Its not just the flickering flames, the calm and cool that humanists are giving up, argues Sally Feldman. It's a precious part of themselves
Four years ago, our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor announced in these pages that after years of dedicated loyalty he was finally giving up his beloved full-strength yellow Camels. He’d had an epiphany when a fellow humanist confronted him mid-puff and demanded to know: “How can one call oneself a rationalist and still be a smoker? I mean, how can you talk about the value of planning other people’s lives when you can’t take control of your own?”
The question is reasonable enough, especially when you consider how many humanists and atheists, rebels and revolutionaries, secularists and sceptics tend to smoke. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, former president of the American Humanist Association, was a fanatical chain-smoker until his death earlier this year. Karl Marx sported cigars; Vaclav Havel, reforming literary president of the Czech Republic, is never seen without a cigarette; Jean Cocteau, Mary McCarthy, Dennis Potter and Martin Amis are just a few of an endless litany of freethinkers who have adopted smoking as their prop and their identity. But now that the ban is in place, now that there can be no more smoke-filled bars, hazy dives, delicious wafting of post-prandial puffs in restaurants and wine bars, no more packs of Lucky Strikes balanced on jazz keyboards, no more roll-ups teetering on pub ashtrays – we’re in mourning for a part of ourselves and our culture that is fading to ashes.
So what could it be that has drawn generations of rational thinkers to a habit that is so manifestly filthy, murderous and fatal? It’s not the act itself – though that can be glorious enough – so much as the irresistible associations with ideas and images of a life beyond the ordinary, a life of nonconformism and resistance and alternative chic. Rationalist smokers know they’re playing with death, but like the game. “Every time I finish a cigarette I think about death,” Damien Hirst once said.
They may be aware that others disapprove, but that makes the habit even more appealing. Some may long to be free of their dependence, but fear the dull sameness and the boring common sense that such a sacrifice may bring. “There have been moments of reverie, wreathed in smoke and alone with a book, and moments of conversation, perfumed with ashtrays and cocktails and decent company, which I would not have exchanged for a year of ordinary existence,” wrote arch-secularist Christopher Hitchens.
When a rationalist lights up, she’s drifting closer to the romance of existentialism; she’s on the left bank, hammering out philosophy with Gertrude and Alice, Sartre and de Beauvoir and the gang, drinking endless powerful café noirs, gulping back absinthe and breathing in the intellectual scent of Gauloises. For smoking the rationalist way is a European affair. Not for us the Marlboro man, outdoor-bound, herding cattle with one arm while fending off rustlers with the other, whose prairie-swept cigarette is a fine manly accompaniment to those sturdy bow-legged boots, chaps and holsters.
The humanist smoker favours instead the life of the thinker. The nonchalant rings we blow are the emblem of our free and searching spirit, the swirling mists bestowing the bliss of being at one with ourselves and simultaneously with the world around us. It’s a sensation beautifully evoked by Richard Klein in his paean to the delights of tobacco, Cigarettes are Sublime.
“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 lá. 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... Joining inside and out, each puff is like total immersion: it baptises the celebrant with the little flash of a renewed sensation, an instantaneous, fleeting body image of the unified Moi. . . As the self exhales itself, ecstatically, in a smoky jag. . . it grows progressively less differentiated from the exterior world it becomes.”
Hungry for that gesture of oneness with ourselves and with the world, we are nostalgic still for an age where fitness was a bit fascist, exercise uncool and strong muscles a sign of a weaker brain. Drooping shoulders and a tubercular cough were sexier than six-packs and tight abdominals. To be intellectual was to defy the body in favour of the mind, and smoking was merely an outward sign of that choice.
And that must be why the ultimate pin-up for ‘60s bohemian women was the French actor Jean Paul Belmondo, his eyes narrowed, a cigarette erect on his curling, sensitive lip. “I don’t inhale, because it gives you cancer, but I look so incredibly handsome with a cigarette that I can’t not hold one,” explains Woody Allen in Manhattan, partly acknowledging his affinity with new wave European cinema but also with his own screen idol Humphrey Bogart, the legendary rebel, radical and devoted smoker.
