Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco-Smoker

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this blogcat, which acts as a sort of a preface to this column. If you have not yet read it, I recommend you do so. In brief, it discusses some cultural and literary allusions to cigarettes and cigarette smoking. The purpose of this essay is to extend my ruminations on the subject towards a logical conclusion. The title for this piece is taken from the poem printed in full below.

“Whene’er I take my pipe and stuff it
And smoke to pass the time away,
My thoughts, as I sit there and puff it,
Dwell on a picture sad and gray:
It teaches me that very like
Am I unto my pipe.

“Like me, this pipe so fragrant burning
Is made of naught but earth and clay;
To earth I too shall be returning.
It falls and, ere I’d think to say,
It breaks in two before my eyes;
In store for me a like fate lies.
No stain the pipe’s hue yet doth darken;
It remains white. Thus do I know

“That when to death’s call I must harken
My body, too, all pale will grow.
To black beneath the sod ‘twill turn,
Likewise the pipe, if oft it burn.
Or when the pipe is fairly glowing
Behold then instantaneously,
The smoke off into thin air going,
Till naught but ash is left to see.
Man’s fame likewise away will burn
And into dust his body turn.

“How oft it happens when one’s smoking:
The stopper’s missing from the shelf,
And one goes with one’s finger poking
Into the bowl and burns oneself.
If in the pipe such pain doth dwell,
How hot must be the pains of Hell.

“Thus o’er my pipe, in contemplation
Of such things, I can constantly
Indulge in fruitful meditation,
And so, puffing contentedly,
On land, on sea, at home, abroad,
I smoke my pipe and worship God.”

–Johann Sebastian Bach.

I used to smoke cigarettes every day. I would have one in the morning (usually while still lying in bed), one or two after meals, and at least one just about any time I was bored, outside, or drunk. What is strange, though, is that I never felt a really strong craving for a cigarette. On those occasions that I wasn’t smoking, while visiting my parents, for example, I never even thought about it. It seemed natural to me to go cold turkey for a few days or a week if the situation required it, and to just start up again if I felt like it.

The truth is that I just enjoyed the act of smoking. Even just the smell of a cigarette burning was pleasurable. I can remember times that I would light up a cigarette but not even inhale it at all; I would puff on it to blow smoke rings, or just watch the smoke itself as it followed all of the invisible little eddies and currents in the air, then stamp the butt out in an ashtray.

I was spending the money for a smoking habit that I barely kept up. It never really occurred to me how strange this was.

Of course, the act of smoking in and of itself is strange. As Ian Fleming wrote in his 1959 novel Goldfinger, “Smoking I find the most ridiculous of all the varieties of human behavior and practically the only one that is entirely against nature. Can you imagine a cow or any animal taking a mouthful of smoldering straw than breathing in the smoke and blowing it out through its nostrils?” (This line of dialogue, regrettably, was not included in the more famous movie adaptation).

Thanks, Ian Fleming. Now I can only picture Sean Connery as a smoking cow. From frame2interlace.

This was written at a time before the overwhelming consensus of medical science and cultural zeitgeist turned against smoking as a socially acceptable habit. Today, it seems even more strange to take it up, given the massive anti-smoking campaigns in which we have all been inundated over the past 20 years or so.

There are other addictive habits, to be sure. Caffeine and sugar are both common, and for many people necessary. They can be as addictive as nicotine, with a whole variety of negative side effects when taken in large doses (in fact, nicotine, caffeine, and sugar are all made up of the same basic elements – hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen – but simply rearranged into different chemical structures; the addictive qualities are a result of the interaction of these chemicals with the natural background behavior of the brain, specifically the release of dopamine and the blocking of acetylcholine receptors). Yet nobody really thinks twice about drinking six cups of coffee a day, and the campaign against obesity is focused (rightly) on artificial substances like high-fructose corn syrup as opposed to sugar.

Certainly, there is a distinct medical difference between consuming caffeine or sugar and nicotine. Nicotine is a natural insecticide that can kill you in relatively small doses. The minimum lethal dose of an adult human for nicotine is about 60mg, compared to 100mg for rattlesnake venom, 200mg for arsenic, and 500mg for cyanide (in case you are interested, it would take about 10,000mg of pure caffeine to kill someone, which is roughly 133 shots of espresso). You can literally ingest more cyanide than you can pure nicotine and survive. A cigarette contains about 8-10mg, but on average less than 1 will actually be ingested by the smoker.

