Every now and then arguments over smoking cigarettes take a decidedly strange turn. In a recent conversation my friends Anthony and Isabella objected to my aesthetic taste.
My friend Dan took my side. What prompted this was a noir image of a sexy woman sitting on a curb –which Anthony considered disguising on account of the fact that the woman was smoking – which I considered sexy precisely because she was smoking.
I then brought up the issue that smoking is liberation and thus freedom and I cited Prague Spring 1968 – my argument for that is listed directly at the end of this response. Anthony objected as did Isabella on account that it was 44 years ago and when Dan said “it could also be pointed out that life itself is an act of self-destruction, in that you end up dead. And, to quote my magnificent self: ‘I refuse to tiptoe carefully through my life, only to arrive safely at my death.’ “ Isabella disagreed arguing that we ought to chose more wisely and that “Destruction is linear, but life is a cycle… ”
Here then are my several responses:
I Of will power, alleged ignorance and good manners
In answer to the “the years ago people didn’t know” argument.
INCORRECT. In 1950 my Grandfather Marian Burakowski was a smoker like everyone else – he smoked 3 packs a day of hard-core Polish cigarettes – filterless – “Popularne” – these would be analogous to “Lucky Strike” filterless – x3 in strength. On his way from Gdansk to Warsaw he was travelling with some German tourists who were reading German language medical magazines. Since my Grandfather was fully fluent in German and since he was a Doctor – he asked to read the latest medical news.
The feature article in one of the German Medical magazines indicated that research conducted since at least 1930 showed conclusively that smoking decreases one’s life by at least 5 years if not 10. My Grandfather quit smoking the next day. He quit from 3 packs a day to 0 overnight. In the 1965 when he was visiting Paris – out of curiosity – he lit up a cigarette – vomited and considered himself cured. Not many people had such will power. His wife – my Grandmother didn’t quit smoking until the early 1970’s using a tapering off method.
BUT… even though both of my grandparents were doctors – they NEVER did more than offer a professional opinion that smoking was unhealthy. If you wanted to smoke – they never objected. In fact even after my Grandfather quit there were always fresh cartons of cigarettes in the house – in fact – Polish brands and foreign brands some bought with hard currency sat in the dining room next to the Vodka, Wine and Brandy. My Grandparents didn’t drink – but they had guest over who drank – and who smoked!
So as the evening wore on – it was often the case that some good conversation was interrupted by a lack of cigarettes on the part of the guest. The guest would then get up and say “I need to get going, I’m out of cigarettes,” at which point my Grandfather would produce his stash of cartons and suggest he stay and smoke his – if he has to smoke. The point is – A: My Grandfather never chastised adults over their choice of bad habits – he offered an opinion ONLY if asked. B: Cigarettes were legal, like Absinth before WWII – so he kept them in his home for his guests. C: He wasn’t tempted by them because he had WILL POWER. And finally everyone knew in 1950 that Cigarettes will kill you. Everyone who was educated knew – which brings me to my next point.
II A choice I can respect
In answer to the “choosing wisely” argument.
In the mid 1950’s – Jean Paul Sartre – the Existentialist – related the following anecdote in the company of his sometime friend, fellow countryman, fellow Existentialist and fellow writer Albert Camus – this was witnessed by others of the Existentialist movement. This anecdote I will paraphrase here. Sartre – still a young man at the time that the anecdote took place walked in to a bar where he saw several young men smoking. A few of them were also known to be drug users – heavier narcotics like heroin. Sartre was fascinated by this and decided to investigate. He chose the smartest one of them and asked the following question.
“Why do you smoke?”
“Because I enjoy it so much,” said the student.
“But you know it is killing you, don’t you?”
“Of course, everyone knows that cigarettes kill,” replied the student.
“Then why smoke?” Asked Sartre.
When the students could not come up with a quick enough and clever enough response – Jean Paul Sartre volunteered an answer, in fact two.
“You smoke knowing that the cigarettes will kill you, so there can only be two explanations for your actions. Either you smoke because you are addicted to the drug, or you smoke because you are suicidal and you have chosen this particular method by which to commit suicide. So which is it? Are you suicidal or addicts?”
The students thought about it for a while and one by one they answered. Let’s say there were ten of them. Nine said they smoked because they were addicted to the drug. One student said he was suicidal. Sartre then pointed to the nine and said:
“You nine are complete idiots, and I have no respect for you, you are unworthy of my company. And you sir,” he pointed at the one student who said he was suicidal “have my utmost respect and admiration, let us continue this debate over dinner and get to know one another.”
Needless to say Albert Camus agreed and lit a cigarette to that.
