239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

The penis – or Phallus – is a symbol of fertility, good luck and the world of nature. But the Penis Tree is something completely different. In medieval murals and books one can find depictions of ‘innocent’ nuns plucking the ripe fruits of the penis tree and putting them in a basket. In another image, a man hands over his penis to the nuns, coupled with donkeys riding baskets full of penises to the monastery.

The images above originate from Roman de la Rose, a manuscript drawn by the French medieval artist Jeanne de Montbaston. The Roman de la Rose is a poem, an allegorical reflection on love with the ‘rose’ of the title symbolising female sexuality

Following this is an image of a mural in Italy where citizens are shown standing below a Penis Tree. At first glance, the Massa Maritima mural looks like any other mural of its time. But a closer look reveals that the branches carry a dozen penises. This tree has nothing to do with fertility but is a considered piece of political propaganda. It’s a message from the Guelphs telling that if the Ghibelines take the power they will bring witchcraft with them.

It appears that the penis tree is still a beloved subject. For example this overexcited woman. Touching the Penis Tree with one hand, the other hand is still searching for grip to another penis-shaped root. Is she pretending to be the nun, trying to get a grip on the ripe penis fruit to put them in a basket?

The wind blows over the grey lands between the villages of eastern Turkey, spreading both sand and stories throughout. Time and time again, the tale of the boy is told – his name changes with each rendition – blinded by his love for the woman with the black pearly eyes and hair black as soot and his journey to try and find her.

He's doomed to travel the endless barren planes as a blind man. In some versions of the story they’re reunited but their fiery love is set ablaze and their burning passion leads to their demise. The Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman has collected these stories of old and translated them into images, into black and white photos.

Recent times have ushered in new stories. Between around 1960 and 1980, there was no television or radio in the villages of eastern Turkey. Via visitors stopping in for a cup of tea they heard of the American and Russian plans to travel to the moon.

The younger inhabitants of the villages who believed in the technical possibilities of the new era were fascinated by this unheard of notion. To the moon... that sounded like a great adventure. Wanting to head to the moon themselves, they used the mosque tower – that way they’d be sure of God’s assistance – and built it into a rocket. They left on this mosque rocket but never returned from their journey. According to some villagers, this means they truly made it to the moon, but the last word on the matter still hasn’t been spoken.

Going abroad is full of new encounters, customs, and traditions. One unavoidable encounter with the unknown resides in the bathroom: the foreign toilet. Anyone who’s ever been to Japan, for example, will immediately understand how heeding the call of nature can turn into an adventure. There, the more upscale toilets are entirely automated, with the luxury models offering more features.

The simplest versions include a jet stream of water pointed towards your nether regions (strength and aim adjustable) and a drying function to finish off the job. In the more advanced models, you’ll find a button that imitates the sound of a toilet flushing, the solution to the excess of water wasted because the Japanese kept flushing to mask the sounds of bodily functions. The strangest of the Japanese electric toilets I encountered included a remote control. I’m still not entirely sure in what situation you would find it necessary to entrust the power to spray and blow dry your privates to another person standing metres away.

Slavoj Zizek finds his own examples of the cultural codes inherent within an object as banal and mundane as the porcelain throne:

In a traditional German toilet, the hole in which shit disappears after we flush water is way up front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff at and inspect for any illness; in the typical French toilet the hole is far to the back, so that shit may disappear as soon as possible; finally, the American toilet presents a kind of synthesis, a mediation between these two opposed poles – the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that, in the famous discussion of different European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that ‘German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.’ It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to the clearly unpleasant excrement that comes from within our body is clearly discernable in it.

Zizek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006

Edited by James Walton

In ancient times, when the land was barren, the Great Spirit sent a beautiful, naked girl to save humanity. Wherever her right hand touched the earth, there grew potatoes. Wherever her left hand touched the earth there grew corn. And in the place where she sat, there grew tobacco.

