Blesok no. 77-79, March-August, 2011

The Smokers

Amir Or

    The room is full of people, but nobody talks. It's not a meeting place, but more like a public toilet. You do your thing and go away. They're all smoking, in silence. The ventilation is rather poor, the air thick and stinky. Ben Gurion airport, Heathrow, Frankfurt: a small lepers' colony at the back, a corner for the junkies, the sinners.
    Back in 1993 I was given a Fulbright award to stay as a guest poet in International Writing Program in Iowa City, U.S.A. It was the first time I understood as a smoker who I really am in the eyes of God. America, a God fearing country, was the first to receive the new commandment, and as early as the beginning of the nineties active smokers were banned there from almost everywhere: the university grounds, cafes, restaurants and parties.
    Since there are no mountains to block their way, the arctic winds swoop victoriously through the city streets emptied of pedestrians. Still you could spot here and there, in temperatures fit for penguins, some individuals standing outside, smoking and shivering, turning slowly into white powder. But that of course, served them right, to be out in the streets with the homeless and the street cats, and atone then and there for their vice.
    Interior flights in the States would put smokers to an even tougher trial though. After a few hours in the sealed skydiving iron box, while waiting for my next connecting flight I'd be looking in vain for my lepers' corner just to find out the whole airport was nicotine free. Surely there were plenty of bars for the alcoholics, facilities for the disabled, mind-shrinking screens for the TV junkies, McDonalds for the obese and the bulimics, and endless shops for the good American consumers. So why, I asked myself were the smokers the only chosen scapegoats to bear the sins of the American world? A possible answer started dawning on me only when I learnt the twelfth commandment that was given to the believers in just about the same years, i.e. “Thou shalt PC thy soul and language”.
    There were no short or fat people. They disappeared. No more dummies or criminals. Some were horizontally, vertically or ethically challenged, but that's something one can live with, isn't it? However, PC was more than sheer hypocrisy. It wasn't just Political. It was “Correctness” as well: a special unit of the moral police, whose agents were long present in every individual, monitoring and supervising him into a good life of Protestant duty, and into achieving tangible material proofs of being blessed by divine grace. “Idleness is the devil's workshop”, so get up, work hard, do extra hours, eat your dinner facing the TV, and go to sleep. “A sound soul in a sound body”, so jog, eat organic food, go to the gyms or the beauty parlour, be young and beautiful for ever. And for God sake, don't smoke. True, sports and gym, heavy diets, and cosmetic operations can be just as dangerous to your health and just as addictive, but that's of course for a good cause.
    The American dream seemed to include working hard and consuming as many proofs of your success as possible, an affirmative diplomatic and often self advertising speech, and mowing your greenest grass on weekends. America had an enviable constitution, vast lands and natural riches, and enough ambitious talented people to build the best society possible; but at the same time, to my foreign eyes, America looked like a huge pressure cooker that every now and then lets out a jet of vapour from the edges rim of its cover lid. Walking in quite a few neighbourhoods in New York or Chicago seemed to be enough proof: I came from a country where people smoked freely, and yet no ethical downfall followed: the streets were safe day and night and we didn't face as much crime and violent perversions as one would in the States. Where has all this erupting violent pressure come from?
    One could blame poverty, lack of good education, oppression of minorities etc. But it always takes two to tango on such a dance floor; who made these people poor, desperate, violent and self degrading? And psychologically speaking, were its white, well-to-do and law abiding citizens really better off? America was evidently full of energy and striving for achievements and excelling, but people seemed oppressed, lonely, haunted by wild drives and desires, with hardly any outlet and often having about them an air of suppressed violence. The American dream seemed to substitute pleasure for comfort, and to be intolerantly conforming. When everyone is sentenced for life to live behind this façade, you never know when and where this pressure cooker's going to let off some steam: nothing comes amiss to a hungry soul. At the end of the day PC meant Pleasure Control.
    The Hippie rebellion that was in fact an uprising against the older PC regime was crushed in this God fearing country by black publicity, heavy drugs and brute force. I went to watch Hair in the local theatre there, only to see X Generation actors go through motions, they couldn't possibly have a clue what they were about. “Peace and Freedom” sounds like a cheap election slogan now; and “Make love, not war” doesn't apply anymore to love or war at all, only to getting laid. The hippie culture was indeed a more loving culture, but it's true that back in the sixties even getting laid was an oppressed human right. Is it just a coincidence that the so called “sexual revolution” of that era took place mainly in Protestant countries? Can’t we say that the measure of reaction in these societies was at the same time an index of the oppression they practiced? Nothing proves it more than the failure of that sexual revolution to achieve true transformation. It actually has only begun. Sexual behaviour in these countries seems to be unrestricted enough, but rather reactive, abusive, lacking social and psychological frameworks and values, and often quite sad. Sexual freedom rather than obsession looks like an art still to be reclaimed in many decades or centuries to come.
