But even more innocuous or less emotionally charged occasions require buffering. Consider a gathering of friends who have met to discuss or gossip about anything at all. The event must take place, as it were, inadvertently: it must appear extemporaneous, the expression of the moment, off-handed, improvised, if the atmosphere is not to become oppressively solemn and even chillingly official. Smoking is one of the modes of burning off earnestness. Should one of those present say to another, “Tell us a joke so we can laugh” — the universally recognized purpose of joke-telling — the one so designated finds his enthusiasm dissipating in stammers and throat-clearings. After a convivial supper my mother usually commented, “We’re having such a good time, aren’t we?” and the table froze up. Or if two friends meet and agree explicitly, “We are here to talk. Let’s begin,” silence is the inevitable result.
As Walker Percy puckishly explains in Lost in the Cosmos, “by modifying certain neurones [sic] in its central nervous system,” an organism responds “to certain signals in its environment by a behavior oriented toward other segments of the environment.” Lighting a cigarette is a way of pretending that we have met for other purposes, that is to say, we have met to smoke together though in between puffs we may, as it happens, get a little conversation in. When things get too close to the bone we exhale and stare briefly to the left. And when the essential fatuity of all our works and days becomes distressingly evident in those embarrassing intervals we are all familiar with, we light up a Lucky, shunting awareness aside with an akimbo elbow as we raise the match. Smoking allows one, so to speak, to be the designated drinker.
In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas de Quincy develops an analogous argument, recommending the dinner table as the right place to pursue an intellectual conversation or a flight of eloquence. If it so transpires, as it often does, that one’s inspiration suddenly flags, one can ward off embarrassment by passing the salt or inquiring solicitously if one’s interlocutor would not like a little more wine. Since in our time we are generally less fluent and erudite than our noble ancestors, we need considerably more help limping along in our table talk. Smoking is thus an excellent dialogic prosthesis.
Or when one sets about writing an essay on smoking, half a pack scumbles the glare of the blank, accusatory page. There are, of course, other techniques of necessary evasion. German philosopher and playwright Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotting apples, which he sniffed when inspiration faltered. Gustave Flaubert relied on his lover’s mittens and slippers, which no doubt assisted him in the composition of Madame Bovary. But smoking must be regarded as one of the most potent of parrying tactics at our disposal, indispensable insofar as it helps us keep up the illusion of the unpremeditated nature of our aspirations.
Je fume, et alors? asks French author Jean-Jacques Brochier in his book of that title. I smoke, and so? It’s an excellent question.