In Casablanca, all the men smoke all the time. Cigarettes are a sign of tension, panic, sexual frustration. Bogart’s Rick, gun-runner for the Spanish Communists, secret champion of dissidents and refugees, defier of the Nazi occupiers, smokes to bury his memories, then confront them; to demonstrate his moral neutrality and then his shift to radical hero ennobled by love.
Indeed, smoking has long been associated with the idea of rebellion and revolution. Richard Klein points out that despotic tyrants often display a virulent hatred of smoking. Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler all repressed it. “The history of the struggle against tyrants has been frequently inseparable from that of the struggle on behalf of the freedom to smoke, and at no time was this more the case than during the French and American revolutions.”
A less grand version of this pioneering radicalism reappeared when companies and offices began a few years ago to impose smoking bans, offering the pitiful rump a designated room to indulge their habit. Those who braved the yellowing walls and overspilling ashtrays would develop a pioneering spirit, a sense of righteousness that they were bucking the system and striking a blow for individualism. The most interesting people, we’d maintain, could be found in the smoking room. The implicit idea was that if the company bosses didn’t want you to do it then that was reason enough to defy them.
And smoking is a natural accompaniment not only to the act of rebellion, but also to thought itself. Writers have long seen smoking not merely as an adjunct to their work but as an expression of it. In a recent BBC documentary, the writer Beryl Bainbridge explained how, when she was forced to give up smoking, she found herself unable to get down to her new novel. “All the joy went out of everything.” And in the Guardian she explained that “nicotine contains something that invigorates the mind, returns it after a puff or two to its original state.”
Jean Paul Sartre, who according to Simone de Beauvoir got through two packs a day, regarded cigarettes as both muse and enemy. Richard Klein points out that although he was so dependent on them, Sartre rejected the idea of cigarettes as the source of artistic inspiration. This, he argued, was just another version of the bourgeois notion of appropriation, whereby identity becomes synonymous with property.
“Precisely because the cigarette resists the illusion that it can be appropriated through smoking,” Klein explains, “that its mere enjoyment can lend substantial being to the nothingness of the self’s radical freedom, the bourgeois smoker invents a more ingenious strategy to possess it. Artistic creation, doubling enjoyment, adds a more refined means of appropriation to the process by which one makes the cigarette into my cigarette’.”
Sartre may have been mistrustful of the process, but he was also an eager participant in it, seeing smoking as a sacrificial ceremony whose rituals bestow a grace and meaning on everyday acts. The cigarette is an instrument of crystallisation, whereby “each object possessed, raised up against the background of the world, manifests the entire world.”
Once he “decrystallised” the experience of smoking, Sartre claimed, he found it easy to give up. But he didn’t manage it for long, and continued to smoke heavily even at the end of his life when he was so ill that he could barely hold a cigarette and was warned that if he didn’t stop, he would lose his legs.
Rationalism, it seems, is no match for addiction. Which must be why Sigmund Freud refused to give up cigars even after undergoing thirty-three operations for mouth cancer. Not only did he defy the commonsense reason of the medical profession. He even overturned his own psychosexual theories, denying that his obsession with cigars could possibly have any connection with oral fixation. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he maintained unconvincingly.
For with all of its richly aggressive connotations, the cigar is the ultimate manifestation of maleness. To appreciate the cigar you must be a connoisseur, imbued with specialist knowledge. There is a hierarchy of cigars, from the humble Wintermans to the exclusive Cohiba or Montecristo. There are the expensive accessories of boxes, infusers, cutters, the rituals of rolling, unpeeling, lighting, savouring. Cigars are the habit of rich men; others pretend richness by sporting them. Groucho Marx made his a comic prop to underline his exclusion from the elite. Michael Grade, like his impresario uncle Lew, uses the cigar to demonstrate his belonging and, ironically, his Jewish unbelonging to the true aristrocracy of the wealthy.
The cigar is, more than anything, an extension of the man, the bigger, longer and fatter the more male, the longer he can last, the more he can penetrate and conquer. The grotesque, libidinous dwarf Daniel Quilp, in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, sits at the bedside of the virginal Little Nell all night, puffing endlessly on his noxious cigar. Bill Clinton made the equation more explicit when he used his to pleasure Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Room. You couldn’t find a more potent expression of the cigar as naked, masculine power.
