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This report is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

Cigarette Raymond Tallis

It takes about seven minutes to smoke a cigarette - just about as long as I intend it should take to read this little piece which will not, however, damage your health unless you are driving a car as you read it. Make your choice - smoker or reader - but remember that the end of all our choosing is an ending we did not choose. Indeed, the lighting up of cigarettes illustrates this melancholy thought perfectly. As a Calvinistic Scottish epidemiologist once said, smoking, like many of our vices, begins as a pleasure we do not need and ends as a necessity that gives us no pleasure. It is not even, at first, a pleasure: it is an act of will that requires the debutant(e) to overcome quite a few unpleasant sensations in order to reach the fag-end of an early proof of adulthood. But it is not long before refraining from smoking becomes an act of will and the weedless hours are an ordeal of restlessness, a joyless resistance of the incessant natter of mental and bodily temptation. And before long, too, some of the tissues of which the smoker is made - lungs, heart, mouth - may be smoke-tweaked into biographies of their own that are at odds with the life the smoker wishes to lead. In short, all those choosings - nipping out, liberating the packet from the cellophane with its built-in fault-line, accepting with grateful thanks, lighting up, quick-last-dragging - hasten the end of choosing.

Pace Richard Klein, then, the sublimity of cigarettes is not the whole story. The nauseating headachy smell of a bus shelter broadcasts this truth to the casual nose. The metallic taste transmitted to the less casual mouth of the smoker's carnal partner reinforces it. The saucer filled with butts, ash and spent matches conveys the same message to the eye as do the butts that leak tobacco as they disintegrate in the urinal, their disintegration hastened by the jet of urine one directs at them. Here the link between smoking and sputum - mucus clear, green, yellow and (most seriously) red - is least surprising. The ash-tray and the sputum pot are obvious cousins.

To press this point a little further: the steepness of the line correlating the health consequences of smoking with social class emphasises the `fagness' of cigarettes; that they are not small, chic, exceptionally neat cigars but `ciggies' cosmetised out of the truth of their destructiveness. The demographic essence of smoking is now more truly represented by the Woodbine concealed in the curled nicotine-stained hand of the furtive subaltern than by the scented Sobranie held aloft at the distal end of a monogrammed holder by a dressing-gowned patrician, presiding over the insinuation of smoke between elegant sentences and elegant gestures, and creating a kind of space (and a kind of time) unknown to physics.

The wagged-fingered sermon slows to enraptured contemplation - of (a) smoke, (b) elegance, (c) the transfiguration of space-time.

First, (a) smoke. To think about thinking about smoke is to think of the application of one kind of smoke to another: the attempt to grasp smoke with something no less smoke-like; to try to palpate and pluck fog with hands made of mist. (We may think of thought as the human body's subtlest smoke - or its subtlest breathing.) And yet the evanescent ideas and self-talk of the mind seem to themselves to inhale and incorporate smoke, and something smoke-like gets exhaled as sentences that almost make sense, though the sense lacks the self-dissolving architecture of their referent with its self-preening pluming outwards towards edgelessness; for thought's adjectives are odourless and its verbs do not reflect smoke's self-transformation from morning blue to fagged out grey. Even so, mind-smoking is still to be preferred to the real thing, as it is buttless, duty free, and does not contribute to a collective stink in public places like bus shelters or make a private one in otherwise kissable mouths. Nor does it mess with death, that limit to the thinkable.

More satisfactory than mind-smoking, perhaps, is the capturing of smoke on celluloid, preferably on black and white film. The arc-light transilluminating the studio smoke gives it sharper edges and firmer planes than it enjoys in the wider world, and light, itself transformed by edges and planes, plants the image of the smoke in undarkened silver on the film. Such undissolving images outlast the dissolving smoke. And, come to think of it, the smoker. The cigarette scissor-gripped between the fingers of long-dead Marlene Dietrich is again and again unpacked to smoke by fire which just now stared more brightly as her life-breath drew the cigarette's death-breath into her body through a lipsticked sphincter (long turned to ash or worse) clamped around its barrel. The intertwining pillars of blue-grey still climb from the ashtray where the two lovers, also intertwined, had parked their cigarettes (in separate grooves on the rim), in pursuit of a more special, delicious, urgent and prehistoric vice, the silence of the smoke's ascent uttering the intensely erotic silence of their carnal conversation - long after those lovers had thinned to their own filmic images without happiness, desire or minds.

Smoke as patterns of light pickled on celluloid, timing a silence of absorbed delight: these are sublime distances from the wet butt in the lavatory but it is within the ready reach of cigarettes to cancel them. So let us quickly move on to consider (b) elegance. This will presently bring us to (c) via the mystery of `having an appearance' and making out of that had appearance a figure or a dash that is cut.