In fact, smoking as a delivery system is so inefficient that nicotine is not the most dangerous element of cigarette smoking, despite its toxicity. The suite of carcinogens and chemicals also found in cigarettes are greater health risks, and low doses of nicotine can actually be beneficial. However, when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t matter WHAT makes smoking cigarettes dangerous, but merely that they ARE.

The question remains, then: why do people smoke? It isn’t sufficient to merely wave your hands and mumble about the addictive qualities of nicotine. There are millions of people who never take up smoking, even after trying a cigarette or two, and millions that successfully quit. I myself rarely smoke these days, but I never made a conscious decision to stop smoking, and have never felt any physical, mental, or emotional repercussions from a downshift in nicotine consumption. Again, one could simply argue that addiction is simply a function of brain chemistry, which is itself a function of the remarkable genetic variation of our species, and that there will always be some people who will not become addicted, others who will, and the rest somewhere in between.

This point of view, though, is not intuitively satisfying. It not only predicates itself on the assumption that all behavior is outside of our conscious control – merely the cumulative result of hundreds of constrained chemical and electrical interactions – but also that the way we perceive these behaviors is unaffected by social and cultural milieu.

As I already mentioned, I never felt the strong physical desire to smoke, even when I stopped after a prolonged period of regular consumption. So why did I smoke at all? And why, occasionally, do I still light one up?

I won’t lie and say that I never liked the way a cigarette makes me feel. Yet the more one smokes, the smaller the buzz. Even when it reached the point that an individual cigarette had virtually no discernible effect on me, I would continue to smoke. This sounds like addiction at first, but as I mentioned, I was always able to stop without negative repercussions. When I started again, it had nothing to do with giving in to some insatiable craving. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there is a social factor at work.

Part of the reason I smoked cigarettes is, for lack of a better word, because I am fidgety. I find it difficult to sit still without some sort of physical interaction with an object. It can be my hair, a pencil, a paper-clip, twiddling my fingers, tapping my toes or my heel. Focusing on one thing in particular can be difficult; I will start fidgeting with something unconsciously, without noticing, but eventually start to shift my focus to the object, or back and forth between the object and whatever I was already doing. The repetitive act of smoking a cigarette is perfect in this situation – the action is simple enough to perform largely by rote, yet engaging enough (you have to move your fingers, your arm, the muscles of your face, and your diaphragm) to keep my attention anchored. I can focus on the act of smoking in and of itself, or use it to satisfy my fidgetiness while focusing on something else (nicotine itself has chemical properties that help your brain focus, as well).

Related to my penchant for fidgeting is my lack of comfort in many social situations. I can not simplistically rate my personality as “introverted” or “extroverted.” People are not that one-dimensional, and neither are the mechanisms of social interaction. I prefer being with other people, as opposed to being alone, yet often (and especially with those I don’t know very well) I find myself in a situation without knowing how to act or respond. My impulse is to say or act a certain way, but we all have a social filter that prevents us from doing those things that we at some level fear will alienate us from the group. We have all been to a party or gathering at some point in our lives and didn’t know what to do except stand there and nurse our drinks. Or been stuck in an awkward conversation permeated by long pauses during which you pretend to be fascinated with whatever you have in your solo cup.

Solo cup, martini glass … what’s the difference? From Dreamstime.

The drink, in this case, becomes the object of your nervous fixation. Even if it is a non-alcoholic drink, you will keep taking small sips of it not so much to relieve your thirst, but to act as a mediator of social interaction. It gives you an extra moment to think of something to say while looking innocuous, or gives you an excuse not to say anything at all. Moving around the party to refill your drink acts as an excuse not to stand in one spot, and again makes you appear to be a “part of” the party. This behavior has to do with our natural desire to fit in – not conform, per se, but merely to appear as if you belong in that context. If you are drinking alcohol, as the party goes on this might become less and less important as your inhibitions are lowered.

Sometimes inhibitions are a good thing. From Dreamstime.

Cigarettes perform a similar function, but within a slightly different paradigm. It, too, serves as an object of nervous fixation. In most cases, though, you can’t smoke a cigarette inside, so you go outside. Sometimes you go alone, and it gives you the chance to escape the social anxiety for several minutes. Sometimes there will be other smokers, and it gives you the chance to interact with people in a different context (and the cigarette itself works like the drink did, before – acts as a buffer against awkward silence, and chemically lowers your inhibitions). As a basic tool for manipulating certain social outcomes, cigarettes (and alcohol) can be very important. Not everybody needs these tools: there are those that are more compulsively extroverted, some that are better at avoiding or preventing awkward interactions, and at the other extreme some who are so introverted they don’t care to interact at all.

