Thursday, December 31, 2009

Smoking 2.0

I spent a lot of my holiday break watching old movies ("The Thin Man," "Philadelphia Story," "The Big Sleep") which means I also spent a lot of time watching people smoke cigarettes. Let me say right from the beginning that I’m no fan of cigarettes. They helped kill my father. I remember finding, not long after his death, a filter from one of his Kents lying in the grass of my parents’ back yard, where he must have discarded it some time before, and where I was now doing some weeding for my mother. It was a hell of a thing to be reminded that the butts of his cigarettes were still around even after he’d gone.

And yet, is it possible to watch one of those old movies and not admire the way William Powell or Humphrey Bogart handled a cigarette? Smoking, as they did it, seemed less an activity than a gesture. There was a time when I aspired to smoke with that much style. Is there a better moment in movies than the first time we see Bogie in “Casablanca,” in his dinner jacket, dragging on a cigarette? Did these people have a talent for smoking, in the way they had a talent for acting? (Or was their smoking part of the act?) Now I sometimes see people standing in the cold outside the revolving door of downtown office buildings, dragging on cigarettes. There is nothing Bogart-cool about them. They look dreary and sad. Do they just lack the talent for smoking? Maybe the surgeon general’s warning on cigarette packs should advise people against smoking unless they are film stars of the black-and-white era.

Of course, today’s smokers are standing out in the cold because we’re in a period of antismoking repression. Now, instead of smoking at the roulette table in Rick’s CafĂ©, you do it, furtively, in the alley. Is it my imagination or did public opinion swing against smoking at around the same time we all started migrating to the Internet? I ask the question because if anything has replaced smoking in bars and clubs and parties (just once I’d like to throw a classic Christmas blowout like the one in “The Thin Man”) it is playing with information technology. Instead of smoking in social situations, we text and tweet and take pictures of each other with our phones. It’s no longer enough to throw a party or attend a party or enjoy a party. The party must be commented upon, documented as it happens. Even more remarkable, the traditional responsibilities of the partygoer—talking, laughing, trying to say something smart or funny—have been outsourced to the Web. Not long ago, I was at a party where one of the guests pulled out his smart phone and began reading aloud, at no one’s urging, the latest Southeast Conference football scores. Ask yourself: What would William Powell have done?

In his book, “Cigarettes are Sublime,” Richard Klein writes that the history of “antitabagism” goes back centuries, but that the historical cycle always swings back from repression to the return of the smoker. But is it more likely that smoking will one day make a comeback, or that one day we will come to ostracize social networkers and tweeters and people who can’t put away their Blackberries even at the dinner table? Will they have to do their thing as smokers do now, furtively, in alleys?


  1. It seems to me that your analogy is missing something. Smoking was always something to do with your hands while your mind was working. Portable technology makes a social event a meta-experience (think of Walker Percy's essay about seeing the Grand Canyon vs looking at it through a camera). The best conversations I've had lately have been in restaurants over little plates of appetizers everyone was fussing with while they talked.

  2. Send some appetizers and I'll work on the analogy.

  3. We must have appetizers when we eventually have an imaginary friends get-together. Because I don't know about you, but I can be much less articulate in person.

  4. You're right, of course, about smoking being about something to do with our hands. Also, maybe, a way of inserting yourself into a context, establishing yourself as a person of the world with a claim to space. I'm thinking of the way some men, upon taking a seat at a bar to wait for friends, immediately fire up the Blackberry. It's as if they're saying, "No need for concern here, I'm a man of the world, I know how these things are done." Once they might have sent the same message by casually lighting up a smoke.

  5. I often check my cell phone when I sit down on a bench because I have a few minutes between classes. It does send a message. God forbid I should appear to be one of those old hippies who gaze at nature.