While the cigar is an extension of a man’s sexuality, the cigarette is the female to whom he is attracted. In Smoke Signals, an analysis of the relationship between women and smoking, Penny Tinkler demonstrates that “smoking has a long-standing association with women and female sexuality, in that tobacco has, since Elizabethan times, been personified as a woman.” A man would habitually speak of his cigarette or cigar as his lover. Rudyard Kipling described his favourite Cuban cigars as “a harem of dusky beauties tied fifty in a string.” Snuff boxes, cigar labels and cigarette advertisements in the early ‘20s would frequently suggest parallels between the possession of a woman and consumption of tobacco, and cigarette cards habitually featured scantily clad pin-up girls.
The most celebrated artistic personification of woman as cigarette is Bizet’s Carmen, the femme fatale who works in a cigarette factory and seduces the innocent soldier to a tragic end. In the original story, written in 1845 by Prosper Merimée, the factory itself is portrayed as a harem, where “no man can go without a permit because the women strip to undergarments to lessen the heat.”
So powerful was the association between woman and cigarette, sex and smoking, passionate love and death, that Gitanes were named after the Gypsy heroine, whose image was immortalised in the design of a sensually curved dancer, bathed in smoke on a striking dark blue box.
By the ‘30s, the woman smoker was routinely presented in popular magazines, advertisements and films as an erotic device. A man lighting a cigarette for a woman was embued with suggestiveness. In Now Voyager, when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and then passes one from his lips to those of Bette Davis, the gesture is clearly a substitute for the sexual act, or even a version of it. Blowing smoke into a man’s face – as Jean Harlow does in Platinum Blonde, or Joan Crawford in Strange Cargo – was Hollywood shorthand for sexual invitation.
But smoking for women was far from a passive or seductive act. It was also an assertion of equality. “Women’s rights were a key theme in late Victorian and Edwardian representations of women smokers,” writes Penny Tinkler. “The cigarette was one of several markers of a new type of femininity, one characterised by the assertion of equal rights with men and a claim to previously denied privileges such as access to public space, education, professional work, the franchise and independent living.”
The children’s author, novelist and Fabian Edith Nesbitt was the prototype of the new woman. She took up smoking at around the time she cut her hair, rather in the same spirit as her heroine Nora in Something Wrong, who “habitually smoked cigarettes. Not that she cared very much for the thing itself, but Nora in her way was somewhat ‘advanced,’ and was very strong on the subject of the equality of the sexes. So she smoked as a protest against existing prejudices.”
Throughout the 20th century the right to smoke has been a part of women’s struggle for equality: “The link between smoking and liberation is visible in the struggle women have waged in this century for their freedom,” asserts Richard Klein. “It is probably no accident that in April 1945 women received the right to vote in France, two weeks after they had received cigarette rations for the first time since the war.” He goes on to cite the results of a European Community health investigation showing that European women are much more likely to smoke in those countries where they are the most liberated from traditional places and roles.
But liberation has now been overshadowed by derogation. Once the popular image of the female smoker was upper-class or bohemian, redolent with glamour, independence and insouciant sexiness. Now she is working-class: sluttish, stupid and irresponsible. She may be portrayed as a pregnant teenager who smokes so that her baby will be small. Or she may smoke to lose weight and to look like Kate Moss. Or, as John Reid then Health Secretary remarked, she may smoke just because she’s hopeless and helpless. “What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get?” he demanded. “The only enjoyment sometimes is to have a cigarette.”
This casual misogyny is just a symptom of a more wholesale transformation in cultural attitudes to smoking. Now we know too much about the cruel effects of tobacco; addiction is sad instead of romantic; there’s nothing very attractive about yellowing teeth and stale breath, nor can we claim to be alternative if we continue to be willing victims of the massive global businesses that grow fat on disease and death. So for the humanist, all those associations with boldness, recklessness, intellectual fervour, revolution, camaraderie and free thought are now stained and tarnished.
And that’s why it’s time to stop. Let’s throw out our final pack of 20, burn our Rizlas, smash our ashtrays, stub out our sacrificial rituals and bring on the Champix, the patches, the hypnosis, the injections and whatever else will break our crazed, fanatical worship of the super drug. It’s only rational. After all, even Laurie Taylor has decided to give up – again. ■