III Personal Aesthetics
In answer to the “aesthetic argument” raised by both Anthony and Isabella, I offer the following poem written on January 27, 2000 – from my collection “Agrest and other poems”
She blew second hand smoke in my face
While I gazed at my wineglass as elegant as her hands;
The serpent trailed from her lips seeking its pray
And I lifted my head to look through the haze;
Around us the music played some disco-tech
Cancerously spreading subtle propaganda;
In the distance a naked tree swayed
While the weak wind rustled her auburn hair gently;
And a graying sky cast long dark shadows
Softening the concrete pavement beneath our feet;
The waiter, self-absorbed in his acting career
Gaily asked if I needed another glass of wine;
Self-righteously he wrinkled his nose
As he emptied her ashtray full of lipstick stained buts;
Her hand held the cigarette with casual disregard
And lifted it to her lips with an absent minded gesture;
I sipped my wine and tasted its bitter bouquet
Saw that its color was the color of her high-heeled shoes;
Contemplated the blood-red blouse she filled out nicely
And free-flowing pale skirt that danced ‘round her legs;
While everywhere cars made their buzzing-choking sound
Treacherously speeding down Wilshire Boulevard;
She smiled at me and our eyes caught the sunset’s glare
I toasted her with my wine glass, nodding my head;
She lifted one eyebrow, and pulling out another long cigarette
Placed it with tenderness in her lips…, and lit a flame.
IV Prague Spring 1968
I have had this debate so many times with so many people it is almost tedious to do so again. There is an excellent essay by Heinrich Boll – the Nobel Prize winning author – the essay concerns Prague in 1968 when the Warsaw Pact armed forces went in to shut down the democracy movement. Boll was there as a journalist. He observed that times had changed – that the world was no longer eager to let the Soviets put down the Czechs the way they had put down the Hungarians just 12 years earlier.
One of the symptoms of this was that the young Czech and Slovak students who were out on the streets demonstrating all spoke Russian – which they were forced to learn in primary school and at University. They were able to engage the Russian Tank soldiers in Russian. So there were these scenes of young democracy students – armed only with their wit speaking with these Kalashnikov wielding Russians (and others from other Warsaw Pact nations, including regrettably Poland) – as they were taking heatedly – there was real danger of the soldiers opening fire. What do you think stood between outright massacre and civilized discourse?
Wait for it… wait for it… a cigarette. Heinrich Boll observed that during these heated debates cigarettes would be smoked. The soldier would be nervous and he’d pull out a pack, or the student would. And they would run out of cigarettes and have to take one from the enemy. Then they’d light each other’s cigarettes. The cigarette then became the ONLY civilizing and humane act – and a boundary between peace and anarchy. You may find it odd – but I find it perfectly reasonable that it is a gross violation of proper human decency to shoot a man who just lit your cigarette or gave you one.
The cigarette then was a symbol of freedom. The soldier by accepting a cigarette from the student was validating the common humanity of both of them. Of course it didn’t work… the Czech’s got hammered anyway – but for a moment… for a brief moment – freedom, decency, humanity, love, truth, the promise of sex from a beautiful Czech girl, youth and ideals, hope and all that is great about man – all balanced on the tip of a lit cigarette. As Sigmund Freud once observed “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” – well – sometimes a cigarette is the most beautiful thing in the world.
V Destruction is linear, but life is a cycle
In the German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” about WWII written in 1954 he recounts an anecdote that best sums up what the meaning of a cigarette is in light of the linearity of destruction and the cycle of life. I will paraphrase the anecdote here from memory – so if you should look it up and find that the details don’t exactly match please forgive me – I do get the gist of the argument right though.
In the novel there is a Jew named Josef who has somehow managed to hide out in Berlin throughout the whole NAZI era and finds himself while scavenging at the end confronted by a German soldier named Graeber who is AWOL. The tense confrontation changes to one of mutual annoyance with Graeber trying to help Josef and who just wants to be left alone – since he distrust Graeber and wishes to go to his hiding place in the rubble. Finally Graeber hands him his rations which Josef accepts gratefully still unconvinced as to the other’s helpful nature. Graeber then he volunteers that he has access to even more food if only the other would wait. Josef responds, that he can’t carry any more than he is already carrying. Graeber is disappointed but then remembers…
“Cigarettes, I forgot cigarettes.” He then tells Josef that he knows where he can get them, where there are plenty of them. To this Josef’s face changes and lights up, becomes soft and warm, relaxed and friendly.
“Cigarettes.” He says the word dearly. “That’s more important than food. For cigarettes I’ll wait.”
August 12-13, 2012