Huron myth


Introduction xi

Prologue: The Way We Smoke Now

PART ONE The History of Smoking

1 The First Accounts 17

2 Arrival in Europe to Global Domination 23

3 Sneezing for Pleasure: the Rise of Snuff 49

4 The Return of Smoking - and Cigarettes Debates 58

5 The All-Conquering Cigarette 75

6 'Has Mankind All These Years Been Nursing a Viper in Its Bosom?' 89

7 Armageddon Time 105

PART TWO Smoking Themes

8 Women and Smoking 141

9 Smokers v. Non-Smokers 162

10 The True Smoker; or, The Hopeless Addict 173

11 Writing and Smoking 184

12 Smoking, Prison and Prison Camps 199

13 Soldiers and Smoking 204

14 Smoking Sex and Seduction 213

15 giving, Receiving, Bonding 222

16 All in the Mind: Smoking and Thinking 228

17 Young Smokers 242

18 A Packet of Twenty 247

Poisoning Cats - Self-rationing - The Speed of Modern Life - Smoking Under Siege - Smoking and Diplomacy - Smoking and the Germans - Smoking and the Burmese - The Pipe as Companion - Favorite Brands - Smoking Etiquette - Smoking Snobbery - The Poor Man's Friend - Smoking Myths - Some Distinctive Smokers (in Raymond Chandler) - Smoking and Sport - Tobacco, Taxes and Smuggling - Tobacco as Currency - The First Smokers - The Last Smoke - The Future

19 Giving Up 286

20 A Final Mixed Bag 316

Acknowledgments 325

Index 329

Publisher Faber and Faber

Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1945)
Shirley Mac Laine in Irma la Douce (1963)
Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)

Before Richard Klein, professor of French in New York could quit smoking, he first needed to investigate the reasons for his addiction. In his book, Cigarettes are Sublime, he writes about the cigarette as a glorious acceleration towards death and finds support for his argument through film and literature.

The most beautiful encasing of tobacco is the handwritten letter.

At the start of the last century, French author Theophile Gautier travelled to a far corner of Spain where, not only were cigarettes packaged in a wild array of colours, he found that the cigarettes themselves were made from a multitude of coloured paper. The paper, dyed by the liquorice flavouring, must have been cut from highly personal letters. As Gautier examined each separate cigarette, he realised he was looking at fragments of declarations of love, business quarrels, confessions, pleas-- the tobacco was rolled in life itself.

The reader then sets fire to the story. He watches the cut up histories curl, crinkle and disappear and with that primitive cigarette, thinks of Greek statues or the Boroboedor, or of other white and grey depictions that once were coloured brightly.

Thirty years after Gautier found the letter-wrapped tobacco in that far corner of Spain, Brassaï stands behind a Rolleiflex perched atop a tripod at the Rue St. Jacques in Paris. He gazes into the lens while we remain unknowing of his subject. Not far off, another camera stands before another photographer who catches him in this sombre state.

A cigarette hangs from his mouth, long, exceptionally fat and extremely white against the darkness. You wouldn't think it anything special, if Brassaï hadn't appointed a caption to the image that transforms the cigarette into the main character.

"A Gauloise is for a certain lighting, and a Boyard for when it's dark," he says, without revealing which of the two it was.

The darkness in the picture conjures the suspicion that it was most likely a Boyard. With its 10,5 mm diameter, it was slower to burn than the Gauloise, 8,7 millimeters white. For Brassaï, the cigarette was not only a stimulant, but he also used it to measure the time of exposure for certain recordings.

Four years before Brassaï smoked that cigarette, Erich Maria Remarque wrote that on the battlefield, cigarettes and cigars were handed out as the hour of battle was near. Sucking air into the lungs decreases the fear of dying. Nicotine enters the blood, the pulse raises, the pressure of the arteries increases. The smoker feels that every new cigarettes changes something in him. Despite revelling in the enjoyment of his smoke, he’ll remain somehow conscious of a danger he simultaneously denies, a menace he willingly allows to enter his body.

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)

It’s exactly for this reason that smoking has a purpose during war. The soldier’s fear is amorphous, because the enemy is hidden. There is no precision to his fear. He lights a cigarette, and the area of threat around him is tempered to his hand, his lips, his mouth, his lungs. You could compare it to a man afraid of open spaces; he runs across a wide, long bridge and sticks a needle in the palm of his hand. By this action, his surroundings focalise to that one pinprick in his skin, and before he knows it, he’s on the other side.

The tobacco wrapped in words, the Boyard as a meter of time, and the rollies that shroud the threat of the enemy are just a few of Richard Klein’s examples in Cigarettes are Sublime. The book makes one think of different coloured paper, all rolled up into one big ball. However you approach it, no colour is favoured. It’s infused with stories, confessions, and reflections that attempt to remove the permanent air of doom inherent in the cigarette.

