GOT LIGHT?

Vladimir Bukovsky’s Foreword to

Richard Klein's Cigarettes are Sublime

by Vladimir Bukovsky

“This book does not aim to praise cigarettes chiefly for their utility,” writes Richard  Klein, 

 

but rather for what Theodore de Banville calls their “futility.” It is their uselessness that ensures the aesthetic appeal of cigarettes—the sublimely, darkly beautiful pleasure that cigarettes bring to the lives of smokers. It is a pleasure that is democratic, popular, and universal; it is a form of beauty that the world of high as well as popular culture has for more than a century recognized and explicitly celebrated, in prose, poetry, in images both still and moving. So widespread is this understanding of the beauty of cigarettes that this book can seem to argue in favor of making them seriously, as among the interesting and significant cultural artifacts produced by modernity. 

 

One has to have considerable courage to write such a book today, in our time of crusading crackpots and universal conformism. No sooner had the big, all-embracing utopia of Communism died in front of us, than myriads of tiny utoplets sprang up in its place, as if to fill the void left in the ives of the Utopians. Humanity is overwhelmed; accustomed as we may be to placating our crusaders, we still cannot reconcile all their demands. Lest we be branded an “enemy of the people,” we must attempt to be green, blue, and color-blind, all at once. We expected to deny that there is any difference between the sexes, and yet are obliged to believe that God Almighty is a woman. Animals’ rights have become superior to ours, except AIDS research. And smoking… smoking is the worst crime of all, unless you smoke marijuana. 

 

Indeed, the current anti-smoking campaign is so universal, so vicious that one wonders: What kind of secret Politburo is behind it? Clearly, it is well coordinated and well funded, and must have a hidden agenda as well. After all, despite the smoke-screen concern for our health, we are “consenting adults” and entitled to decide for ourselves. 

 

Yet the utopians righteously push us out of one refuge after another. So we smokers are, a new oppressed and exploited minority. While homosexuals can serve in the army and women can become priests, we cannot have even a tiny smoking compartment on the publicly subsidized trains we pay for through (among other means) growing “sin” taxes on cigarettes. I sometimes wonder who won the Cold War. 

 

But I am convinced the worst is yet to come. Nor shall we have to wait very long: last year in Britain a man died of a heart attack because his doctor refused to treat him, on the grounds that he was an inveterate smoker who had promised to give up smoking but failed. Did this “doctor” go to jail? Far from it; he was not even reprimanded. Looking boldly into the television camera, he said: “Why should I waste my resources on someone who does not follow my prescription? Smoking as much as he was, he would have died anyway.” 

 

What a neat idea. Come to think of it, why should doctors treat homosexuals? They will die of AIDS anyway. Just let anyone who does not observe the latest fashion in diet and exercise die. Medical costs can be cut without any need to install Bill Clinton’s health reform. 

 

So, first and foremost, we should commend Richard Klein’s bravery, far above and beyond his call of duty as a professor of French at Cornell: some healthiest ayatollah might yet issue a fatwa against him. For let’s make no mistake: it is Cold War II we are living through today, with a new breed of coercive utopians striving to alter our culture, to control our behavior and, ultimately, our thoughts. As Mr. Klein correctly says: “The increase of attacks directed against smoking in the last decades could be seen as the harbinger of the wave of censorship that threatens to engulf America. … Since smoking is wordless, it is a form of expression especially vulnerable to being suppressed by censors who hesitate before banning speech.” 

 

Apart from being a bad habit—this fact no one denies, least of all smokers themselves—smoking is also a statement of one’s philosophy of life, a philosophy upon which our modern culture was based. This was a philosophy of flirting with death, on the one land—which, by the way, moved us to conquer the skies (what an irony that smoking is now forbidden on airplanes) and, on the other hand, philosophy of fatalism, of a soldier “killing time while waiting for death.” A cigarette is like a poem, a love affair, or even life itself—all burning desire and smoke of illusion, leaving us at the end only ashes and a bitter taste in the mouth. But should this predictable end stop us from living, loving, aspiring? What a lie to pretend that anyone ever did not know in advance all the harm smoking can cause. Even in my childhood, some forty years ago, when I tasted my first cigarette, there was a huge billboard across the street: “Smoking is a slow death!” 

 

Sure thing. But someone’s intrepid hand had written underneath in chalk: “And we are not in a hurry.” Professor Klein is quite right: cigarettes are sublime: they seduce you like a femme fatale, all the signs of danger notwithstanding. They are bad for you; that is why they are so good. And the more they are demonized by propaganda, the more seductive they will become. What a stupidity those “warnings” of the surgeon general are! One could not invent better advertising—it makes one’s statement even stronger when puffing into the face of our boring society. “Life itself a progressive disease from which we only recover posthumously; for if health is freedom from disease, then it is only available by dying,” writes Mr. Klein. “Living means choosing your poisons.” And who is the surgeon general to force his choice upon us? A surgeon’s business is to amputate our limbs, to cut out our tumors, to stitch us up again. This is what he should be concerned with, not being a prime judge in a century-long philosophical dispute. 

 

Let alone a supreme censor. If he tries to be, he will, as Mr. Klein’s book shows, find himself against a whole host of poets, philosophers, and cultural figures, from Baudelaire and Byron, Merimee and George Sand, to Sartre and Hemingway. 

 

Like so many writers struggling with censorship before him, Mr. Klein employs subtle irony and taunt rather than a direct attack on his opponents’ position. Contrary to what one might think after reading this review, his is not a book of polemics fueled by indignation; rather, it is an ode to the cigarette, as seen through the eyes of the great poets and thinkers, a paean to a culture that is about to be discarded by the modern barbarians. In a sense, Mr. Klein is like a Roman patrician singing hymns to the old temples and sacred groves even as hordes of Huns are destroying them. In vain does he implore them to think about future backlash: 

 

… repression … often ensures that when the repressed returns, it does so violently, hyperbolically. Whenever what is unhealthy is demonized, it become resistible, with all the seduction and the fiery allure of what ought not come to light. Censorship inevitably incites the very practice it wishes to inhibit and usually makes it more dangerously compulsive, because illicit, in the bargain. Think of masturbation. 

 

Alas! Huns don’t read poetry, and names of old gods mean nothing to them. Mr. Klein’s irony a lints are lost on our own illiterate latter-day barbarians, who know only the ironclad language of political correctness. 

 

Bukovsky is a professional smoker whose best-known book, To Build a Castle, is a testimony to the fact that even the KGB failed to force him to give up cigarettes despite 12 years of consistent effort. 

National Review, August 15, 1994.

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