An article by Rory Sutherland, doing the rounds on Facebook, makes the point that people who smoke are always the most interesting. He names Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Bach, Beethoven and Milton as proof that lighting up contributes to creativity. Having a smoke, he says, provides a period of detached, abstract thought; the occasional silence in a companionable smoke keeps conversational banality at bay; and frankly, it helps you work. (All of this gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling that I was downright indignant to realise that Sutherland is merely an ex-smoker hawking the virtues of e-cigarettes.)
In any case, I disagree. His thesis might be true of people who smoke mind-altering substances—that committed charasi Lord Shiva being a case in point—but in any case I’m not one of those people, seeing as how the first time I tried a mind-altering substance, I rushed out of the room into a snowstorm, yelling, ‘It’s so hot I’m going to die’, and then fainted clean away; and the second time I stared at a treetop for four hours, and don’t recall anyone congratulating me on my brilliant conversation.
But we’re talking about people who smoke tobacco, which is vertiginously lower down on the smart scale. I smoke tobacco. (In politically correct language, I “use tobacco”, which is the technical term for “am a disgusting, helpless junkie”.) I can tell you that there is absolutely nothing interesting about tobacco except for its power to make you want more tobacco. Not having it makes you irritable. Having it makes your breath smell like a week-old corpse in a sewer. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and anti-social, and it makes your fingernails turn yellow. And that’s just the healthy part. All smokers graciously concede that it’s just really gross.
I find smoking much more useful as a tool for procrastination and breaking ice with a stranger—Sutherland gestures towards the enthusiastic compassion that smokers display for each others’ addiction—than for kick-starting any creative juices. But smoking is not just good for instant lovefests between social lepers. There is also the nuanced splendour of the many kinds of smokes you can have.
Besides the post-prandial smoke, which works best after strong flavours like onion and pickle, there is the solitary reflective smoke, which burns down to your fingertips before you realise you’re still holding it. There’s the rainy smoke, the glowing tip of which warms you up on an inclement evening. There’s the heartbroken smoke, trailing melancholy plumes as you wipe your eyes with helpless, inarticulate gestures; the angry smoke, which makes snappy sound as you suck the living marrow out of whatever got you mad.
There’s the transit smoke, which shortens the layover between flights and trains; and the five-minutes-of-dead-time smoke as you wait for the cashier to fix the card machine, or the appointment to show up, or the cinema hall to open its doors. There’s the fitness smoke that immediately follows a bout of good immortality-boosting exercise. (This one might be my favourite.) And then there’s the post-coital smoke, in which nicotine bonds with endorphins to make you laugh about the fact that the bed is on fire. In other words, smoking is like a musical instrument through which to express the whole gamut of human emotion.
Of course you shouldn’t smoke—it’s the leading cause of preventable death in the world. But then again, the leading cause of death is life. I’m going to go think about that over the contemplative, remorseful smoke.