It’s taken until fairly recently for me to shake my internalised perception of having been a ‘bad kid’ and to think about my childhood a bit more sympathetically. When I’m feeling especially exonerating (to the point of grotesque revisionism), I try to think of myself not as having been a bad kid, but as having been a naturally enlightened child, one whom according to Kant’s formulation had the “courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance”. I just refused to accept anything that was told to me as being fact until I had decided, based on my own experiences and through my own faculties of reason, that it was so.
When I was told not to leave the classroom on my first day of kindergarten, I climbed out of the window when the teacher wasn’t looking. When I was told by my mother not to put the cat in a plastic bag, I put the cat in a plastic bag. And when I was playing with a plastic figurine of a dog which had a torso and limbs that could be stretched and twisted and platted and still hold their shape, and the goo inside the dog that afforded such pliability began to ooze out of a rupture in its plastic skin, and a label on the dog’s tummy told me “toxic – do not eat”, I put my finger in the goo and sucked it off, ending up in the emergency room of Prince of Wales (despite the fact that St Vincent’s Hospital was closer to our house – I never understood that part of the story). Though after each of these occasions, I didn’t again attempt to climb out of windows and jump down drops twice my height onto gravel (though I did climb over a school perimeter wall in high school, also just once), ingest three-course fast food meals as smoothies, transport feline creatures with sharp claws in polyethylene carriers (the cat forgave me and we subsequently became friends) or eat toxic goo, these were the conscious decisions of an autonomous intellectual agent of the enlightenment and not decisions imposed on a unit of personified labour by the intellectually castrating machinery of post-industrial capitalism.
So when it came to my early adolescence, and not just my mother and brother, but my schoolteachers, GP, and even the advertising slots of all my beloved commercial television networks starting ganging up on me to forbid my engagement in a marginalised social habit cloaked in a shroud of alluring deviancy, the story was only ever going to go one way. My first packet of cigarettes was a hard-packet of twenty-five of Winfield Blues, which cost $8.50 in 2004 and were purchased for me by the pony-tailed supervisor at the discount supermarket where I worked after school as a fourteen year-old delinquent-in-the-making. When I got home after closing up, I apprehensively stepped out onto the balcony which extended from my bedroom on the third floor of our dilapidated 1880s Victorian terrace, a balcony which slanted about eight degrees towards the concrete ground ten metres below, the sense of danger only augmenting the rapturous excitement I felt as I peeled the plastic wrapping of the packet. The little ‘pop’ made by the silver protective foil as it tore away to reveal the perfectly packed rows of orange butt was delicious. It was the sound of transgression. I flicked the Bic lighter I had stolen from the cutlery drawer, inhaled, and nearly gagged.
It felt like I had just brought my lips over the rusted exhaust pipe of a 1974 Commodore and sucked in a litre of carbon monoxide. It was awful, really awful. According to my own strategy of making decisions based on direct experience, that should have been my last cigarette. But when I looked down at the satisfied faces of the tradies outside the pub across the road effortlessly exhaling billows of smoke, heard their exuberant laughter between puffs, and looked at the way they were holding their cigarettes as opposed to the way I was holding my cigarette, I felt the matter was far from settled. A decision not to smoke based on an under-researched, disingenuous attempt to smoke a cigarette could not be considered to be a fully-informed, autonomous intellectual decision, so I decided my human dignity depended on giving it another go.
So I asked supervisor what I had done wrong and he gave me some pointers (“suck in and such in again” being the most helpful). My second cigarette wasn’t exactly delightful but I didn’t feel like throwing up, and I smoked it down to the butt. I remained on the balcony for some time feeling slightly dizzy but quite accomplished. The descending sun backlit the elegant forms of the MLC Centre and the Governor Philip Tower, which raised their geometric heads up from the carpet of chimneys and fig trees of Sydney’s inner-east. Straight ahead, the arc of the Harbour Bridge was just visible above the art deco roof-detailing of the Phoenix Hotel, its mast proudly flying the flags of the Southern Cross. That was the longest time I had ever spent on my balcony (I hadn’t had a practical reason to stand on it before then, and the slantiness had been an especially scary sensation for a small child). And though I wasn’t horrendously eager for another head-spin, I wanted to spend some more time admiring the newly discovered view, so I decided to try another cigarette (and I had already paid for a whole pack, which had took me an hour of scanning socks and hairdryers to earn). So I smoked a third, and hated it a little bit less. And the fourth a little bit less than that. The tenth, smoked four days later, I hated equally as much as I didn’t hate. A week after that, the twenty-fifth cigarette, I actually enjoyed. And I enjoyed somewhere between twenty and forty thousand in the time between then and February of this year.
