There's no smoking without philosophy

<i>The Faber Book of Smoking</i> edited by James Walton (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;17.50)
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In 1884, John Ruskin delivered a lecture entitled The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which the critic conjured up the image of a pestilential cloud enveloping Europe, obscuring forever the pure light of the Renaissance. Ruskin, unsurprisingly, was as enthusiastic an anti-smoker as an anti-modern. Through the vapour of his paranoia, we can glimpse the gloomy intimacy of smoke and modernity, a link rarely as clear in its morality as it was for Ruskin.

In 1884, John Ruskin delivered a lecture entitled The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which the critic conjured up the image of a pestilential cloud enveloping Europe, obscuring forever the pure light of the Renaissance. Ruskin, unsurprisingly, was as enthusiastic an anti-smoker as an anti-modern. Through the vapour of his paranoia, we can glimpse the gloomy intimacy of smoke and modernity, a link rarely as clear in its morality as it was for Ruskin.

The history of smoking is the history of modern ambiguity. Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) lauded "tobacco! divine, rare, super-excellent tobacco!" as a medicinal miracle which, if abused, would cause "the ruin and overthrow of body and soul". By the 19th century, ambivalence was as much a part of the discourse of smoking as sexuality for the post-Freudian 20th. In Baudelaire, the prostitute's cigarette is an index of the boredom and seduction of the modern city, while for Mallarmé a more vaporously spiritual meaning curls from the cigarette.

If the fin-de-siÿcle smoker vanishes in wreaths of uncertainty, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who clarified the metaphysics of smoking for the 20th century. The cigarette, for Sartre, is a means of possessing the world: an entire way of being is crystallised in the "little crematory sacrifice" of his chubby Boyard. For the smoker, the universe exists as something to be experienced while smoking.

Faced with the prospect of quitting, Sartre imagines the disappearance of all his daily pleasures: from food and the theatre to the very writing in which he describes the quotidian alchemy that makes his life worth living. The Sartrean smoker addresses the world with cigarette in hand; he finds in smoking his bodily attitude to existence, what John Updike calls "the airy pluming gesturingness of it all".

It's tempting to follow this philosophical line of thought when faced with the most fascinating fragments of James Walton's anthology. Predictably, there's much eye-watering kitsch here, courtesy of the whimsical likes of JM Barrie and Helen Fielding, while Walton's own commentary is a little too chatty. At its best, though, this book gives us the gleefully determined smoker (Mark Twain: "I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals") and the solidly humane (Thackeray: "It generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent and unaffected.") as well as a whiff of the long tradition of "anti-tabagism".

Of the latter tendency are Tolstoy (shrouding his own failure to quit in moralism) and James I, whose Counterblaste to Tobacco finds the unfortunate monarch, unlucky enough to reign over smoking's first puff of fashion, choking on the "horrible stygian pit that is bottomless". Walton misses the moment in Donne's Satires at which the poet meets a malodorous smoker ("may be you smell him not, truly I do"), and while we get a passage from Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, we lose the most poignant words in his description of the hapless Gordon Comstock: "bored in advance by tomorrow's tobaccoless hours".

In an essay on the death of Roland Barthes, Italo Calvino recalls meeting his friend strolling along a Paris street, a cigarette dangling from his lips "in the manner of those who were young before the war". If the clogged, tarry story of tobacco has contributed anything valuable to the history of the last four centuries, it is this foggy notion of the cigarette as a marker of time.

The smoking habits of our ancestors are as much a part of their faded oddity as the extravagance of their hats and the strictures of their underwear. While the fashions of a vanished era show how it might have negotiated its social space, smoking is (or was) the modern means of experiencing time: a way of briefly opting out of a tedious job, or accompanying the rhythms of work and thought with a glowing rosary. It is a measure of the importance of smoking to modernity's twin tyranny over labour and time that Marx was moved to lament: " Das Kapital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked while writing it."

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