Klein’s book is a paradoxical praise to the cigarette. Upon finishing his book, the poet of nicotine quits, perhaps for good. Not because of any physical complaints, or because he agrees with the American Ministry of Health’s plans to prohibit smoking in as many public places as possible. Klein is wary of a nation that attaches labels of warning on cigarette packets, limits the advertising of tobacco, but at the same time subsidises tobacco farmers. In 1992, the USA’s tobacco export amassed to 3,7 billion dollars.

Richard Klein teaches French at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. His age is never mentioned, but he’s most likely just over fifty, “closer to the end of my career than to the start.” Cigarettes are Sublime is his first, and probably his last book, which he wrote because he refused to simply quit smoking. He first wanted to understand the many reasons for his addiction before giving it up.

The eternal final cigarette held by Zeno’s Consciousness’s hero held until his death does little to dissuade Klein. While reading Italo Svevo’s analysis of the fallacy and self-deception of smoking, he became aware that smoking is not only harmful, but can also be seen as a moment of reflection, a choreography that seduces the fingers over and over again.

To Klein, Zeno became a dandy who preferred the daily struggles with smoking above society’s ridiculous issues. It was in his footsteps that this professor of philosophy decided to appoint the lead role in his book to the cigarette. Instead of choosing to write a novel or a story, he opted to write a reflection and tried to look for images that portray just how deeply the cigarette is anchored in existence.

Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1945)

America might soon ban Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, the disguised anti-axis resistance film, because every character but Ingrid Bergman smokes. The movie’s hero, Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, half covers his face with his cigarettes as though, according to Klein, he has a secret to hide.

Although his own struggle with smoking is never explicitly mentioned, Klein’s dilemma is what grants his book its power. The continuing, the stopping, this one will be the last, oh, why should it, it could also be the second last, I could stop tomorrow, or next week, next year—the half-hidden repetitive doubt of one who wants to quit seeps through every image.

Cigarettes are Sublime is a drama in the form of a philosophical reflection: Carmen, Casablanca, l’ Être et le Néant; however precociously Klein dissects these works, their first purpose remains to illustrate his irresistible pleasure in smoking.

He quotes Theodore de Banville, who found the cigarette to be the most demanding of his mistresses. The cigarette allows for no other love, the passion is absolute, all-encompassing. Later on, Klein refers to smoking as the decrepit enchantment of risk, suspicion and shame.

It’s precisely that, according to Klein, that makes a cigarette so very seductive. After all, a mountainous landscape is most beautiful when viewed from the edge of a cliff. He suspects that the artists he uses to support his claims would never have created their best works if they had quit smoking. His arguments are completely romantic. Each drag of a cigarette is a glorious advancement towards death. Life is attributed its value by the risks that might shorten it. In his self-conflict he continuously reverts to the lyrical—describing how in Casablanca, a waiter brings out two glasses of champagne. A soldier inhales deeply, exhales, inhales and for a few moments, the entire screen is filled with an extraordinary cloud of the finest grey, floating above the crystal, the glasses themselves seem to smoke, catching all the light of the café.

Klein refers to this short occurrence as an epiphany, a moment of victory. From this moment, Cigarettes are Sublime takes off. Klein’s territory lies in those small gestures made for the sake of smoking that are otherwise left unexplored. A cigarette shaken out of a package, slid in between lips, the lighting of a match, inhaling and exhaling; moments that go unnoticed, negligible movements that precede an actual event.

Klein doesn’t see it that way. With every new cigarette it’s as though the luxuriously nonchalant smoker marks a moment in ever-expanding time. Call it a doubling of time, if you will. The work, or whatever it is that must be executed, continues while simultaneously in an intricate collaboration with tobacco, fire, smoke, hand, ash, lungs, mouth—a number of minutes lacking any sort of narrative are exalted and are untouchable.

Alfred Hitchcock’s light-hearted comedy, To Catch a Thief from 1955, isn’t named in the book. Still, there’s a scene that epitomizes Cigarettes are Sublime that in today’s world, where tobacco is met with great distrust, would never be shown.

Actresses Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly play a wealthy mother and daughter who become embroiled in a tale of crime with the suave criminal Gary Grant. The two women are at breakfast in an overtly opulent hotel room.

Landis speaks. While her toast and omelette sit before her, she lights a filter cigarette and starts an excited monologue explaining the latest events. To bring her point across she gesticulates, waving her hands through the veil of smoke, or as Klein would say, through the image of thoughts.

As she finishes speaking, she points her cigarette downwards and sticks it firmly into the untouched yolk. It’s the punctuation after the last sentence. The fire douses with a hiss in the breaking yellow of the inner core.

Shirley Mac Laine in Irma la Douce (1963)