    In this writers program there were writers from all over the globe: Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, Australia and Latin America. The organizers were taking us to receptions and parties given by the sponsors. There was plenty of food and booze and speeches, but as a rule, after some ten minutes, most of the writers were forming an alternative party outside, sipping from their drinks, smoking, and chatting. It took about ten more minutes before somebody would come and say “okay, okay, you can smoke inside, no problem”. They've also gave up on “these artists” in the Mayflower residency, where the students were smoking cigarettes in hiding and the writers floor was the only one that wasn't officially smoke free. As it went, it seems they were also the only ones openly exempt from other Pleasure Control laws of the campus, where looking intently at a woman was enough ground for a charge of sexual harassment.
    But what can you expect of artists? They'd long been seen by the law-abiding congregations of the faithful as morally dubious individuals, godless and prone to every vice and debauchery. They didn't seem to do any useful work; they didn't worship the god of comfort, nor expressed moral values in their art. These writers were fiddling every now and then with their PC's but they were certainly not PC at all.
    Among artists and even among writers poets are privileged though. The roles to which we’re enlisted – the rebuking social prophet, the martyr as the “artiste maudit”, or even the amusing jester or troubadour, are all unhealthy models, but only the later is explicitly sinister in the Protestant meaning, and many combinations between these three roles were formed during the centuries they were applied to poets. We don’t say it out loud but often it seems the poet is the only one who can serve in this modern world as some metaphysical messenger, a representative of the subconscious (another hypostasis of the devil) or of the divine, a seer, a holy fool, or a martyr. If you interviewed people in our globalized culture, hardly anybody would explicitly confess he thought poets occupy any of these roles in the traditional sense, and if you ask poets they'll probably make clear that in reality a poet has other tasks to attend to such as writing his works, and earning a living.. But perhaps we can still admit there’s some truth in these feelings: even the most low-keyed poet is a rebel and a revolutionary who by his very creativity threatens the prevalent order of reality we are familiar with.
    Naturally you could find most of the writers congregating in the not yet smoking-free pubs or in The Coffee Bowl, the only smoking challenged café in town, where you didn't have to face the all present smoking police. The Coffee Bowl looked like a meeting place for a secret society, a cell of the resistance, a guild of artists, and an occasional bunch of cast-outs put together. All kinds of rebellious spirits were flocking there, and as you may know, smoking is highly social; “Can I have a light please?”, “Try one of these”, “And where are you from?” were common place phrases. There, over coffee and cigarette, I also met the woman I later married (and divorced), at that time a student of Spanish and Photography, who came there to have a fag indoors on her way home. Once you entered The Coffee Bowl the bargain was clear: gossip and philosophy, pick up talks and literary arguments were fusing together in the charged up smoke, like a common thought-bubble shared by all in secret initiation.
    And yet poets and artists have always been truly a threat. Philosophy, the famous authorized professional of our culture about wisdom, becomes less convincing when one considers “wisdom” for what it actually meant to be. Philosophy's speaking about wisdom and insight, but holds thought with thick pliers. Plenty of heavy slow words that clumsily catch hold of ideas that wisdom grasps in the blink of an eye. Only rare philosophers like Heraclitus, Plato or Nietzsche, who had poetic talent, could deal with this electric intensity of thought. It seems only poetry does to words what thought is doing to them, in their full power and scope: hears them, tastes them, understands and mis-understands them, combines them in strange ways, gets carried away by them, beats them against each other, tells. Poetry truly tells through words everything they can grasp and more. Poetry holds words alive in the moment they're formed.
