If you fancy an exhibition of weird and not-so-wonderful diseases, deformities, and degenerations worthy of Embarrassing Bodies, head down to your local supermarket and buy yourself a bag of Golden Virginia. The horror shots on the package show a collage of the blood-coughing, gangrenous, impotent, and unintentionally murderous smoker. Giving up a tenner for this bag of mulch, I pop open the packet, roll it in a paper, and start sucking on the filter as its hairs catch fire. Wheezing with each puff, I stare at the cigarette and ask myself: “Why am I doing this?” I’ve bought cigs, borrowed them, thrown them away, loved them, hated them, sold them, and even popped them between the gap in my teeth for a cheap party trick—but rarely ever thought about them.
As a society we have developed a sophisticated view on some previously taboo drugs. Whilst weed used to be seen as a green demon who came for your children and tore your life apart, we’ve grown to consider that there could be potential creative, psychological and even medical benefits. Yet our judgement on cigarettes has devolved into a monochrome smear that brooks no discussion.
Nicotine’s effect as a psychoactive stimulant is a rarely touched topic, but in many cultures purer forms of the drug have played an integral role in their creative and spiritual lives. Native South American Shamans used the plant Nicotina Rustica, which contains about nine times more nicotine than common tobacco, to trigger states in which they would lose their sense of self and enter a spiritual domain. In his article investigating the rituals of Sufi Islamic Mystical sects, Sean Kenny describes a religious festival in which Sufis would whirl themselves into states of ecstasy using nicotine.
Europe’s low dosage puffing habit has given birth to its own form of creativity. Smokers tend to maintain low quantities of the drug soaked into their blood. The microdoses of nicotine stimulate the brain, whilst carbon dioxide clouds the central nervous system and suppresses over-stimulation. This state goes hand-in-hand with writing and creativity. Whilst stimulation encourages activity, the carbon haze wrapped around the nervous system discourages the mad physical drive that is created by uppers like speed that might impede productive work as the brain clicks into action. In Will Self and Gregor Hens’s armchair discussion of their book “Nicotine”, the latter claims that “Bob Dylan may not have happened without all those fags”. To this, Will Self kicks himself back into his seat and cheekily adds with a smirk: “Yeah, major cultural movements of the 20th century were powered by [cigarettes].”
On top of the chemical impacts, the process of smoking provides a psychological aid to the working creative. With technology’s constant stimulation evaporating our attention spans faster than a stress biff, smoking provides a low-key distraction to the task at hand. Writing a song transforms from a frustrating fumble trying to wring a pleasant sound out of a non-compliant instrument into a relaxed puff interspersed with running your digits over strings. In an article for the Guardian, Will Self notes the way that smoking paced his writing. Draws on a cancer stick would pace rhythmically around percussions on his laptop; the paragraph would end with the butt of his cigarette and the next stanza would begin as a new cigarette was reborn like a nicotine phoenix from the flame of a zippo lighter.
The health effects of the nicotine, additives, and tar that is taken into the smoker’s lungs is devastating. We should be fully aware of this, but it is possible to view potential evils in adult and nuanced ways. To see Christopher Hitchens quiver in his final cancer-stricken interview is a truly moving moment. Yet, a lack of remorse reverberates around his words: “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.” He truly believes that—though his death is early—he would not have been the same man, the same writer, without it. His deep voice ends the interview saying, with a degree of bitter-sweet sadness: “I have been knowingly burning the candle at both ends”, adding with a smile, “finding that it often gives a lovely light.”
Photo credit: flickr