Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

A non-smoking New Yorker misses the illicit, adult camaraderie of smoke-filled bars.

George Blecher

Topics Politics

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Eating in a Manhattan midtown restaurant the other night, I happened to glance over at the bar area. People were perched on bar stools, leaning into each other’s ears, making conversation; you could hear the pretty bartender’s husky laugh halfway to the kitchen. I flashed on to a feeling direct from my teenage years – a longing to be part of that group of cool grownups connected to each other by faint but unmistakable sexual electricity.

But then I realised that something was missing: smoke. It used to unwind from the tips of our cigarettes and tie us together, then spread into a sheltering haze that made the tricky acts of flirting or making new friends a little easier. Without cigarette smoke, the people at the restaurant bar that night seemed a little too separate from each other, a little less relaxed than they might have been if the right to smoke in public places hadn’t been taken away. Sharing a love of smoking used to unite us in a slightly illicit club whose members all took pleasure in doing something naughty; and now that our wings are clipped, a part of that camaraderie feels like it’s lost forever.

We always knew that smoking was bad. You didn’t need to be a cancer surgeon to feel the shortness of breath, see the stains on your fingers and teeth, the burn-holes in your Izod shirt – not to mention the horrific photos of rotting lungs. But in a way, that was the point. In part we smoked because it was bad – and gaining the right to choose between good and bad, and to know both sides in ourselves, in some sense represented the demarcation line between childhood and adulthood. Children had to be good; adults could choose to be. The fact that teenagers are still the largest group of smokers makes perfect sense: instinctively they know that being grown up involves exploring, and accepting, the good and bad parts of oneself.

That knowledge of good and evil was reflected in some of the great moments in smoking, especially the American film noir classics of the 1930s-50s, and in the great smoker/actors like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Jimmy Cagney, Tallulah Bankhead. Surrounded by a comforting, mysterious fog, these people were a complex mixture of good and evil, fear and bravery, arrogance and wisdom. All were capable of cruelty, but also of tenderness. You couldn’t exactly call them heroes or villains; they were just people. Indeed, getting past their less honourable qualities and discovering their inner kindness was the arc of most of the movies they made. But whatever qualities they shared, there was one that they all lacked: innocence. They weren’t kids. Good or bad, they knew what they were doing.

You could extend the adult/smoker theory a bit to understand some of Shakespeare’s characters on the basis of who might or might not smoke. Lady Macbeth definitely would (‘Out, damned spot!’); Macbeth wouldn’t. Polonius wouldn’t even allow smoking in the family chambers, but his daughter Ophelia might sneak a few puffs each day in back of the castle; and of course Hamlet wouldn’t be able either to enjoy the habit or quit. Iago would smoke and like it; Desdemona would smoke on the sly but never with Othello, who – poor dear – must have had terrible asthma. Shakespeare himself? Undoubtedly a pipe-smoker.

But cigarette smoking wasn’t only about good and bad; it was also about the awareness of death. (Clean-air fanatics might go much further and insist that smoking isn’t about death but murder and suicide. That feels a little overwrought to me.) Though I gave it up years ago, I still miss it, and certainly don’t hate those who continue to smoke. Partly thumbing one’s nose at death, partly flirting with it, part defiance, part acceptance – each breath of smoke was all of these, and when we smoked together in bars and clubs, at parties or at home, the consciousness of our mortality may even have coaxed us into making the most of the limited time that we knew we had.

And now the offices and restaurants of Europe will soon be as smoke-free as those in the USA. In terms of health, of course it’s a good thing. A few people may live a little longer (if not necessarily more happily), and some of the nasty side-effects of smoking will be history. It’s actually nice not to have to breathe stale cigarette smoke or to empty piles of butts out of ashtrays after a party. And I don’t have any problem with the alleged threat to civil liberties: we live with a thousand ordinances, from traffic lights to forced vaccinations to fluoridated water that the state hands down in the name of public health and safety.

What worries me is the hum of panic that I sense underneath the public ordinance, a panic engendered by a cult of health that’s taken so many forms over the past 30 years that it’s become the single religion of much of Western society. You run across it everywhere: in our preoccupation with diet and exercise; the endless ads in the media – in the US at least – promoting new drugs for an increasing number of exotic diseases; and the inclination to turn all eccentric behaviour into a ‘syndrome’ that can be treated medicinally. While none of these is alarming in itself, they add up to a new Puritanism that turns the old paradigm on its head: now instead of tempting the Fates by being bad, we put all our efforts into being good. If smoking was about being grown up, the new Puritanism is about being a perpetual child, and living in a protected world that has never existed except in fantasy.

Maybe all this wouldn’t be so terrible, if it weren’t also profoundly anti-social. In a society obsessed with personal health, altruism takes a back seat to solipsism, risk a back seat to caution, generosity a back seat to the hoarding of wealth for a rainy day. In such a society, it’s less and less likely that people will risk any sort of self-sacrifice to help each other – to help a homeless person out of the gutter, for example, or climb a tree to rescue a neighbour’s cat.

There’s also a grandiosity about the cult of health, which seems to imply that if one stops smoking, eats fruits and vegetables, and slims down to one per cent body fat, one can live forever – or at least until science figures out a way to successfully regenerate us in time for Judgment Day. What’s missing is humility, the kind that the attack on the World Trade Towers or the recent tsunami might evoke – a realisation that no matter what we do, most things are out of our control.

Smoking or not smoking isn’t the issue. It never really was, since as every non-smoking New Yorker knows, he inhales the equivalent of two packs a day just by breathing. What concerns me is the picture of who we perceive ourselves to be: self-involved children pretending that we can escape death by playing God the Doctor and Personal Trainer. Though smoking may not have been good for us, the camaraderie that went along with it made this journey more fascinating, and its end perhaps more bearable.

George Blecher is based in New York, and reports for a number of European publications about American politics and culture. A version of this article will appear in Voltaire, a new Swedish cultural magazine, in the spring.

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Topics Politics


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