The smoker's elegance has several distinct components. There are, for example, the innumerable ways of playing the beautiful little cameo role of `One who lights up'. Variety here is acceptable; but elegance has rules, of course. The elegant avoid (for example) the use of many perfectly handy surfaces for the awakening of the firelet: the brick on the pub hearth; the heel of a muck-crusted boot; the stubbled chin. (Though there may be a kind of grace even here, a marker of at-ease-in-the-world if ignition is performed effortlessly, with the otherwise-occupied absentness that `betokens' the arrogance of assurance.) Virtuosi performances may include a pause to complete a sentence, during which the soft-vertexed triangle of flame grows down the stalk towards the digits holding it, for this injects the risk necessary for grace to be shown. However it is kindled, and whatever risks are taken, the flame must be allowed only to kiss its object and, while it may be necessary for the kiss to cross the Channel, it must do so under the lightest of aspirations from the smoker's exquisitely perfumed evening body. The most elegant modes of lighting up are those which invoke the assistance of another and allow the gift of fire to be received with grace. Under this heading, we note the supreme example in the century that has just past. Ms Dietrich (again!) was once approached by thirteen men jostling in the ante-room of her attention, proffering their lighters to her unwoken cigarette. Thirteen she declared was unlucky. A fourteenth stepped forward - Mr Ernest Hemingway - and his was the lucky strike.

There are, of course, many other opportunities for elegance. That first deep inhalation where the satisfaction of a `craving' may demonstrate just how deep one's feelings go: one is as deep as the depth of one's satisfaction. The exhalation (plumed through the mouth, or emitted through the nose and forked, because noses have two nostrils, like the devil's beard) while one utters aphorisms whose tokens are cured in smoke. The dislodgement of the ash by the lightest tap of a painted nail attached to a manicured hand. The extinction of the butt made unexpectedly exquisite by preoccupation with some higher thing.

Human beings have many ways of tending their own bodies and also of tending their appearances. Smoking combines both in a very complicated way. We move hastily on, however, not only because the topic is bottomless, but because we are drifting away from the point: that elegant smoking, posturing with cigarettes, is - from the first clumsy green-faced experiments behind the bike shed to that perfect evening-gloved hour in the cocktail bar of the five star hotel - about owning, manipulating, tending, and exhibiting the external surface of one's own body. Does this not say something extraordinary about our relationship to the very organism that cigarettes corrupt?

The relapse into sermonising suggests that we should pass on to, (c) the transfiguration of space-time. `Transfiguration' is possibly a little over the top. `New modes of passage through space-time' is perhaps more fitting. There are obvious geodesics: for example the transformation of the cigarette as its glowing tip eats backwards and it kacks itself as ash, translating the passage of time into movement in space. And less obvious ones such as a morning of clear-limned plumes adding up to a fug - as when a would-be creative writer wrestles in a fog of cigarette smoke with a not-quite thoughts that refuse to become satisfactory sentences - reminding us of how our most ill-advised dinners are summed in the linings of our arteries to those narrowings that will define our term above ground. There are the curlicues unfurling silk scarves to wave the present tense a continuous goodbye, celebrating in ever-shrugging shoulders and unselving skeins the nascence, the evanescence, the transience that we sometimes experience as unease at our gripless downward skelter. But least obvious of all - and for that reason a more proper object of our concern - is the way smoke, and smoking, insinuates itself between sentences and gestures, and inscribes on the air a kind of space (and of time) unknown to physics.

The laws of physics, in accordance with which a cigarette unpacks itself to smoke that wanders over a room, leaving the start of a stain round a chandelier and ash that crumbles over papers, carpets and furniture, are time reversible. The laws of motion, for example, do not forbid smoke from gathering itself from the ends of the earth (even from the lungs of the blackbird in the garden who inhaled it as he paused for breath between songs) and returning itself to a forwardly unblazing cigarillo. But, of course, such re-ordering cannot happen. This is not, however, quite the special mode of space-time I am referring to. Nor am I speaking of the tensed time - in accordance with which the looked forward to unsmoked cigarette lies in the future, and the stubbed one lies in the regretted past - which is also unknown to the physical world. No, I am thinking of the spaces in which smoke meets words and its particles interpose themselves between the successive sounds of a sentence as they ride on the exhaled air shaped by the smoker's mouth according to the meanings she wishes to convey. And I am thinking of (or mind-smoking) the fact of human agency which makes `smoke' a verb - and a transitive one at that, so that the smoker smokes the cigarettes while the smoking fire smokes only itself - and upgrades smoke itself from the status of a mere effluent of natural processes to a desired commodity manufactured to meet a manufactured desire.

Which brings us back to something I shied away from before: that smoking exemplifies the circuitous relationships humans may establish to their own bodies. A smoker, like a chimp eating a banana, is altering her own body in response to an appetite declaring itself in that body. But the smoker has not simply reached out for the cognate object of her need: she has bought matches and has deliberately moved to a smoking compartment. She has manipulated the laws of nature that have the chimp in their grip. All of this exhibits the peculiar nature of human beings: how they are points of origin in the universe and so do things rather than merely suffer them; how they insert tables into time and format those tenses that physics says do not exist; how they come to themselves and even the visible surfaces of their own bodies from such distant places. In so thinking, I have drifted up to that place where plumes of smoke rub the surfaces of artefacts gathered in rooms. Here the thicket of thought grows so dense that no further movement is possible.

Time to meg.

This report is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

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