05 July, 2007

The Lung Goodbye

When I wrote about my visit to San Francisco back in December, a local commenter named Cara remarked that 'I run into many who visit here and are disappointed by seeing a single homeless person, or a worn-looking bus, or a dirty street'; she was proud to live in a 'real city'. I can appreciate these sentiments; after all, cities don't come much dirtier and realer than London—the Big Smoke. (Well, one of them.) Smoke is integral to the city, from its pipe-clubs to its fuliginous chimneys. When I was younger you could still smell the smoke from approaching tube trains, and smoke is enshrined also in the institution of G. Smith & Sons, an antique cigar emporium on Charing Cross Road that proudly retains its Edwardian trappings. Last time I was in Smith's, there to purchase a fine Cuban for a friend's coming-of-age, Will Self, in full cycling gear, like some modern-day Alfred Jarry, was chatting merrily to the clerk—evidently a regular. Not too long ago, the bright-lit shisha-bars in Edgware Road basements were a choice evening destination for my associates. Smoke is there in London's architecture, too—from the cigar of 30 St Mary Axe to the cigarette-lighter of Tower 42. It is only a matter of time before some young postmodernist creates an architectonic representation of smoke itself. Smoke is a constant, an omnipresence, a totem of the corrupted flatus et spiritus of urban life. One steps out for an evening, and becomes impregnated with it, as with the city itself.

As my British readers know, and probably the rest of you too, smoking in enclosed public spaces has been outlawed as of last Sunday. My friends and family are all strongly in favour of the ban; it has been a talking-point in the papers of late, and nobody, to my knowledge, has said much of interest about it. I feel a twinge of libertarian rebellion, personally—and I don't even smoke. ('Twinge', I hasten to add, is about as strong as my political instincts and principles get. I'll be not so secretly glad to take advantage of the ban, and my asthmatic lungs, not to mention the smell of my duds, will be all the better for it.)

*

Tobacco has long been a source of opprobrium. The most notorious critic of smoking in England's history is undoubtedly King James I, whose Counterblaste to Tobacco, published a year after he acceded to the throne, set the model for tobaccophobes to come. Here's what James writes about public smoking:
And for the Vanities committed in this filthy Custome, is it not both great Vanity and Uncleanness, that at the Table, a place of Respect, of Cleanliness, of Modesty, men should not be ashamed to sit rotting of Tobacco-Pipes, and puffing of the smoke of Tobacco one to another, making the filthy smoke and stink thereof to exhale athwart the Dishes, and infect the Air, when very often men that abhor it are at their Repast;
Then there's Richard Braithwaite's satirical The Smoaking Age: or, the Life and Death of Tobacco (1703), which gives a pseudo-mythological account of tobacco's origin, asserting it to be the bastard son of Bacchus and Proserpina, who has cuckolded Pluto. When Jupiter learns of the scandal, he orders:
We therefore to Root out the very Memory of such Disgrace, and the Existence of so unworthy an Issue, Do in Our Power Transform the said Bastard (in resemblance of Acanthus) into a Plant; Which to express his Father, shall retain the name of Bacchus, and therefore have we in his memory, call'd him (as one commended to the Care, Protection, and Tuition of his Father) Tobacco.
Tobacco is remanded to the care of Pluto, who sends him out into the world to beguile sinners into hell. At the end of the main body of the text is the Complaint of Time against Tobacco, finishing with an address to the smoker: 'how will the last Minutes of thy Life by concluded, when all your days are spent in Smoak and Vapour, the lively Emblem of Hell?' The association of tobacco and hell is a lively one, and goes back to James's pamphlet, which famously described the habit as 'loathsome to the Eye, hateful to the Nose, harmful to the Brain, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stigian smoke of the Pit that is bottomless'.

