff and I’m unarmed. I need to confront this voice. It is like a creaking door, or a tap tap tap on the inside of my skull, an empty eerie house; I need to confront the fact that I can literally hear the blood in my head squeaking, bubbling, ready to boil over, anticipating that kettle-esque shriek. God, I want a cigarette.

By no means am I classifying Mr. Obama as a smoker because, especially in the American context in which smoking is considered rather déclassé, I do not want to jump to conclusions, scandalise or seem vituperative.

What to do? Well, they do say to turn to literature for comfort and wholesome inky empathy in times of pain and abandonment. Strong word, I know, but is addiction not a partial abandonment of oneself to the addictive substance and the pursuit of it? And thus during the process of quitting the intake of that addictive substance, you come to realise the fact that you gave yourself up, abandoned yourself to the pursuit and implications of that addictive something and that in quitting you are trying to reclaim the ‘yourself’ from before the point of addiction. Anyway, literature. That’s what the conventionalists say anyway. Might as well give it a shot.

Considering that nearly every great writer smoked, it might seem oddly counterproductive for a nascent quitter to try to find comfort in literature. But, quite frankly, I need to hear it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. As many autodidacts versed in the specialism of ‘Smoking and Literature’ know full well, there are numerous literary accounts of the onerous and emotionally hanging-drawing-and-quartering process of quitting or euphemistically ‘cutting down’; ‘Confessions of Zeno’ – Italo Svevo, ‘The Smoking Diaries’ – Simon Gray, ‘Books vs. Cigarettes’ – George Orwell et al. are all testament to the power of smoking. In each of these a desire to smoke at all costs overrides, as well as a guilt complex (even if minor and hardly noticeable) and a certain anxiety which can’t be shaken.

But I am too down-hearted for them, I am feeling alone and needy and want to laugh. I call upon the one-liner maestro Mark Twain, who admits that ‘giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times’. (The Leader of the Free World probably knows that one). So, Twain tells me that it is all very well to say you’re giving up but it is quite another thing terminating the habit for good, i.e. actually quitting. My tendency (which is arguably a proclivity) for relapsing in times like these tells me that Twain is right, ‘giving up’ is hard and might never stop being hard depending on your variable and often capricious reserve of individual will power; after all, we are humans and are fallible to our desires. After all, human beings don’t ever really want to give anything up – in the 21st century we are hoarders and consumers by nature. But why is smoking as a particular addiction so hard to kick?

Another master of the punchline and possibly the wittiest man ever may be able to offer some assistance here. Oscar Wilde: ‘A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?’ Considering the fact that smokers are never fully satiated by any one cigarette and that the toxins are deadly and cancerous and every 21st century smoker knows it, this quote becomes unbelievably prescient, especially when you consider Freud’s interlinking of pleasure and the theorised death drive. Wilde also implicitly sums up addiction. It is the ghost that haunts every phrase of his quote: the ‘perfect pleasure’ you expect and anticipate but becomes ungraspable, unrealised; the feeling of being left ‘unsatisfied’ or partially quenched; then the desire for more that is actually only a desire for the same thing again, a repetitious desire that wants nothing more than another cigarette. As with addiction, the addict is compelled to like the addictive substance (the thing that dupes them) because it masquerades as offering a ‘perfect pleasure’ despite never being able to provide holistic pleasure; it is perfect but unsatisfying, the addict places perfection on the very thing that can never deliver perfection. Addiction presents the intrinsically imperfect as perfect. But, at the same time, maybe we want to be unsatisfied, maybe we want something beyond the pleasure principle, beyond mere fullness – maybe we desire the partial but pleasurably tantalising emptiness which smoking facilitates. Maybe, on the other hand, Wilde is simply saying that some sort of complete perfection is an impossible ideal and true perfection is by its very nature partial, tempting and seductively unfulfilling.

Considering that nearly every great writer smoked, it might seem oddly counterproductive for a nascent quitter to try to find comfort in literature.

Wilde and Twain both knew the disturbing thrall of addiction, the great, gaseous and intractable mass around whose centre smokers perennially orbit but never fully see as when one side is illuminated the other remains eclipsed. But we continue to gravitate around it, revolving in a mindless rhythm. We want it because it is and we are made to think that it is pleasurable. Yet it can never fully satisfy and it kills us. Smoking = the quintessential double bind.

I am getting somewhere and I am not, it seems. My right hand is still twitching. Maybe it is because my pouch of Golden Virginia is a yard or so to my right. No, I say. Compose yourself. I do, after talking it through, feel slightly more equipped (in terms of understanding their context) to battle against the previously indecipherable but now audible and clear murmurs of ‘you know you want one’ reverberating through my head. I wonder if the Leader of the Free World has his own psychical voices, if he gets specifically presidential psychic twinges of need – constitutional addiction.

I don’t know about him, but I do know that my little minions won’t cede knocking at the walls of my skull until I do. I say skull to introduce the relationship between the body (skull) and the psyche (brain/mind). Skull emphasises the untarnished nacreous white of bones, a purity of the body even, and this is contaminated by the psyche, the minions working at the soul of the addict. These minions tempt the addict to smoke, which doesn’t darken the pure white but turns that white sepulchral, death-stroked. Addiction seems to be a psycho-somatic thing. Addiction is a psychological condition but the symptoms of that condition are physical and visceral – they are felt. The mind wants and the body rejects; but the body also wants. For example, smoking nullifies the appetite and so since quitting I am literally starving 99% of the time. I feel unalterably hungry and immutably empty. But this desire for food is psychological too, it is a raw desire of mental want, a need to fill the physical hole left by cigarettes; but this can only be filled by the symptomatic ingestion of a substance or by chewing gum (an odd and clever kind of psychological dupe). Even if I am full and don’t need food (I just finished a 150g Co-op own brand chocolate bar and now I feel sick), without cigarettes my body demands that I become a glutton.

This may be why Ian Fleming coined smoking ‘the most ridiculous of all the varieties of human behaviour and practically the only one that is entirely against nature’. Because, aside from the fact that it is deathly and thus against nature, smoking and the corollary addiction inaugurates a pure, raw and unruly desire in the addict that undercuts human nature, rationality and the civilised, mature mind. The addict simply wants and, as Wilde sees it, is never satisfied. It is Freud’s unconscious undertow, the id, the animal within; an irrepressible and presidential unconscious that over-governs. ‘What is it, unconscious to myself, that guides me?’ well, Fernando Passoa, if you were to ask me it is probably the desire to smoke. Otherwise, why would I be standing on my own, rubbing shoulders with the Westherspoons bins, on a 2 by 2 slab of concrete in the pouring rain? In this case I see a want that defies the basic survival instinct; no matter how ‘unsatisfied’ we are or whatever obstacles arise we rapaciously want the deathly substance. It is an overriding and masochistic hunger. I want to be filled. What more do you want, Wilde asks. Well, I simply want.

End of Part One. Check back for the second half of Patrick’s battle with and exploration of addiction.

Words by Patrick Anson


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