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Ban Smoking, But Don’t Rewrite History

Alex Lo, SCMP – Jun 18, 2009

In Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, there is one of those immortaL moments about smoking in literature. A seemingly prim and prudish young woman is about to hire gumshoe Philip Marlowe for a job but, sensing the kind of man she is about to employ, she expresses her strong disapproval for alcohol and tobacco. To which Marlowe replies: “Would it be all right
if I peeled an orange?”

Today, that femme fatale would be the tobacco-banning state, and anti-smoking campaigners. Personal disapproval has become the law. As if we need reminding, the new French biopic Coco Before Chanel has left France’s advertising watchdogs fuming.

And, faster than you can ask why, their Hong Kong counterparts have joined the bandwagon. Their objection is not so much targeted at the movie, but at an offending poster, featuring actress Audrey Tautou who plays Coco and was pictured in silk pyjamas holding a cigarette. That object of scorn has now been air-brushed away in Paris and Hong Kong. Apparently, any display of a tobacco product qualifies as a tobacco ad, which is illegal in our city. So the poster is not only immoral – for promoting smoking – but potentially illegal.

That seems to go against common sense. A display of tobacco products does not automatically mean tobacco promotion; that should depend on context. But one can hardly expect politically correct campaigners to worry about context and nuance.

It was a show of independence and freedom for young sophisticated women to smoke and drink in public, and wear clothes designed by Chanel, during the Jazz Age. It was so in Paris, New York and Shanghai. Chanel herself was frequently photographed holding a cigarette. For Tautou to hold a cigarette in her role as Chanel was not artistic licence but authenticity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for anti-smoking campaigners. All things considered, a smoke-free society is better than one full of smokers. But, then again, a completely vice-free society would be a utopia; it is not a place I want to call home. Smoking causes cancer and heart diseases; it kills. Health authorities make sure smokers make this connection every time
they buy a pack complete with gruesome clinical pictures.

Somehow, I draw much pleasanter associations. I have not smoked since university, decades ago. But, while I was in college, my best friend Brady and I used to smoke everything – legal or not. That was when we learned much of western literature and philosophy would not be what they are if many of their heroes had been non-smokers.

But for a picture I spotted in a bookstore of a beautiful and intense-looking Hannah Arendt bending over a table with her hand extended, holding a cigarette, I would never have read any of her great political books.

For millions of people, smoking delights and consoles, relaxes and stimulates. Lighting up can be a privileged private moment to puncture the tedium of everyday life. They are what Arendt calls moments of being, or being-for-oneself. They can also be being-for-others, when one offers a cigarette as a show of friendship or friendliness.

French existentialism would not have taken off if its adherents had been barred from smoking in Parisian cafes, as the City of Light does now. Can you imagine a non-smoking Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus? In her old age, Arendt became a close friend of the poet W.H. Auden – two life-long compulsive smokers finding solace in each other during their twilight years. There was a classic photo of a young Auden in a suit, shoulder forward, head bent, lighting up. I am sure Arendt would still have achieved her insights into totalitarianism and much else if she had never smoked. Auden would still have written his poetry as a non-smoker – or may be not.

“Lay your sleeping head, my love
Human on my faithless arm.”

I can’t imagine a smoke-free Auden penning that classical iambic poem, seven syllables for every heartbreaking line.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post.

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