But where exactly did this enjoyment come from? Smoking is smelly, dirty, expensive, polluting, anti-social, monotonous, breathing-inhibiting, singing range-diminishing and essentially pointless. Unlike more exciting past-times like drinking, cocaine-snorting and meth-shooting (or so I have heard), smoking cigarettes doesn’t really ‘do’ anything for you. The perceived pleasurable physical effects of a cigarette are caused almost entirely by the effect of the nicotine ingestion nullifying the nicotine withdrawal that had been experienced immediately prior to the cigarette, cravings that were created by the reduction of nicotine in the blood supply from the time of the last cigarette, cravings that would never had existed had the smoker not had that previous cigarette or the one prior to it, or the one prior to that one….or their very first cigarette. Essentially the cigarette just returns the smoker, for the briefest time, to the state of chemical equilibrium they would enjoy constantly if they had always remained a non-smoker, and the experience of smoking only feels pleasurable in contrast to the chemical hell the body undergoes during nicotine withdrawal. It’s a pleasure achieved solely in relation to the longing caused by its absence. In a practical sense, smoking a cigarette achieves nothing but the perpetuation of a cycle of smoking cigarettes.
Which is kinda why I liked it. For a start, by turning your brain into a ball of buzzing nicotine cravings, you are putting in place the physiological conditions for a new activity to enter your daily repertoire which is guaranteed to produce a sensation of relief, with virtually no effort on your part required. This is particularly useful for the motivationally challenged, those for whom life can seem like an impossibly long, treacherous and unrewarding march up a hill (with or without a boulder to push), with any means of breaking it up into a smaller, less terrifying intervals which offer moments of relief (however slight, illusory or manufactured) being extremely welcome. Take the example of life at its most monotonous – exam cramming. The prospect of leaving one’s bed to study Constitutional Law for sixteen hours at a table cluttered with textbooks and rotting takeaway containers is gruesome, but the prospect of leaving one’s bed to study Constitutional Law for three hours, knowing that you’ll then have a pass to stand on your balcony for five minutes rhythmically inhaling some noxious fumes that you know are going to make you feel kinda nice, or at least less crap than you felt upon waking, is less so.
But if one wants birdseed to throw ahead of oneself along the path of life to provide some sort of cheap incentive for continuation (or insurance policy against aborting mid-journey), couldn’t one just plan ‘breaks’ rather than ‘cigarette breaks’? The problem is that when it comes to actually taking ‘just a break’, no matter how much you’ve promised yourself this break, it becomes entirely up for renegotiation. And when you have four thousand things to do and the world feels like it’s crashing on top of you, taking a gratuitous, voluntary break to drink a cup of chamomile tea or go for a walk around the block feels contrary to every hard-wired, problem-solving impulse in your brain that’s telling you to fix everything, and fix it now. But the satisfaction of an intense chemical craving which is overriding your entire nervous system, including the problem-solving brain’s ability to run circles, is something that it will gladly provide its short-term approval for.
It could be argued that this helpful ‘compulsoriness’ is not unique to smoking, so if you want to be physiologically bullied into breaking up your day, why not go in for one of the other addictions? Then problem is that you can’t have a mid-morning absinthe or heroin hit and then go into a meeting (I can’t, anway), nor can you have ten or eleven coffees throughout the day and not tweek through the night like Ike Turner at Christmas dinner. So then maybe it could be argued that the fun addictive effects of Nicotine could still be enjoyed without the horrible health effects of smoking cigarettes if you ingested it through gum or patches or vaping. But then you lose the benefit of practically needing to take a break from the various but equally dull and unappealing commitments of your life to satisfy the cravings. You can vape or chew or absorb the chemicals dripping off an ugly sticker while reading the newspaper or writing or cooking or exercising. Ironically, the marginalisation of smokers by the redesignation of 99% of the world as a ‘non-smoking area’ has been crucial in brining about a massive element of its appeal (to me), which is that it requires you to break away from whatever it is you’re doing and enter a different physical, and consequently, psychological space, for the duration of your non-negotiable cigarette break, meaning that it becomes a self-contained, otherwise purposeless ‘activity’ that disrupts the relentless flow of modern life, a flow which can feel existence-dissolving rather than sustaining.
