In Praise of Cigarettes

I begin with a generous pinch of finely cut tobacco, cradled inside a creased, rectangular sheet of paper, with a thin stripe of glue affixed to the outer edge that faces me. A tiny tobacco envelope. I massage back-and-forth between thumbs and forefingers until the tobacco shrinks into a tight cylindrical bundle. Roll, pinch, roll some more. Stop. Lick and press to seal; shape and trim; flame and light. Inhale, ingest, exhale.

“But cigarettes are disgusting!”

“Don’t you know cigarettes are bad for you, that they kill you?”

I’m consistently amused at the pious indignation, the dirty, condescending looks, the disappointment and shock that I would turn out to be the sort of person who would smoke a cigarette.

“You smoke? I didn’t know you smoked?”

I enjoy smoking cigarettes. A small, hand-rolled “Bugler” is my fag of choice these days. Sometimes I use some pipe tobacco, too, to smooth it out. Cigarettes can be relaxing and quite social, but these are not the best reasons to praise them. The transgression of smoking a cig flies in the face of contemporary reason and resists the trendy storms of health-nuttery and secular sanctimony.

When I light up in public or offer a smoke to someone, just to be polite, it is not simply antiquated or in poor taste: some take it as a total affront, a form of physical assault. In today’s artificial nostalgia for clean, natural things, smoking is dirty and stinky, reminiscent of industrial smog and rural gas-guzzlers. It has gone completely out of style.

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Cigarette smoke dances over the surface of my hand, leaving its signature scent on my fingers as it rises and lingers. I don’t think it wise to smoke two or even one pack a day, for reasons more economic than health-related. And there certainly are health concerns. Real ones. It makes no sense to commit suicide any more than I already do by being alive; there is a delicate distinction between not fearing death and being suicidal.

Living in a time when we routinely poison ourselves—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually— with all kinds of things, cigarettes do not sit atop my list of suicide machines. I praise cigarettes because smoking them increases my sense of vitality: not through nicotine or juvenile rebellion, but through a concrete act of hope, fearlessness, and folly in a disenchanted age of temerity, despair, and sycophantic safety.

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“Thank You for the Light,” a previously rejected 1936 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald recently printed in The New Yorker, follows Mrs. Hanson, a traveling saleswoman of female undergarments. She is a lonely woman, a widow who finds a certain existential relief in smoking. After receiving a promotion that moves her westward, she finds herself in a cold and dark social climate, not unlike our own today, that is averse to smoking. As time passes without a cigarette, she finds her way to a Catholic church, where an unlikely Madonna gives her some rest—and a light.

It is a remarkable, quirky tale of redemption and hope that describes the potential for our most mundane, ordinary, and even vulgar pastimes—smoke breaks included—to become profane encounters with the Divine. This story is a unique and timely commentary on the present, deodorizing tendency to problematize reality, to pervert the world into a candidate for scientific solution, legal intervention, or Michael Bloomberg. At the University of North Dakota, my new institutional home, it is against university policy to smoke anything anywhere on campus. A university that prohibits pipes, cigars, and cigarettes: what a wasteland! Mass without candles or incense.

In Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a beautiful and ambitious film set between eternity and the 1950’s, there is a scene where a group of young boys chase a fumigation truck down a neighborhood street, frolicking amidst a thick cloud of mosquito repellant. I was blind to that scene in many ways at first: in the ecstatic joy of boyish play and tomfoolery, I could only worry about the health of those children running in that smoke. They saw a cause for play; I, a problem.

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Despite my love of cigarettes, I’m still something of a prude. I am a product of my time. A millennial. I, too, suffer from the problem of problems: the urge to problematize leads me away from reverence, from God. It is no surprise that the abolition of cigarettes is moving along at a fast and popular pace, alongside the loss of the sacred. We are finally solving these problems. Soon, the late-modern dreamers say, we may even abolish death and suffering and all religion. Sometimes the only reply I can muster to that sterile and loveless imagination is to smoke another cigarette. To live a little.

Smoking bans abound, as we have seen and will continue to see. But make no mistake, despite the many scruples of our time: cigarettes are another fading part of daily life that is not afraid of leisure or tragedy, that has an imagination and appetite for the timeless.

In saecula saeculorum.”

If only for that, I think they deserve some praise.

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  • Nina

    Oh, dude…no. But no. The occasional cigar or pipe? Sure. But cigs? They do smell awful, make your breath, clothes & hair smell awful. Plus they stain your teeth and make your skin look like crap.

