Smoke for your life

The object’s manifold beauty demands contemplation: admire the fearful symmetry of a Marlboro or an American Spirit. Or behold the rough-hewn candor of the simple hand-rolled cigarette, the product of a process that does not require but rather invites quiet meditation, introspection, a kind of secular prayer whose logical end is the immolation of the sacred object. The act of smoking—or the art, rather—affords the smoker the pleasure of an elevated form of ritual, one all the more pleasurable for its sheer insignificance. The smoker, unless otherwise keen to how sexy is that graceful gesture joining lips and gasper in transubstantial communion, is interested only in this quiet pleasure: small, consummately and purely beautiful from first drag to last cough, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But of course then enter nasty (not entirely unfounded) reports of smoking’s lethality: pictures of black lungs that look like putrefied string cheese, cancers too varied and painful to catalog here. (Though let’s not kid ourselves: life’s no field of daffodils neither.) But this consideration doesn’t really enter into the philosophy of Macalester’s (or, rather, its administration’s) top-down ban on smoking—or on its concomitant emphasis (to say more politely “force-feeding its students like geese destined to be foie gras”) on employability, attaining marketable skills, licking boots to get a job and pretending to like it, etc. Digressions aside, let me be blunt (cough): Macalester doesn’t want you, reader and potential lifestyle tobacco smoker, to have too much control over your image or philosophy while you reside here.

Physical pain and yellow (marvelous color) teeth notwithstanding, smoking is a pretty good deal, aesthetically speaking: even the possessors of virgin-pure lungs agree. (How many smokers do you think aren’t getting laid? How many are getting laid as I write this and you read it? I shudder to think.) And the ritual beauty of the act, repetitive but improvisational, evolves a currently endangered culture around this aesthetic, a culture whose ethos privileges conversation over the solipsistic advertising of oneself on, for example, LinkedIn, a culture in which people can revel in their shared mortality (a shameful fact apparently), bearing their addictive souls to one another rather than wallowing alone in self-hatred brought on by the inclinations to excess and self-destruction we all have. It’s also no coincidence that smokers, whose pocketbooks have suffered blows because of exorbitant tobacco prices, are generous almost to a fault with their coffin nails; in the same way that the surrealists banded over wanting to breastfeed way past the time when they should have, the cigarette as a form has spawned a heterogeneous movement with chapters the world over.

One forgets at times, though, being immersed in an environment that so often tends toward moral relativism (a refreshing quality of the Mac student body), that every institutional arrangement packs an ideological punch full of compromises and contradictions with the school’s purported mission (multiculturalism, like the old British sign: no dogs, no Irish, no smokers). Here, we’re allowed LinkedIn photo booths to help us cultivate business chic; we’re encouraged by professors to shine at networking events and job fairs, where selling a barren idea of yourself and your passions is a must. These all seem to me symptoms of the predominance of a certain kind of appearance, one wholly distinct from that associated with tobacco-smoking, which is an appearance with decidedly less liberal ideological baggage, given its disregard for the healthy sanctity of the stable subject, homo oeconomicus, or what have you. Macalester, to an extent reasonable in its decision, has opted and will continue to promulgate the professionalized appearance that garners for students job prospects in the liberal global market, regardless of the moral or ethical qualms that this might present.

Part of Mac’s objection to the presence of smokers is, I believe, tied to this institutional desire to create neutral space on campus in favor of a utilitarian aesthetic best exemplified by LinkedIn photos and handsome finance majors zipping busily to their next class on the sublime art of the deal. The laziness of the smoker, one of his prime virtues and an under-appreciated talent in this epoch of hyperactivity both virtual and not, necessitates an institutional response. Public space—for instance, the courtyard in front of Humanities—is vanishing; the town square is on the out. We’ve gotten the message: idling is not an acceptable activity on this billion-dollar campus; lay-abouts and smokers need not apply.