And perhaps it is this quality, of being a deliberate act that it achieves nothing but its own fulfilment, makes smoking the most aesthetic of addictions. It is as close as a real-life activity gets to Kant’s notion of art, which is “purposefulness without purpose”. If someone asks you what you are doing, and you respond “smoking a cigarette”, the conversation is concluded. And though it might make me a terrible person, I think there’s something beautiful about that. When Lady Bracknell responds “a man should always have an occupation of some kind” to Jack’s admission that he smokes, I think she’s revealing some wisdom rather than mere whimsy. We’ve almost lost the art of languor in Western society, and smoking is one of its last bastions. It is our capacity to engage in the act of pure nothingness that makes us human. All the ‘doing something’ of life becomes meaningless without the punctuation of some complete ‘doing nothingness’. There’s something even existentially comforting about smoking a cigarette if you view it as an encapsulation of the experience of life itself. The experience of simultaneously being aware of the fleetingness and purposelessness of a dwindling cigarette and being able to saviour and find meaning in it despite its evident ephemerality, helps one to submit to the undeniable, but generally disguised, fleetingness and purposeless of the entire stretch of life of which that single cigarette forms a miniscule, but immensely illustrative, section.
Cigarette smoking not only possesses the power to alter one’s view on the philosophical essence of life, but also on all the cornucopia of figments that inhabit its various immediate landscapes. The transformative aesthetic power of cigarettes is rooted in its characteristic liminality. Not only does smoking create liminal time because it occupies the gaps between purposive blocks of daily life, and occupy liminal physical space because it is only sanctioned within its own clearly bounded physical territory, the action of smoking a cigarette becomes psychologically liminal, removing the smoker to the space where their interior and exterior worlds meet. The state of suspended engagement experienced when smoking a cigarette is somewhere between presence and absence. Even the most squalid, utilitarian setting – a rooftop parking lot of a suburban shopping centre, a nondescript, poorly ventilated room in an Airport, a balcony of a generic concrete high-rise block of flats which looks out onto a another cheap, generic block of flats – transforms into a ‘scene’ when one transitions from participant to detached, cigarette-wielding flaneur, the poetic beneath the prosaic becoming illuminated through the trails of smoke. For the duration of your cigarette, you are fixed to the spot in which you chose to light up, and that condition of physical fixture becomes a condition of psychological transfixion. For those five minutes, that demarcated space is the extent of the world itself, and your imagination, like that of Dostoevsky’s Ippolit, confined to a bed by consumption and forced spend the rest of his days staring at a brown brick wall, has no choice but to transform your momentarily framed surroundings into something beautiful.
And it does – but only if allowed to by not being bugged by anyone else. The liminal fragment of time and space created by the ‘need’ for a cigarette is one best enjoyed alone – other people should only exist for this duration as figments, not as buddies. Which is why I only came to enjoy smoking more and more as the number of smokers among friends and colleagues (when I still had a job) dwindled. For ‘social introverts’ like myself, ‘desperately needing’ a cigarette is a failsafe alibi for withdrawing to the fringes of society for an interval just long enough to recalibrate one’s internal compass. There are no words that I prefer to say in a restaurant or at a club more than, “I’m just going to duck outside for a fag” (and there are no words that I dislike hearing more than “I might join you. Mind if I bum one?”)
