On Smoking "The moment of taking a cigarette allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and a time of heightened attention that give rise to a feeling of transcendence." – Richard Klein In retrospect, it’s easy to see how it began. The beginning of my smoking career all of those years ago had an inevitability around it that some would call fate. But it didn’t begin in the home, as these things often do, but in the schoolyard and via re-runs of old movies on rainy bank holidays. Get ’em while they’re young, as the saying goes. Not that I resent the cultural transmission and tacit encouragement of taking psychoactive substances (because if I did every single billboard, TV spot, magazine ad and curve of night-time neon would be a cause for resentment and I don’t think you can live that way). But it is interesting to dig into the history of our vices. Because if you’re gonna pull out the weed you have to grasp it by the root. So let’s discuss cigarettes and their pleasures and their discontents… Smoking as (misguided) rebel stance So as I hinted at above, my smoking began some 20 years ago as an impressionable boy on the cusp of teenhood. If memory serves I took my first drag leaning against the graffitied wall of some brownfield edgeland a few minutes from my house. Whether I rested the sole of one converse-clad foot on the wall like Tommy Ramone on the cover of Rockets to Russia is something that I can only speculate about. But probably. The cigarette in question- a Sovereign, if memory serves- tasted horrible and made me feel nauseous and light-headed and green. For whatever reason, humans only seem to get hooked on things which taste/feel horrible when first sampled- cigarettes, booze, coffee, narcotics and so on. Perhaps the very unpleasantness offers a false sense of security. Surely, you wouldn’t keep coming back for more with something so vile. And yet… But anyway, the point is that I did it primarily because I wasn’t supposed to. Cigarettes were (and still are) a hand-held smoke signal that you are above the dictates of polite society. You live by your own code, follow the beat of your own drum, you are in rebellion against the rule following, rat-race squares you see every day at school or at the office. The idea that uniqueness and rugged individuality can be attained via the daily purchase of a consumer good -and a carcinogenic one at that- is, of course, ridiculous. A cursory glance at the history of PR as a field shows that it was deeply intertwined with cigarettes. Call cigarettes ‘torches of freedom,’ pay some college age women to publicly smoke them while chanting ersatz-feminist slogans and voila you have a whole new demographic of smokers. And so it goes- rebellion and individuality neutered and sold back as a commodity. Countercultures are the roughage of the consumerist system. Most smokers have an ‘origin story’ like this. The pubescent desire for a little uniqueness, a little danger without going beyond the pale is transmuted via cultural transmission into the rebellious but not really affectation of smoking. And soon, once adulthood is reached, those furtive, questionably acquired smokes can be legally bought. And with this the habit becomes as quotidian as filter coffee and a few beers of an evening and the other dull and above board substances we use to get through the day. The Benefit of Smoking is Nothing But make no mistake- smoking has its benefits. And the chief benefit is nothing. In this world of rushing around and buying and working (or working at pretend to work so the boss leaves you be) a little slice of nothing is a valuable commodity indeed. When you smoke a cigarette there is not much else you can do. You hands are occupied, and real physical work is impossible and you are generally rooted to an ashtray. But what you can do is think, you can observe, you can be. Not much emphasis is placed on just being in the world. Hence the historic link between smoking and philosophy. Sartre, the man whose magnum opus is called Being and Nothingness, was in inveterate chain-smoker and when told by his doctor that his foot would soon be amputated if he didn’t quit smoking, said he would have to think about it. Search for pro-smoking quotations and you will almost invariably come across the words of a great thinker or a great writer. Two examples: "The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouths of the foolish; It generates a style of conversation contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected." -William Makepeace Thackeray and "Men who had hitherto only concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into their mouths and became philosophers." -J.M. Barrie Smoking and the vita comtemplativa go together like Benson and Hedges. The smoke break is the only time that a worker bee can gain respite from the world of doing and take a moment just for themselves. As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in Nickel and Dimed her study of low-paid work: ‘Work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.’ When I was a chef my daily smoke breaks probably totalled an hour or so out of my 12 hour shift. Given my wage versus the cost of twenty Marlboros the habit paid for itself, let alone all of the ideas that I would be able to work on as I sat in silence on an upturned bucket blowing smoke rings at the sky and flicking ash onto my checkerboard trousers. Nicotine as Nootropic And that leads us to the second and final benefit. (Make no mistake, the bad outweighs the good but to say that smoking confers no benefits is misguided and foolish). Smoking, from my experience, is a great boon to the brain. Historically, most great writers, poets and thinkers smoked (alongside the obvious fact that no one at that time was aware of the severity of the health implications) because it does seem to get the synapses firing. While smoking kills the body- and that is without question here- it does seem to benefit the brain. At least in my experience. Now. It would not surprise me if nicotine turned out to be neuro-protective and it would surprise me even less if people started to market nicotine as a nootropic. Perhaps they are already doing so, stranger thing have happened and many people seem willing to go to great lengths to get an edge. I would bet my last round coin that you know someone- probably someone quite unassuming- who is taking a performance enhancing drug as we speak. The concept of taking something to change your state is as old as humanity. Fashions and ceremonies and legislations change, human nature does not. People always have and always will want to ingest some substance that makes them feel different. Different eras have different delivery mechanisms, that’s all. Which leads me to… Vaping- Nicotine by any means Like most smokers who saw thirty approaching and with it the testing of that often mouthed shibboleth ‘yeah, I’ll quit by the time I’m thirty’ I have flirted with vaping. To my lasting shame and regret. Because if smoking is the commoditisation of some sort of culturally transmitted ‘Live fast, die young’ impulse then I don’t know what the fuck vaping is exactly. Say what you want about smoking but it does at least seem to be vaguely grown up. Proper. With all of its historic associations with Native American ceremonies, English adventurers, entrenched soldiers and so on, it does seem somehow understandable in spite of its death-by-a-thousand-cuts fatalistic stupidity. But vaping? I remember my brief dalliance with the vape- the syrupy, fruit-flavoured e-liquids, the ludicrous plumes of ‘smoke’ that you exhale that from the rear-view make you appear as if your head is on fire and that you need someone to douse it with a pale of water, the oversized, line-of-suit breaking size of some of the fuckers. The whole thing made me feel as if I were a child blowing bubbles or licking an oversized swirl of a lollipop as I skipped around the funfair in buckled shoes and Little Lord Fauntelroy style short trousers. At the risk of sounding like a geriatric conservative newspaper columnist who is secretly in the pocket of Big Tobacco vaping is, in the reporters opinion, a foolish abomination and further evidence that our society is becoming ever-more infantilized. Hell in a handbasket etc etc. You should either smoke for real or don’t smoke at all. The latter is what I am opting for. No one ever Quits- Some Just Take Long Breaks Between Smokes Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it dozens of times. From the late teen/ early twenty peak of my smoking career I have taken years off if you add together all of the periods of abstention. For a long time I’ve been the mythical ‘social smoker’ who gets through the equivalent of a pack or two per year, mostly cadged from friends and work colleagues. (If you want to quit smoking you can try my patented freeloader method. Simply stop buying cigarettes and bum smokes from your friends and family. You will soon alienate them all and with that the nicotine monkey will be lifted from off your back. As will the thorny issues of having friends and being invited to social obligations and so forth. Win win!) One work collegaue gave me this sage piece of wisdom once: ‘No one ever really quits smoking, but many people do take years and decade breaks between cigarettes’ There’s a lot of truth in this and it’s something I have mulled over a lot in the weeks and months since my last smoke. Maybe I’m finished for good, maybe there will be the odd slip. Who knows and more to the point who cares? The lesson that smoking teaches, above all, is that thought and contemplation- and living, really- require periods of nothingness, periods of just being. All that smoking is is a (semi) sociably acceptable method of having brief snatches of that. But ultimately these pauses in life are merely a question of choice, a question of priority. Taking in deep lungfuls of non-carcinogenic air as you stare at the night sky will do the same job. Lying under a tree on your lunch break will do the same job. Any form of task or activity done in a meditative spirit will do the same job. Cigarettes are a prop for moments of contemplation. But moments of contemplation and repose can be had for free, whenever you want. Like smoking, like quitting, like anything at all in life, ultimately it’s up to you. Until next time, Thomas J. Bevan .