A Taste for Rebellion

Posted: February 7, 2018 in Uncategorized

Student: How Is Addiction Related To Freedom?

The Cigarette’s Powerful Cultural Allure
January 11, 2014
NPR Weekend Edition (4 min 41 sec)

Nearly 20 percent of Americans still smoke, in spite of what we know about the dangers. Part of the reason is the allure of a cigarette, so elemental to classic scenes in movies, television shows and books. NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with Richard Klein, author of Cigarettes are Sublime, about smoking and American culture.


Klein Cigarettes Sublime

From Duke University Press

Cigarettes are bad for you; that is why they are so good. With its origins in the author’s urgent desire to stop smoking, Cigarettes Are Sublime offers a provocative look at the literary, philosophical, and cultural history of smoking. Richard Klein focuses on the dark beauty, negative pleasures, and exacting benefits attached to tobacco use and to cigarettes in particular. His appreciation of paradox and playful use of hyperbole lead the way on this aptly ambivalent romp through the cigarette in war, movies (the “Humphrey Bogart cigarette”), literature, poetry, and the reflections of Sartre to show that cigarettes are a mixed blessing, precisely sublime.

About The Author

Richard Klein is Professor of French at Cornell University and editor of Diacritics. He quit smoking while writing Cigarettes Are Sublime and has been nicotine-free ever since.

SAS underline

To name a sensibility [i.e., a taste, a mode of life], to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

–Susan Sontag

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  1. Andrew Mangold says:

    I like the use of the word “pastime” when describing smoking in America. Smoking appears to be more than a fad or sign of the times. It is an establishment, in a way similar to gambling that it is shunned by the majority of society yet still practiced. I agree that smoking continues to be practiced by fewer and fewer people most likely due to greater awareness of the negative side effects. But my parents generation grew up in a time where high school and college campuses were heavily concentrated with smokers. So American culture is really only a few decades into smoking being extremely frowned upon but even that may not be true with the emergence of e-cigarettes and a variety of similar products.

    • I remember sitting in college classrooms where there was still an ashtray installed in each students desk. It seems unthinkable today, and yet that was only a few decades ago. Much has changed since then. Tobacco use is now highly stigmatized, especially on campuses. Still, just because smoking is “out” now, that hardly indicates that is won’t make a comeback. The very fact that it’s stigmatized only adds to its mystique.

      If you read Richard Klein’s very unformed, smart, and fascinating book, you’ll see he asserts that the more smoking is prohibited, the more persons are likely to take it up. For Klein, it’s the very prohibition which is the condition of addiction. Apparently, there is something in us which quietly but incessantly craves the negative. There is really very little positively appealing about the taste and smell of cigarettes, but, oddly, this may be the very reason so many persons routinely light them up. Smoking takes the nothingness as the core of our being and fill it with something that makes it palpable, tastable, smellable. Smoking even has a sound, the crackling sound of fire. This need to approach the void, if only indirectly through a dangerous but sensuous habit, is clearly linked to twentieth-century European philosophy; in particular, existentialism. If you think back to Rosenberg, you will detect strains of these ideas in his discussion of American Action Painters. Also, you will discover similar concepts in our next author, Leo Steinberg, though utilized in a different manner. Finally, it may help to know that Steinberg was a notoriously heavy smoker. A beloved teacher, he would only lecture in rooms which could accommodate his habit. Knowing this may help to make reading him a little easier and more intriguing. Key passages in his text immediately come to mind.

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