My friends who smoke have mocked me in the past because of my strict personal rules of smoking, (like only smoking while stationery, only smoking in the shade, only smoking in the absence of wind, never smoking one cigarette immediately after another) because they do not appreciate the distinction between smoking a cigarette and practicing the ritual of smoking. What I used to practice was something like the rules of ‘kosher smoking’ the rabbis forgot to invent. Like kosher eating, kosher smoking elevates a vulgar and appetitive act into something sacred by cloaking it in ritual. And these rules would have benefitted a lot of people, who in their ignorance have practiced a very different kind of smoking to what I have championed. They smoke inside while cutting their toenails, they smoke while using their phones, they buy cheap cigarettes in packets of fifty, they litter their cigarette butts, they smoke on the beach (they even smoke in the sun!!) Smoking does not make ugly people any less ugly, ugly people make everything ugly, including smoking. But then again, coming to address the elephant that’s been patiently resting in the margins of this entire blog post nudging each paragraph with its trunk, smoking does of course end up making even the most beautiful smokers ugly because there’s nothing beautiful about peptic ulcers, aortic aneurysms, peripheral vascular disease, periodontitis, emphysema, lung cancer or any of the dozens of other causes of death that are statically likely to end a smoker’s life a decade earlier than he otherwise might have expected to live.
But, aware of these facts as I was, I didn’t stop smoking because of my health, or at least not because of my physical health. It’s not that I was indifferent to the bodily effects of smoking. Some psychologists argue that smokers are intentional death-seekers, that smoking is a manifestation of intense anxiety over the unknowability of death, with smokers using their habit as a wilful, empowering embrace of death in an attempt to feel ownership over it (“death is not out of my control if I’m willingly bringing it on myself”.) Whilst this is an interesting argument, I don’t think it fits for me. During my twelve years as a smoker, I would honestly have preferred if I could have smoked each cigarette without the knowledge somewhere at the back of my mind of its killing me a little bit, as I generally try be as healthy as possible in all areas of my life, so long as these efforts do not compromise other values.
Which I honestly felt not smoking would have done. I placed a higher value on the aesthetic richness of my immediate experience of life than I did on my future longevity. I think the situation would have been different if I would have had a partner (or felt there was any likelihood of my having a partner within the next decade), and especially if I would have had children (or felt there was any possibility of my one day having any). This would not just have been because every cigarette ‘break’ would have been tainted by the thought of my spouse or son or daughter one day watching me die of lung cancer, but more because having ‘attachments’ would have given me a solid reason to want to extend my old age as much as possible. Because what really is the joy of living past seventy-two (the average life expectancy of a smoker in Australia) to eighty-two (the average life expectancy) if one has to wither through the winter of one’s life alone? It was thus that I felt, as a twenty-six year old gay, artistically-minded, perpetually single, nomadic social outsider, smoking (and especially my personal brand of ‘kosher smoking’) was a positive expression of my values, values like adventure and spontaneity and romance and beauty (and even ‘love’!), values which increasingly seem to be spurned by a society that has come to solely value longevity – living longer for the sake of living longer.
So had the thrilling rollercoaster of my life continued as it was, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to stop smoking. But then something happened at the beginning of this year to make my own values began to shift. After my latest overseas misadventure, I returned to Sydney in a state of exasperation, sick and tired of having a nervous breakdown every eighteen months, and decided that this time I’m going to throw absolutely everything I possibly can into my psychological recovery to ensure that I stay on the rails at least long enough to see out my early twenties. So adventure, beauty, meaning and ‘day-seizing’ all slid down the value hierarchy and stability, grounding, presence, balance and health rose up to take their place. Practices that don’t fit into this rejigged value scheme – drinking, bender-ing, travelling, smoking, coffee-drinking, F1 racing, undercover espionage – all had to go, and in their place arrived meditation, yoga, exercise, early nights and early mornings, light therapy (standing on my balcony and looking somewhere near the sun for fifteen minutes at 7am), grounding therapy (standing on the grass outside without shoes on for fifteen minutes at 8am) and other painfully wholesome and aesthetically bankrupt ‘wellness practices’.