“But,” you might ask, “This doesn’t quite answer the question. This brings us back to the same argument that you made earlier, but substituting in social lubrication instead of physiological addiction.” And this is true, to an extent. Riding this argument to its logical conclusion, you would say that both alcohol and cigarettes are functions both of their chemical properties and their use in social interaction, and that the only reasons people smoke or drink have to do with how social they are. But there are non-social people that smoke and drink, and social people that shun both. So we are still addressing the symptoms and not the cause.

To go back to this apparently awkward party I keep using as an example, most of the people there are drinking. However, not everybody will be smoking. The proportion of people that smoke is significantly less than the proportion that drink, and most large gatherings of people will in some way reflect this. While most people will be using alcohol as their point of fixation, only a relatively small subset of this will be using cigarettes. And, in fact, when they are smoking cigarettes, they will almost always do so removed from the rest of the party, as we already covered.

This brings us to the question of identity. Whether consciously or otherwise, by removing themselves from the larger population of the party, these cigarette smokers are identifying themselves and their fellow smokers in a different paradigm than they will the rest of the party-goers. This sort of relationship will be readily apparent to anyone who has a group of friends that smoke cigarettes and a group that do not; anytime you have a party, you will see this segregation happen at some point. And even outside the context of large group parties, the smokers will tend to congregate towards each other, and the non-smokers similarly.

Smokers are identifying with each other based on a common interest/activity, as we all do. Regardless of how rebellious and individualistic you think you are, there is a very strong psychological pull towards conformity. Not necessarily conformity towards a mainstream, but rather an implicit preference for “sameness” within a group. Blame our tribal monkey forebears, but we subconsciously drift towards inclusion within a group. This is why roommates will often start to talk the same, and in some cases adopt the other’s accent. This is why I began to dress a little more conservatively in college than I did in high school (and even more so now that I am in the “real world”), due to a shift in social and cultural environment. It is an inescapable facet of human psychology. Sorry hipsters, but you’re not fooling anyone.

One of our tribal monkey forebears. From thePlanet of the Apes wiki that apparently exists.

However, despite this de facto self-identificiation, people that smoke cigarettes will not always call themselves “smokers.” You probably know at least one: someone that “only smokes when they’re drinking” or “only now and then,” or any number of excuses aimed at denying categorization. A study on cigarette-smoking students at eight colleges reported:

More than half of students (56.3%) denied being smokers (“deniers”) despite current smoking behavior. Half of deniers, and fewer than half of admitters, called themselves social smokers. Deniers were highly likely to smoke infrequently, to say they were not addicted to cigarettes, to have mostly nonsmokers as close friends, to prefer dating nonsmokers, and to smoke for reasons other than stress relief. In contrast, social-smoker identity was associated only weakly with any attitude, behavior, or belief.

Some of this dissonance can be explained by the prevailing cultural attitude being predominantly anti-smoking, which may students uncomfortable declaring themselves on the “wrong side.” However, there is a parallel here in contemporary youth culture that may be enlightening.

“Hipsterism” or “hipsterdom” is a relatively modern cultural movement. It actually dates back approximately to the 1940s, when it was usually used to describe the middle-class white youths that immersed themselves in the otherwise working-class black jazz scene. Broadly, the word “hipster” can be used to mean just about anything. However, it is most often used to describe a particular youth counter-culture, but with a derogatory subtext. We could argue about what precisely defines the term for hours without coming to a satisfactory conclusion, yet most people seem to intuitively agree on what constitutes a hipster.

The defining psychological characteristic of the hipster culture is the same kind of dissonance shown in cigarette smokers. Our conceptualization of self-identity is superficial; our brains are heavily biased towards understanding the world through basic visual cues, whether we realize it or not. In modern society, then, self-identity becomes inseparable from consumerism. We use objects as a means of representing ourselves. To paraphrase Psychology Today, we don’t buy goods and services, we buy mythologies. When someone buys a Harley Davidson, for example, it is out of a desire to represent themselves as rugged, strong, rebellious, independent, etc.

People, though, consider self-identity separately from how they consider the identity of others. Although we are prone to classify other people in the simplest terms, based primarily on social impetus and cognitively sensible visual categories (“He looks like a hipster”,”He looks like a hippie”,”He looks like a jock”,etc.), we like to think of ourselves as being more complex than that. While we will buy the Harley Davidson for the purpose of looking tough, we internally reject the notion that this is reflective of our “true” selves. We think of our own actions and behaviors as being somehow tangental to broader social and cultural categories. “I’m not a hipster, I just like flannel and Pabst Blue Ribbon and bands nobody else has ever heard of.”