    So is the case with other arts. Painters, musicians or architects work with similar freedoms. Sound and form may be less explicit as far as conceptual expression is concerned, but the insight and vision of such arts are in no way less effective in forming mental images of the existence and expressing it. By comparison, the very fact that their ideas were given a non verbal expression enabled them to enjoy a bit more of a leeway and escaped the harsher censorships practiced on writers. And yet for the same reason it seems visual artists, musicians and performers have become even more suspicious spiritually in the eyes of the pious. Artists have rightly always been considered enemies of moralists, life-negating preachers and PC prophets. They were soon to be listed with the rest of Lucifer's devotees, shining at times with his false light of beauty and aesthetics, but cast out of God's grace. Artists have been depicted as debauched, instable, intoxicated, crazy, indulging in drinking, heavy smokers, idle, and sexually loose or ambiguous. To be more accurate one should add to this list of vices also extravagance, gluttony and dandyism, for in the older PC regime even pleasures of dress and palate were considered to be deadly sins and severe economy was the righteous measure even for the affluent.
    It's likely that over centuries poets and artists finally had to fit into this Bohemian model just in order to belong to their kind and to establish their identity. And true, under the oppression practised on them they've often identified with that label and lived in quite unhealthy mental and physical conditions. They've been bearing for generations these grotesque Greek masks that society made them wear, and their faces have grown to fit it.
    That is not to say that all artists and individualistic thinkers are born smokers, even though their larger appetites for meaning and experience may make them more prone to it, whether as a substitute or as an extension of their existential hunger. Just the same, that is not to say that all smokers need have these specific qualities either. Smoking is a pleasure. It's as oral as eating, chewing and drinking and perhaps even more so. Cigarettes and cigars, pipes and hookahs are all devices made for sucking. That much for oral comforts, but what one sucks by smoking is not milk nor any other nutritious substantial materials, but just smoke, hot air, refined matter. Inhaling other materials always involved fire, like in the case of burning incense, sandalwood and other spices. The element one partakes of by inhaling it is not the Water and Earth of the usual sacrificial materials, but Air and Fire. Playing with fire, as every child learns, is no joke though. Smoking is a form of bodily mortification, to be listed with flagellation, rolling in snow, and fasting, in all of which the element of pleasure is as present as the suffering. The fire at the end of a fag is consuming you, like a sacrificial victim offered to the gods; obviously a rather disturbing and offensive practice both in the eyes of body-worshipers and of God's representatives.
    However, the only reason thou shalt not smoke failed to be mentioned in the Bible, is that before long it was unknown in the West. Eating and drinking, the more coarse forms of taking life in were also the more current symbols of religion. It's true God breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life, but you can't breath in God every day. In fact, as a practice, it's the exception in the bible: Adam is ordered not to eat from the tree of knowledge; Ezekiel, on the contrary, is ordered to eat the roll given to him; and Jesus orders his disciples to symbolically eat and drink him. We also have to bear in mind that breathing is continuous, and therefore air is normally available and taken for granted. You don’t hunt air or look for it, and you don't cook it or serve it to your guests. Air is not connected with bodily desires.
    The Delphic Pythia who inhaled the holy fumes that inspired her to prophesy is by large the exception as a method of divination, and more so as a mystery technique. Like in the Eucharist, believers in many pagan religions partook of various foods and drinks as the body of a divine being, but only the American Indians actually smoked it. American Indians smoked it from time immemorial in a religious and social ritual where pipes were passed around the group in the sweathouse. Up to these days the rate of smoking among Indians is higher than in any other ethnic group in America, but tradition also seems to put them off access and most of them are light smokers. America is the motherland of the weed, and even in its anti-smoke campaign people appear to be preoccupied with it more than anywhere else.
    Smoking was banned in the States, while the Virginia tobacco corporations still went on inundating the first and third world markets with their products. However, the days when Churchill and Che could hardly be recognized without their cigar, and the Hollywood stars were smoking a cigarette proudly like the cowboy on the Marlboro pack were long over. Like other American values, the Anti-Smoke revivalism was soon to spread all over the globe.
    In 1995 I was flying with Air France to Japan. On the flight an angered American complained to the chief steward about the fact that half the plane was smoking without rebuke. “Ah, Japons!” answered the steward spreading his arms in resignation. And truly, in Tokyo there were still ashtrays placed for your convenience in the streets, in the dormitories of Buddhist temples and in every public spot. But this too was to give way shortly to a different attitude.
