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by Richard Klein

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8223-1401-0
Publisher: Duke Univ.

Many people, deciding to quit smoking, go cold turkey; others use nicotine gum or a patch. Klein (French/Cornell), however, has taken a unique approach: the writing of this learned, elegant, and fanciful analysis of—and "elegy" for—the cigarette.

Smokers smoke not just for the nicotine, contends Klein, but also—perhaps primarily—because cigarettes offer "a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.'' By granting access to this sublimity—which the author says can transform even one's relationship to time ("cigarettes are fiery batons with which you can summon the future and conduct it'')—smoking becomes a symbolic act, a "dance'' performed between the smoker, the cigarette, and the world; furthermore, it's only by knowing this dance in all its allure that a smoker can then forsake it. Klein examines smoking's symbolic powers through a wide range of cultural references, from Sartre to Mallarmé, Bizet's Carmen, and Casablanca. Crucial to his argument is his analysis of the first chapter of Italo Svevo's 1923 novel, The Confessions of Zeno, in which the narrator recalls his life as a series of health-oriented resolutions to quit smoking—each resolution followed always by another cigarette. It's only when, as an old man, he realizes that he's already healthy—i.e., alive—and that smoking is just one way of life, that he quits. In fact, holds Klein, it's not the dream of health that primarily drives America's current antismoking campaigns; rather, it's moralists' censorship of cigarettes' "discursive performance,'' which hitherto has "regularly been linked to strong currents of sexual and political freedom.''

Some might find all this just a smoke screen hiding addiction's raw grip—but, even so, it's a lovely one, full of delightful whirls of logic and puffs of insight; moreover, Klein claims that the writing of it has allowed him to quit, "definitively.''