Since hipster has become derogatory in the wider cultural lens, this dissonance develops, whereby cultural identity and self-identification are obfuscated. This is the same dissonance that those earlier researchers found in college cigarette smokers. Despite belonging to the group of kids leaving the party to smoke a cigarette, they do not necessarily categorize themselves as smokers. It is worth noting that “smoker” is a broad category that can encompass an incredible variety of lifestyles and beliefs … but, then, so is “hipster.” Belonging to one of these categories does not codify your thoughts and actions, but simply provides the context in which you create your own thoughts and actions.

However, all of that aside, we still have not come to the central issue. What is a “smoker”? What is this social and cultural identity which we appropriate by removing ourselves from the party to light up a cigarette?

When one looks at the history of cultural attitudes towards smoking, there is a lot of variation, which should not be surprising. Societies have looked on cigarette, cigar, pipe, and snuff use in different ways at different times. Pipes, specifically, have alternatively represented the wealthy and the poor in different places at different times (today we associate pipes with wealth, old age, or refinement … in 18th-century Holland, it was associated with the peasantry).

However, there are certain trends that seem to remain relatively constant. Depictions of cigarette smoking in art and literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries have carried motifs of nervousness or anxiety, gloom, fatalism, and death.

Van Gogh’s “Skull with Burning Cigarette.” From the Van Gogh Museum.
Bastida’s “Old Man of the Cigarette.” From joaquin-sorolla-y-bastida.org.

In more contemporary cultural consciousness, cigarette smoking is associated with a mythologized vision of manhood (Don Draper, Phillip Marlowe, the Marlboro Man, etc.). However, the imagery of this association is decidedly working-class, emphasizing ruggedness and otherness. There was, even during the 1940s and 1950s, when cigarette smoking was far more socially acceptable, an association between characters that smoke and “otherness.” It was, and is, often used to mark villainy or imperfection (protagonists that smoke are often “anti-heroes,” who are considered “good” despite many “bad” qualities). Rarely are cigarettes used to mark someone as affluent, well-adjusted, or distinguished; they often act as instant visual cues that someone is poor, troubled, or eccentric.

As Richard Klein writes:

Kant calls “sublime” that aesthetic satisfaction which includes at one of its moments a negative experience, a shock, a blockage, an intimation of reality. It is in this very strict sense that Kant gives the term that the beauty of cigarettes may be considered to be sublime. […] The sublimity of cigarettes explain why people love what tastes nasty and makes them sick.

To a certain extent, I agree. This is part of the dissonance discussed previously. There is a simultaneous understanding of the negative qualities of smoking cigarettes with the enjoyment of smoking one. There is an extent to which it reinforces a nostalgic and anachronistic conception of masculinity. And, yes, there is a degree to which it just seems “cool” or “rebellious,” identifying oneself as some anomalous “other” within the folds of society.

Musicians, movie stars, writers, and all variety of public figures smoke, even if not as universally as was once the case. Smoking a cigarette is not some unknown quality that needs to be explained to anyone, it is still an instantly recognizable act with certain recognizable connotations. Even in a milieu that has seen a dramatic decrease in the prevalence of smoking cigarettes, it remains an integral component of popular culture.

And what popular culture provides, especially for young people like myself, is a mechanism by which we can definitively place ourselves. The society we live in, and the culture around us, is one that we did not build and cannot control. Cigarettes, like alcohol, drugs, music, or any of a thousand other things, are a way to arbitrarily draw a line in the sand and create for ourselves some niche within which we feel like we do have control. Even if you don’t smoke the cigarette, but light it up so others can see you, or just so you can watch the ashes burning.

One response to “Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco-Smoker

  1. just read your post on cigarettes and while I’m too lazy to register with wordpress (for now), I felt like offering my two cents. Larry David observed that a lot of the time cigarettes are full of anxiety and stress. Even the physical action of taking a drag is rushed, the exhale forced. Certainly, that’s not true for everyone… and I guess that could be because nowadays people get dirty looks as they’re shooed outside or into corners to smoke.

    But with a cigar…you can contemplate. Most folks don’t puff nervously on cigars. There’s no anxiety or rush; and if there is I personally think you’re doing it wrong. They’re enjoyed slowly, they take time, and they give you time to think.

    And maybe that difference says something about the creative mind. Those weird and offbeat folk who create the kinds of things that most can only understand on a superficial level. Maybe the stress and anxiety of ideas and thoughts racing through their mind spills over into the cigarette while they scramble to get their thoughts on paper, into song, or on canvas.

    Or maybe I’m talking out my ass. Either way I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading what you guys cook up.

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