Whilst smoking might not seem as psychologically threatening as alcohol, gambling or heroin, I felt it was equally urgent to eliminate it from my new, healthy life (if I just implied I previously had a gambling or heroin problem – just to clarify, I didn’t, I was being rhetorical). The problem with smoking is that to get that little bit of artificially manufactured relief for the five minutes of a cigarette, you have to sacrifice a little bit of calm from all the time not spent smoking a cigarette (which unless you smoke three packets a day like Bob Dylan once did, is a much greater proportion of your waking hours) so that the ‘bump-up’ to the non-craving, satiated state of smoking feels ‘nice’. Similarly, the heightened sense of awareness and aesthetic arousal you experience during a cigarette comes at the expense of some degree of presence and engagement in all your other activities. This isn’t such an issue if you have an anxiety ‘baseline’ of 0 (with ‘10’ being extremely anxious and ‘-10’ being extremely relaxed). If one of these normal, well-adjusted individuals were to take up smoking, then whenever they weren’t smoking their anxiety levels would increase to 1, which is still manageable (maybe even a little bit exciting for these lucky people!), falling back down to 0 when they reward themselves with a cigarette. But this phenomenon does become an issue when, like me at the beginning of this year, you’ve just come out of an acute manic-depressive episode and your baseline anxiety levels are hovering somewhere around 7.5. The condition of being a smoker means that whenever you’re not having a cigarette your anxiety levels are actually pushed up to 8.5 (danger zone!), and even smoking a cigarette only lowers them down only to 7.5 (despite you desperately wanting it to do more), which is not a particularly fun place to be either. And so an extreme deterioration of one’s mental state having caused smoking (like all of life’s other activities) to loose its lustre and become only an additional, and entirely unnecessary, distorter of moods and emotions, I think it becomes very much in the interests of the psychologically impaired not to smoke, ironically at the point in time at which they are least able to bring themselves to quit.
And for those smokers who, before slipping deep into a dark ravine concealed among the foliage of a once-seeming Eden, would have called themselves aesthetes, the chemical trickery of nicotine craving and craving-satiation, once a tantalising game and daily font of jouissance, becomes a source of daily devastation. To quote Mr Wilde again, a cigarette can be “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.” This dissatisfaction refers to a cigarette’s inability to fulfil the artificial promise created by the nicotine craving that preceded it, the promise that the cigarette will make ‘everything better’. As I’ve already explained, it never does make actually make anything better, other then by taking away the craving which was impeding the mind from creating its own meaning in the world, something which a well-adjusted mind can laugh at humbly. But not so an unwell mind. When a nicotine craving tricks the depressed and desperate into thinking that all it will take is the lighting of a paper tube full of tobacco for the world to regain some of its former splendour, and then when the cigarette burns down to your fingertips, you’re left floating in the same vast, barren, empty nothingness, with just a raspier throat and the smell of ammonia in your nostrils, the world becomes desolation itself.
Which leads to perhaps the saddest part of this entire entry, with its overwrought and pretentious attempts to extol the philosophical, aesthetic and (did I dare?) ethical virtues of smoking, which is that all these lovely words were just the handiwork of a stray manipulative nicotine craving operating through my trigger-happy, pliable intellect – an attempt to reason or romance myself into lighting up my first cigarette in two months, and restore the dominion of nicotine over my life. This was all just another manifestation of my pathetic inability to to feel any sensation, especially pain, without intellectualising it into some sort of expansive existential crisis. Apparently my urge for there to be meaning in my existence is to desperate that my brain will manufacture it out of whatever is to hand, even if it’s just something as neurological and unromantic as a nicotine craving. So this morning instead of just experiencing a craving for a cigarette and then ignoring it, I sat down and wrote a 4500 word ode to cigarette smoking, the product of my brain’s ability to combine all the thought-files and memories that popped up from a psychic key-word search for ‘cigarettes’ into a reasonably compelling argument for digging out one of my half-finished packs of Vietnamese Marlboros tucked away at the top of my cupboard if I want to emerge from the malaise that has now dragged on for three deeply tiring months. But fortunately I’ve now cottoned-on to the machinations of my meddlesome meaning-manufacturing mind. And I have had enough of approaching my life as a canvass. I’ve had enough of lofty ideals and exhilarating adventures and shattering disappointments and nervous breakdowns. From now on, I’m living for the sake of health. I’m living for the here and now. My mind could have once tricked me into thinking that if I lit up a cigarette, all the meaning that I once saw in the world would magically return. But now that I know conclusively that the world is meaningless, I can’t be fooled so easily.