But Braithwaite is not quite so one-sided as James; he admits in a postscript that 'The Soveraign Quality of this Herb, may be gathered from the very radical Derivative of it, for תב [tb] in the Hebrew signifies Bonum, and ακος in Greek Remedium; implying, that it is a good Remedy against any Malady'. His final thoughts, however, are certainly hostile to tobacco:
I see no tolerable Account can be given of the way of Smoaking now in fashion; for it appears to have been taken up upon no Necessity; it is recommended by no real Advantage either to the Body or Mind, and therefore must owe its rise to no better causes than Dulness or Idleness, a silly obsequiousness to other mens humours, or Epicurism and Wantonness of our own Inclinations.
It is curious that one of the oldest complaints against tobacco, along with the fact of its deleterious effects on the body, is that it encourages laziness and time-wasting. And this is not just in James and Braithwaite: the same criticism was made by the Biblical exegete Adam Clarke in his 1797 Dissertation on the Use and Abuse of Tobacco:
For the sake of your time, a large portion of which is irreparably lost, particularly in smoking. Have you any time to dispose of—to murder? Is there no need of prayer—reading—study?
Here the good Protestant work-ethic is very much to the fore. One must always be occupied and industrious: that is what makes us good Christians, and good Britons. But Clarke also takes up James' theme of the effects smoking has on others, appealing to the 'politeness and humanity' of his readers—
Consider how disagreeable your custom is, to those who do not follow it. An Atmosphere of Tobacco effluvia surrounds you whithersoever you go. Every article about you smells of it; your apartments, your clothes, and even your very breath. Nor is there a smell in nature more disagreeable than that of stale Tobacco, arising in warm exhalations from the human body, rendered still more offensive by passing thro' the pores, and becoming strongly impregnated with that noxious matter which was before insensibly perspired.

Consider what pain your friends may be put to in standing near you, in order to consult you on some important business, or to be improved by your conversation. Will you oblige them to pay so heavily for the benefit of your advice?
Now this is not quite 'passive smoking', of course. Clarke has not argued that smoking is harmful to the health of others, and he is not speaking of lung cancer; he is merely concerned for their physical discomfort. Still, what a modern complaint! The familiarity of these sentiments is not by any means the product of a false historical consciousness.

*

It is worth asking—why must we wait till 1884 for a defence of tobacco? Was it only in the period of decadence that a smoker could extol his habit as an elegant fashion? Certainly at this time, among certain sections of the literary populace, the wicked and immoral was in vogue, and in a most delicious ironic way. Arthur Machen was a typical product of the era—and I am grateful for his rather loose translation of Beroalde de Verville's Moyen de Parvenir, for otherwise I would not know how second-rate is that work—he also did the Heptameron and wrote Gothic horror stories. His 1884 Anatomy of Tobacco, written under the pseudonym of Leolinus Siluriensis (the first word reflecting Machen's middle name, Llewelyn, the second indicating his Welshness), 'Professor of Fumifical Philosophy in the University of Brentford', is a delightful panegyric to the art of smoking. Formally it is a pastiche of the scholastic summa, analysing the where, when and how of smoking, full of mock erudition, very much in the vein of his hero Rabelais.