    Sure, smoking CAN be sexy as hell (Now, Voyager…), but it’s not worth it. You should visit lung cancer and oral cancer patients and see how cool and sexy and relaxed they all are now. :~/

  • NCGuy

    I’m sure you mentioned you smoke when you had your physical for life insurance.

  • nisakiman

    That was a great post, Sam. Very nicely written, and with quiet passion. Yes, people seem to have forgotten that smoking is actually a pleasure. It is unique insofar as it is both a stimulant and a relaxant. Tobacco is one of life’s great enjoyments, but unfortunately many have succumbed to the relentless prohibitionist propaganda we’ve been subjected to for years, and now see tobacco as a poison and life as a purely physical endeavour. It’s a sad state of affairs. I guess that you, as a religious man, will say “Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do”. Me, I’m not a religious man, and thus my response is somewhat more robust! :)

    I notice you’ve already attracted a couple of pre-programmed members of the self-righteous. They don’t understand that we are not here to compete in a race for the maximum number of years we can rack up. We are here to enjoy our lives and to try to spread a bit of happiness as we pass through.

    You might be interested to visit Frank’s blog, it’s a good one:

    http://cfrankdavis.wordpress.com/

    I’ll leave it at one link as I don’t know if your comments software will allow more.

  • Monimonika

    I don’t really care if someone occasionally or even heavily smokes, but I do not hesitate to tell them to not breathe in my direction if they’ve recently lit one up. I will not cover up my grimace and/or cough as I step away from them and the smell.

    I obviously do not like cigarette smoke, but I am for allowing smoking on campus/school/work grounds in designated spots. When I was in high school, my school started strictly enforcing the “no smoking at all on school grounds” policy. Before, students and teachers were allowed to go outside the school building to smoke. But once the policy got enforced, the students started smoking inside the restrooms instead. Everything got covered with a thin layer of stinking ash, and I resorted to not drinking anything during school in order to make it back home to use the toilet. Those toilet seats and sinks were just… yuck! >:-C

    I don’t feel comfortable lecturing someone about the health hazards of smoking, especially since I’m not particularly health-conscious myself. My grandmother (now deceased from a lung disease) smoked frequently but my immediate family does not allow smoking in our home. So we had my grandmother smoke outside whenever she visited, even if there was blizzard happening right then. We never tried to get her to stop smoking, mostly because trying to quit would be too stressful and she wouldn’t have been able to appreciate much of any of the miniscule health gains that late in life.

    You want to enjoy a light, go ahead. That doesn’t mean I have to fake a neutral face if the smell hits my nose.

    Oh, related question. Given you understand that smoking can give some people solace/relief/etc., what is your stance on legalizing marijuana? (I’m for legalization, by the way, even if I will likely never want to use it.)

  • David

    I’m not really convinced that you, or the cigarettes are timeless. If anything, they are the opposite. They’re pretty much guaranteed to decrease your life-span, in effect, making them a very time-sensitive pleasure. It’s ironic to encourage smoking as a way to “live a little”, when it has the opposite effect.

    But hey, if it makes you feel good…

  • http://calulu.blogspot.com Calulu

    I have to say I usually have no problem with allowing people their petty sin, but the problem is that it doesn’t just affect you only. I have severe allergic asthma, the kind that used to send me to the ER crying with an Epipen sticking out of my leg at least twice a week. I’m allergic to chemicals, to cleansers, to perfumes, to all sorts of random things. I take immunio suppressant treatments to be able to just do normal things, like visit the grocery store. Most of all I make every effort to stay away from the things that trigger my asthma. One of those things is cigarette smoke, which is one of the hardest things to avoid. I’ll be walking into a store, get near the door and find people puffing away. Big deal, right? For me it is, it means I a) have to leave immediately, b) take drugs and use my nebulizer and usually c) lay down till my lungs and throat relax enough to let me breath freely again.

    Do you have any idea how hard it is to avoid random people smoking? Why should you have the right to impact my health like that?

    • http://authentic-connecticut-republican.blogspot.com/2006/05/who-are-these-characters-calling.html ACR

      Calulu said:
      “Do you have any idea how hard it is to avoid random people smoking? Why should you have the right to impact my health like that?”

      Roughly 4000 people a year go into anaphylactic shock from *2nd* hand exposure to cat dander. (Cat owners tend to run around in public wearing cat covered clothing.)
      Half of those impacted die within 15 minutes.

      Seen a lot of folks dropping dead after a whiff or two of a side-draft Marlboro have ya?

      More honest doctors agree as well:
      http://www.sott.net/article/254745-Nicotine-The-Zombie-Antidote


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