“You must have a cigarette.” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. “A cigarette is a perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”
Wilde’s epigram probably didn’t raise any eyebrows when it was written back in 1890—at least not as much as the accusations that Wilde was sodomizing young men did five years later.
What was once deemed a “crime of gross indecency” is now celebrated with state-funded parades and advertising campaigns, and what was once deemed a fashionable vice is now demonized by laws, popular culture, and state-funded advertising campaigns.
Wilde’s treatment of both homosexuality and the smoking of cigarettes is filled with metaphysical depth. To him, they weren’t mere matters of self-expression, personal taste, or habit. In our age, where nothing is permitted to transcend the self, we judge reality and identity by utilitarian standards rooted primarily in physical and emotional “well-being,” rather than in the call to communion or “consummation” with some kind of ultimate Being or ideal.
Our neoliberal gods command us to enshroud ourselves in the garments of complacency and self-sufficiency. Cursed are those who dare ask “Is this all there is?”, who peer beyond the curtain and gaze upon the chaotic forces of nature that are beyond our control. Let them be anathema. Love is love. And death—death is to be hidden, like all of the other tendentious forces that threaten the cult of respectability and comfort.
The impulse to ban cigarettes is rooted in the bourgeois determination to deny that humans are anything other than self-sufficient, autonomous beings that can control their own wills and the entire universe, by that measure. If only they try hard enough and believe in themselves.
We allow for the use of all kinds of medicinal mind-altering agents to distract us from the drama of existence–provided we are willing to patronize the pharmacological industrial complex to gain access to them. Much unlike something as easily accessible as a cigarette, which itself is a symbol of the finitude of our existence and the destructive side of our drive for pleasure. It’s the “perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied”—quite like sex.
“Cigarettes,” writes the philosopher Michael P. Foley, “correspond to the appetitive part of the soul.” The inhalation of tobacco smoke, like sex, tries to make the object of desire “as much a part of [one’s] own body as possible.”
As the French say, the moment of climax is a petite mort, a small death. Thus the tie of both the gratification of a nicotine buzz and the afterglow of an orgasm to death: “both are indifferent to health in their quest for satisfaction, and both, when they reach addictive levels, become hostile to it,” Foley claims, hinting at Freud’s insistence on the connection between the erotic drive and death.
He continues to draw a parallel between the campaigns for safe sex and banning smoking, stating,
in recent years we have witnessed a concerted effort to sterilize our erotic attachments, to sap them of their danger but also of their vigor…Instead of ‘lover’ and ‘beloved,’ we now have ‘significant other’ and, even worse, ‘partner’ (a term which lends to the affairs of the heart all the excitement of filling out a tax form). It is no wonder that our most vigorous moral war waged today is against cigarette-smoking. Nor is it any wonder that this war’s only rival in intensity is the one in favor of ‘safe sex,’ for condoms sterilize sex not only literally but figuratively as well.
This flat, bourgeois cult of respectability and safety, the aversion to risk and unpredictability, is hardly sustainable outside suburban and elite urban bubbles. There’s something to be said about the moralistic glares a smoker often receives in upper-middle class neighborhoods which they are less likely to receive in working-class (especially ethnic) ones.
Heaven forbid I dare to light up while seated outdoors drinking a cappuccino at an “authentic” Italian cafe in the West Village. Forgive me for thinking I could “do as the Romans do” in lower Manhattan, where diversity is the name of the game but the ideals of elitist global-capitalism run the show. (The waitress went as far as asking me to step off the sidewalk and into the street to finish my cigarette).
Wilde once quipped that “the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” We know we are in grim times when the cult of well-being and bourgeois respectability influences the Catholic pontiff himself, who banned the sale of cigarettes in Vatican City in 2017 because “the Holy See cannot contribute to an activity that clearly damages the health of people.” (So much for various papal predecessors who smoked and used snuff.)
Camille Paglia, who “worshipped” Wilde as a child, attributes the artistic genius of homosexual men to sodomy’s metaphysical symbolism. Homosexual men dare to play with nature’s “single relentless rule”: procreation. This, according to Paglia, is what allows them to create culture. “Culture is an achievement made more in opposition to nature than in concert with it…men, lacking women’s awesome power to create life, are driven to create culture. Male homosexuality is emblematic of this whole turn toward culture.”
But Paglia is not naive. Playing with nature comes with consequences: “AIDS is a price paid for sins committed by gay men who took free love to extremes throughout the Seventies and had unrestrained, decadent, pagan sex.” Although Paglia considers herself an ardent proponent of paganism, she acknowledges that
a price must be paid…It wasn’t the Pope who was the problem. It wasn’t the struggle with old-fashioned moral codes that was the problem. It was nature. Nature said, ‘Guess what? If you’re going to be that promiscuous, I will off you.’
If Wilde were to ride the subway in New York City today, he’d likely be shocked by the turning of tables depicted in advertisements targeted toward homosexual men. The West 4th Street station is littered with ads for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), and for the “This Free Life” campaign, which aims to help homosexual youth quit smoking.
In this unsexy age, the trangressiveness of sodomy has been neutralized through the institution of “gay marriage”, trendy slogans, and rainbow-themed advertisements. The horrors of AIDS can now be avoided with PrEP, and can be treated with advanced medical technologies. And the medical (and “moral”) offensiveness of cigarettes can be regulated with stringent legislation..and those who dare to smoke can be publicly demonized.
Could a culture like ours, which is so averse to acknowledging the Freudian connection between eros and thanatos—the inconvenient reality of death itself—be capable of producing another The Picture of Dorian Gray? I surely won’t be the one to try; as Dorian himself said, “I am too fond of reading books to care to write them.”
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