Machen begins—after promising to induct those who wish to learn into the Flamma Esoterica, teaching them 'the study of Cloudiness and general Tubulosity'—with a definition of smoking as 'the inhaling of the fume of tobacco', and proceeds to prod this definition every which way he can. He lists and describes schools of thought on the nature of the 'complex pipe'—these being the chorizontic, the solidic, the medioliquorean, the megacremasuotic, the coelosphaeric, and the orthopoetic. He has an amusing passage discussing the theory that, since the spirit is in the breath, and pipe-tobacco is solidified smoke, the pipe must be a potential means of storing and communicating spiritual ideas. Analysing the 'where' of smoking, Machen offers the categories of hypaethral (outdoors) and anaethral (indoors); this leads on to a discussion of smoking in public places, and specifically in churches, a practice that some individuals have voted to outlaw:
It may be said that the fumes would be disgusting to certain persons, but this objection assumes that whatever is disagreeable to some must be unlawful for all, but this is plainly not a fact; for if it were, since it is disagreeable to some persons to be sober, it would follow that we should be all drunkards, which is absurd.
Has this objection been floated in the tabloids?
And again, granting that it would be disagreeable to some, and that therefore all should be debarred, what easier than to have smoking galleries, by which all possible annoyance would be avoided?
Yes, you say, but one might as well have a pissing-corner in a pool, as a smoking gallery in a room or church.
Fourthly, it will be argued that what may be called the associations of smoking are of such a kind that though per se it is not profane, yet by its relations it has become so, and so should not be allowed. Those opponents would talk of how "tinkers and beastly folk" do smoke, of the vile places they smoke in, and of the vile words that proceed out of their mouths as they smoke.
This is an interesting point—Machen is aware that objections to smoking are often as not objections to smokers, and that what appears a purely ideological argument is in fact laden with social prejudices—prejudices which, one suspects, may well be justified. Do we not today object to the tinkers and beastly folk who puff away at their cancer-sticks? What Machen represents is a reassertion of the nobility of smoking. It is not so far from the nobility of indolence, in that time a favourite theme of Jerome K. Jerome's, and long championed by the German Romantics. Take this, for instance, from Schlegel's little novel Lucinde:
Then, with the greatest indignation, I thought of those evil people who want to subtract sleep from life. Probably they've never slept as well as never lived. Why are the gods the gods, if not because they consciously and intentionally do nothing, because they understand this art and are masters of it?
The nobility of indolence and of smoking is the nobility of the contemplative life, in distinction to the active life championed by James, Braithwaite and Clarke. (Clarke's 'prayer—reading—study', while ostensibly contemplative, is surely an industrious, even an active sort of contemplation, as it had been for, say, Peter of Celle.) In the tradition of Machen we find another great hymn to smoking, Compton Mackenzie's 1959 Sublime Tobacco. Mackenzie is not wholly averse to segregation, although he is rather sardonic about smoking-carriages on trains; he recalls his father's strictures on the habit:
He had a smoking-room like a Temple of Vesta in his garden to which guests who desired to smoke had to remove themselves, and what is more to don the smoking-jackets and smoking-caps he provided for them to avoid bringing the odious fumes into his house.
Mackenzie's main thesis is that 'the advantage tobacco has been to the mind of man has far outweighed any harm it might have (and that might is still highly problematical) done to a few bodies'. He is thus quite sceptical of any damned nonsense about the dangers of smoking, let alone passive smoking (eh?). He notes, in true aristocratic fashion, that 'the great majority of men of letters have been smokers, whether they were poets or dramatists, philosophers or historians, essayists or novelists'. Mackenzie thinks it not a coincidence that Ruskin, an anti-smoker, had his marriage fall apart, and his wife defect to Millais, 'who was such a devoted smoker that he was said to have indulged in a clay pipe when driving in the Golden Jubilee procession of Queen Victoria'. He muses that 'the absence of any reference to tobacco in Shakespeare's works has been a source of much encouragement to tobaccophobes'; had he lived a generation longer, his heart would have warmed to this brilliant article, which categorically proves that Othello is about tobacco addiction. Mackenzie concludes:
It can be maintained that with the spread of tobacco there was a perceptible relaxation of tension in the progress of the ordinary man through life. . . If cigarettes vanished from the earth to-day, I believe that the world would go to war again within a comparatively short lapse of time.
Just as before, we see tobacco linked to peace, which in the wake of the War did not seem such a contemptible consideration. Similar thoughts crop up even now in tabloid disputes, albeit in banal form—smoking brings people together; it is a source and a token of communal pleasure and peace among men. In Paris it is universal to cadge fags off strangers; in London less so. But will we now find any diminution in sharing spirit in our public houses? Will drinkers be less relaxed—more prone to violence? Or will smokers, on the contrary, bond in persecution: will the measures taken against them serve only to strengthen the faithful, and to winnow out the weak and the easily beaten?

Update 19/10/07: I have just received in the post the latest copy of Machenalia, the journal of the Arthur Machen Society, in which will be found a transcription of this post. My fingers tingled this morning as I saw my blog for the first time in print, and my appetite has now been whetted for more. Where will the Varieties be in five years?

17 comments:

Uri said...

Merely as a speaker of hebrew, not a semito-philologist (philosemitologist? logosemitiphilos?): isn't [tb] supposed to be טב (teth rather than tav?)

Uri said...

Ooops, how impolite to delurk only to be pedantic (possibly without cause). So: high among my list of unattainable wishes is being you when I grow up.
I admire, enjoy and am inspired. Thanks.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Uri; nice to see a new 'face', and feel free to be pedantic. Regarding the Hebrew, I don't know the language at all, but just copied the characters from the text (the 'tb' is my own; perhaps that is at fault)--but why is teth more appropriate than tav?

Sue said...

Strange! I have also posted about the smoking ban in my small part of England

The County Clerk said...

Love the history.

The libertarian in me rebels as well.

Are laws regarding flatulence next? (Please... I'm being ridiculous.)

Smoking is bad. Laws about smoking are bad too.

Hank

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, yes.

Michael S. said...

"Why must we wait until 1884 for a defence of tobacco?" We don't have to wait later than 1605, when the eccentric soldier and composer Captain Tobias Hume (1569-1645) wrote a song, set to the viol, entitled "Tobacco is like love":

Tobacco, Tobacco,
Sing sweetely for Tobacco:
Tobacco is like love,
O love it,
For you see, I will prove it.