    As a child I remember the smoking area at the back of buses. People treated each other to a fag, men lit the ladies' cigarettes, and lively conversations followed. Later when it was banned, you could smoke only in taxies, and then not even that. Next the ban was to reach jet planes, saving fuel on ventilation and making everybody breath recycled germs-rich air. Unsurprisingly the Protestant Scandinavian countries were first to adopt the American Anti-Smoke revivalism, whereas the last ones were the Mediterranean. Spanish Iberia Air was the last European smoking stronghold to fall, and the rest of the world conformed shortly. EU countries gradually adopted it, raised tobacco taxes monstrously, and went on to the extreme of banning smoking from every café and pub, not even allowing any Coffee Bowl type exceptions for willing smokers. The European media followed the fashion preaching now to the sinners in holier-than-thou tones and instigating public opinion against them, as if this prosecution was their own original idea.
    Strangely enough the Germans seem to be the only ones that still respect the Americans' rights for this Revivalism and credit it. An outraged Herald Tribune journalist wrote last June about his experience in some outdoor restaurant in Berlin, where upon asking the people at a neighbouring table to refrain from smoking, the answer he got was “Sir, it's not America here”. Whereas most of the EU adopted Anti-Smoke legislation, Germany has so far failed to do so. But is it really strange? Germans must still have fresher memories of the ramifications of depriving society of personal freedom of choice.
    Well, as far as cultural imperialism goes, the ban on smoking is as American as McDonalds and inspiring similar substitute values. You can substitute food and dining culture as easy as you can substitute free choice and responsibility. Forcing people into more severe pleasure control or even into taking care of their health by the power of legislative systems and police only seems to go against the grain of Enlightenment values such as individualism, laissez faire and self responsibility. Ironically democratic governments may often choose to be quite totalitarian, and if they can appear virtuous in the doing, they can hardly resist the temptation. You can persuade people to limit the personal freedom of smokers, immigrants, small enterprises, Jews and Gypsies, women, or even their own. As history can testify, it only takes some brain washing. One could argue that unlike the situation in the States, in Europe governments' expenses on public health due to smoking, drinking or free sex are too heavy, but it goes without saying that given the choice many would have chosen individual responsibility for health insurance rather than denying themselves personal freedom as far as their own lives are concerned. Tobacco and alcohol are outrageously taxed anyway; but obviously this isn't about smoking, health or even real politique, budgets or cultural shift, but about control, power and psychological politics.
    American presidents could drown the Indian reservations in alcohol and drugs, but obviously you can't do it to your own-law abiding subjects if you hope to get anything at all out of them. No, you need them to function without too much questioning the system. You should allow them enough comfort so that they vote for you, and meanwhile keep them brainwashed by TV entertainment, news and commercials, deprive them of artistic, literary and philosophical education and oppress the agents of these freedom crazed arts. You'll then get a useful community of workers, technicians and merchants, but even all that may not be enough to control the ungrateful human nature. They may still want to fulfil some other unproductive potential, think for themselves, have false visions of personal freedom and revolt against their predestined role in this world. If that's not enough, humans somehow seem to be basically ethical beings, and have this need to do the right thing. It's really very difficult to enslave and police them unless you get them to do it themselves. So here comes in the genius PC invention: Pleasure Control means psychologically divide and rule. Now, not only you get them to feel guilty for being human, but you can also use this guilt, offer pseudo salvations, give them scapegoats, and make them work endlessly for any cause to hide or to atone for what they believe now to be an inner flaw.
    Belief is power, and a self fulfilling prophecy. Smokers are so brain washed by now that being incapable of stopping their criminal deadly habit would make them feel guilty and worthless. Just the same, brainwashed daily by anti smoking ads that appear even on the cigarettes pack they buy and believing the over-stressed bad health ramification of smoking, would be enough to make them really sick. Persecuted in every public space, looked down upon and incriminated, they face one day their kid coming back from watching a precaution documentary at school and hear “Daddy, please quit smoking. I don't want you to die"; and that can be just too much for anybody. It won't be much of a surprise either if by now non smokers are prone to more danger from inhaling some cigarettes smoke than from inhaling the carbon monoxide heavily polluted air in their city streets. At that rate no wonder if they would tolerate a smokers club in their neighbourhood as much as they would tolerate a lepers asylum or a gangsters lair there.
    In the ideal new brave world where tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine will be banned and everybody will be an achieved ideal citizen we'll probably be consuming more Prozac, Retallin and other psychiatric drugs, watch more football and soap operas, and dine on a good bargain of genetically engineered burgers in preservative-challenged buns with a bonus of free Coca Cola. Psychiatrists will finally found a new religious order, and the big corporations will rule the world openly.
    Do you have a light please?

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