Homo homini rodentius est

The Semiotics of Smoke

Now you see it, now you don’t. James gets cleaned up to go to market.

In the process of hunting up illustrations for a post about the meanings of smoking I ran across an astonishing example of how a habit, and everything it represents, is systematically being erased not just from daily life — but from history. The photo on the left of Dean perched against the wall of the Dakota in New York is a copy of the original picture taken by Roy Shatt in 1954. The one on the right is the version being licensed by CMG International, the company that now owns the rights to James Dean’s image. Notice anything missing? His cigarette has been Photoshopped out of the licensed version — I assume to make his image more marketable to advertisers that would use it in a world where smoking has become a social disease. The manipulation of dead celebrities’ identities has been going on for awhile, but the irony of sanitizing the original bad boy iconoclast hero — literally pulling the cigarette from his lips forever — is particularly galling.

I’m thinking about smoke. It’s what one does while quitting. And what I’m thinking is that I miss it. Not the smoke itself, of course. The smoke itself is no more enjoyable now than it was the first time I choked on a lung full at the age of eight (don’t worry, I didn’t start smoking that young. I had asked my mother if I could take a drag on her cigarette and she — wisely — said, “Sure.” I did, almost vomited, and didn’t touch another cigarette for almost 20 years…). It’s enjoyable in the same way that the burning poisonous taste of liquor is enjoyable, which is to say: not much. No one really enjoys the medium of illicit or dangerous substances. It’s about the effects, of course, but also something more.

What the public health scolds don’t get — won’t get — is that there’s more to smoking than a simple matter of addiction. In their zeal to vilify the habit they concentrate on the addictive aspects, knowing that in a country of latter-day Calvinists the thought of dependence itself is vile. As zealots would, they elide the subtle meanings that have grown up around the act of smoking that are as compelling as the stimulant effects, and far more subtle.

The Time Out
In lives that are progressively more scheduled and frantic, the time it takes to smoke a cigarette is a socially accepted (if not approved) break from expectation. A respite from doing and a chance to (re)collect your thoughts and, in a way, yourself. I once heard cigarettes described as “the exclamation points in life” and, like those grammatical signals, they tend to punctuate events: you come out of a movie and fire one up; finish making love and reach for the pack; come out of a grueling meeting and head for the elevator. What you are really doing when marking these events is taking time to think about them and what they mean. And without a cigarette in your hand you’d just look like a dope standing up against a wall and starting off into the middle distance.

The Gesture
New smokers don’t really know what to do with their cigarette between drags, so they tend to hold the butt pinched between stiff fingers like a bean gripped in the tines of a fork. The smoke they exhale is unfocused, blurry. But for experienced smokers — like Laura Prepon pictured here — a cigarette and the hand that holds it is a physical extension of their personality and mood, the smoke blown from their lips a superheated jet that can be targeted with amazing accuracy to reinforce a statement (check out any Bette Davis movie for examples — she wrote the book). Note how Prepon holds her cigarette prominently cocked to the side, her raised hand a reflection of an arched eyebrow, her thumb keeping the rhythm of her obvious impatience as it worries the nail on her ring finger. Manual eloquence.

The Read
These days, soldiers are probably the only people who don’t get scolded for smoking. The face of James Blake Miller, his gaze a million miles away and grimy sweat offset by the dangling white cigarette brought home the gravity of what Iraq does to our soldiers in a powerful way. Not long ago I was watching The Best Years of Our Lives, the classic 1946 movie that described the homecoming challenges of WW2 vets. Every man in the movie smokes. Constantly. Smoking was identical with maturity — especially the maturity of men who have faced death and, literally, soldiered on. One of the main characters is a double amputee and one of the ways he represents his independence and manhood is by being able to use the hooks that stand in for his hands to light his own cigarette. It’s not that men of that generation were any more oblivious to the health impacts of cigarettes (and booze) than this generation is — but perhaps they didn’t think as much about the future and consequences because their immediate challenges were so great.

One can’t argue with the facts about smoking, of course. And, for most of us, life’s challenges do not approach the urgency of soldiers in wartime. There is no excuse for indulging a dangerous and dirty habit. And so I’ll quit it. But some part of me — maybe the most grown up part — will miss it.

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