Love maketh leane the fatte mens tumour,
So doth Tobacco.
Love still dries uppe the wanton humour,
So doth Tobacco.
Love makes men sayle from shore to shore,
So doth Tobacco.
'T is fond love oft makes men poore,
So doth Tobacco.
Love makes men scorne all Coward feares,
So doth Tobacco.
Love oft sets men by the eares,
So doth Tobacco.

Tobacco, Tobacco,
Sing sweetely for Tobacco.
Tobacco is like Love,
O love it :
For you see I have provde it.

Hume is thought to have been the model for the character of Sir Anthony Aguecheek in "Twelfth Night," who "plays o' the viol de gamboys and speaks three or four languages word for word without book, and hath all the good gifts of nature."

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, very good. Thanks.

terrycollmann said...

Among smokey cities let's not forget Auld Reekie, and of course, Reykjavik

Erik said...

Thank you very much for this tobacco-essay; I left your prose for too long, and promise bettering my attendance behaviour, excuse me Conrad! I had to put my blog activities on a low flame due to time restrictions and family priorities and also because I discovered the fun of photoblogging which I am a bit ashamed to admit. Now I'm leaving for holidays and after that I will comment more often.
As for the smoking, you forgot the noble art of culinary smoking of delicacies such as salmon, ham, mackerel, ale, etc. This is the way I like smoke best. By the way in the Frisian language (not dialect!) there are two words for "to smoke": one is "smookje" and the other one is "rikje". So I once returned from an outside smoking break and said (I'm not a native Frisian speaker): "Ik ha rikke" using the word "rikje". However the native speakers laughed at me and it appeared that "rikje" means the smoking of something burning or glowing, whereas "smookje" means the smoking of somebody enjoying a ciga, pipe or cigarette. I could imagine their laughter. Hope to read you soon again.

Ajo said...

What a fine essay -- by far the most enjoyable discourse I've read on this ordinarily most wearisome topic. I'll think of smoking a bit more affectionately now -- at least in the abstract.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ajo and Erik, cheers. I'm afraid I've not been pushing the blogging button often enough myself of late, but things will pick up.

nick said...

Re defenses of tobacco: what about Weelkes' "Come sirrah Jack hoe"?

"And those that do condemn it
Or such as not commend it
Never were so wise to learn
Good tobacco to discern,
Let them go, pluck a crow,
And not know, as I know,
Of the sweet of Trinidadoe,
Trinidadoe."

Lily Roth said...

My dear Mr. Roth,

I quite like what Mr. Baden-Powell has to say about smoking for the edification of his scouts.

"No boy ever began smoking because he liked it but because he thought it made him look like a grown-up man. As a matter of fact it generally makes him look a little ass."

Less amusing is the following comment...

"When a lad smokes before he is fully grown up it is almost sure to make his heart feeble, and the heart is the most important organ in a lad's body."

I should've thought the brain was the more important organ, but I suppose Baden-Powell still displayed some prescience, as the ills of smoking were far from well established in 1908. Of course, Baden-Powell was also convinced of the physical (not to mention moral) evils of onanism, warning that the practice would enfeeble the heart and would eventually lead to lunacy and idiocy.

Mrs. Roth

Aklo Letters said...

I noticed your interesting post on Machen’s Anatomy. It is an excellent summation of Machen’s work. Mind if I republish part of this essay in print in the next Machenalia? You will get a free copy.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'd be delighted; please contact me at my email address, on the right hand side of my main page.

Anonymous said...

Readers may be interested to hear that a thriving literary society exists to honour Machen and his works, The Friends of Arthur (www.machensoc.demon.co.uk). The society publishes a journal, Faunus, and a regular newsletter, Machenalia. Over the years Machen’s admirers have included the film director Michael Powell, Jorge Luis Borges, Hitchcock’s regular composer Bernard Herrmann, Mick Jagger and novelists Peter Ackroyd, Paul Bowles, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth was influenced by Machen’s tale ‘The White People’ (1904). After years of unaccountable neglect the cinema may be about to discover Machen’s genius. A film based on the Angels of Mons legend is currently in development from a British company, and an American screenwriter is working on a script based on The Three Impostors (1895). Many of Machen’s books have been reissued over recent years by Tartarus Press (www.tartaruspress.com).