[Paleopsych] spiked-life: Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

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Mon Apr 25 19:11:04 UTC 2005

Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

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

    by George Blecher

    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
    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
    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
    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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