An Experiment in Non-Smoking (III): Reading THE SMOKING BOOK

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been immersed in the pages of Lesley Stern’s The Smoking Book. I had already read a few essays of this book, but I put it on hold (as one may do with a cigarette), to be read (to be smoked) later. To put on hold: to relish the pleasure of anticipation and deferral …  

For those of you who don’t know it, this blog is named after a lyric from David Bowie’s album Outside. In fact, there are many references to his lyrics in my texts, not because I want to put them there, but because they, out of habit, make (their way into) my writing.  

David Bowie (“Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth …”) makes a stellar appearance in The Smoking Book. In Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983), playing a war prisoner about to become ashes to ashes, Bowie mimes the act of having a last cigarette. In Stern’s story, the narrator’s cigarette is put on hold (…) and the description of Bowie’s enactment (already a ghost of the real act) operates as the substitute of her own smoking:

My hand reaches out for the pack and starts shaking a cigarette loose, but your fingers close around my wrist, and you whisper, “Wait.”

He inhales deeply, luxuriously, you can feel the nicotine spreading through his being. And then he exhales, running his tongue over his lips, tasting, catching a stray strand of tobacco. He savors that cigarette. When it is almost finished he throws it to the ground – cut to a high-angle medium shot of his boot stepping on the imaginary stub. Then he moves off, out of frame.

After the movie is over we make love, smoke a cigarette together, inhaling before the altar of the television, giving thanks that we are not in prison. Lulled by the fumes we doze, the pack of Camels on the bedside table, within reach, like a precious gem.

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1943), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995), Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), Mirage (Edward Dmytryk, 1965), Earth Girls Are Easy (Julien Temple, 1989) …  Cinema rises up and, like smoke, slips through the pages of this book.

In “Strange Attractors”, Stern puts in motion a metamorphosis whose violence is worthy of a David Lynch film: the image of the narrator, setting “fire to a field of words” and lighting up like Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is suddenly displaced by that of Lucille Ball in an episode of the sitcom I Love Lucy, canned laughs included. From tragedy to parody, one thing leads to another: She has a sense, even in this moment of transcendence, of something out of sync, as though she’s miscalculated, got the timing wrong, overdosed publicly on that most terrible and banal of drugs – the self.”

“Instead of a Lobotomy (a cigarette)”, one of my favourite film-related essays, revolves around Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer(1959). Here, Stern unravels the relations between horror, cigarettes and storytelling, while positing the crucial role played by smoke in this circuitry:

Most horror movies are propelled by a singular question: why is this happening, why the madness and the horror, oh the horror? The best answer is given by Wes Craven’s New Nightmare: this is what happens when stories die. Yet paradoxically, the horror unleashed when people allow stories to die (when they forget) can only be apprehended through a form of storytelling, through the horror movie itself. Just like the cigarette. When you give up smoking (involuntarily like Liz Taylor, or voluntarily – I suppose – like me) stories die: you go mad or you can no longer write, you are bereft of memories transformable into stories. Yet paradoxically, when you give up smoking all you can do is tell horror stories – tell stories, that is, of the horror induced by nicotine deprivation.

[…] In Suddenly, Last Summer there is no concept of the unconscious and no such thing as involuntary memory. The cigarette precedes the truth drug, and in this metonymic chain is primarily a device. Ultimately, though, it is not the cigarette itself that is vital to the circuitry but something less tangible, more persistent and pervasive. It is the smoke that matters, it is the smoke that swirls like the unconscious, that sets the scene for storytelling, that lingers as an afterimage. As when Orson Welles uses his cigarettes to seduce, blows smoke out over the world of the film as a prelude to his story of the sharks. He tells his story without the aid of a cigarette, but smoke from earlier in the film lingers, filtering the words and images.  

The Smoking Book traces connections everywhere across its essays. Memories and places are summoned; characters and ideas re-appear; fetishes are replaced by other fetishes; threads are lost and found and lost again; chains of thought swirl like smoke rings. “It is only through a serial meandering of substitutions and transformations that we survive desire, that desire survives.”

The above quote belongs to “To Forget”, which comes right after “To Remember”, as if propelled by its last sentence. There’s the talking cure and the writing cure; there’s metaphor and metonymy. Life is sometimes reduced to a series of movements: suspension, falling, unspooling, spining … Smoking triggers landscapes with hazy titles that mirror each other: “Fog Drinking”, “Life-giving Mist”. Flames are all around us: “Lighting up”, “Fire Escape”, “Burnout”, “A Smoky Edifice (Implosion)”. In this last-named essay, Stern gives us a unique X-ray image of the smoker’s body – a boneless architecture held together by nicotine:

Not a Cartesian body, to be drawn and quartered, balanced by weights and measures. I imagine skeins of nicotine, sinuous threads of smoke woven through this matter, holding it all together. Organs infiltrated and protected. See the lungs as crocheted intricately, matter folded, padded with layerings of tar, every tissue permeated by a mystery silkiness. This matter that is the body exists as an elaborate crenellation, resilient, pliant. Like wrought-iron lacework, this twirling smoky edifice is strong, able to bear any amount of stress. […]

My body, over long years of smoking, has endured, built up an immunity. All this random messy matter coheres, is held together by spindly threads and tensile towers of nicotine. Now this iron lacework is falling into tatters.

The sinuous veins, muscles, nerves are crumbling, slowly, into ash. Deprived of nicotine, the body begins a slow implosion, and so begins the coughing up, spitting out, throwing up.  

Several times this week, I’ve wanted to write, but I’ve waited. I’ve waited and I’ve read, instead, the pages of this book, mostly at night, to find my days either foreshadowed or recounted like in a tale. To find myself “on the stage”, to find my memories in bits and pieces (“to remember: to dismember, to find yourself in fragments”) … The Smoking Book has been making itself a place in my “meandering of substitutions and transformations”. So many paths and paradoxes sketched, so many affinities and identifications triggered, so many familiar states evoked…

But, above all, such an intricate threading of lines, burning lines, with its trails of smoke, ashes and embers. A manic exploration of the relations between writing and smoking (and non-writing and non-smoking) – essay after essay, spark against spark.

Today, when I can barely write a word that makes sense, I read this book that writes for me. And I console myself thinking that I may be its best audience:

Burrowing into the mire of melancholic masochism, you comfort yourself: ah well, if it all gets too bad, there’s always a way out – I can always kill myself. Then, as you inhale this thought – feel it fill your lungs and filter through your nerves and arteries, and breathe it out as smoke – it registers in your being as, precisely, a thought. And you think, this is why Artaud thinks of suicide as an impossibility: because it involves a kind of voluntarism. The only kind of suicide that makes sense to him, he says, is “an anterior state of suicide, a suicide that would make us retrace our steps on the yonder side of existence rather than the side of death.” He feels “no hunger for death”: “I simply hunger not to be, never to have dropped into this sink of imbecilities, abdications, renunciations, and obtuse contacts.”

This involuntary recall intimates, paradoxically, the possibility of a kind of cure through immersion. You might call it smoking Artaud.

You have smoked your way out of the black hole. Or, to look at it differently: You smoked your way into the black hole, and Artaud smoked you out.

—”I Done A Lotta Bad Things”

There’s a genre of which I partake – the writing-through-addiction genre. Writing as enabled by addiction; and its obverse: writing through it as in a thriller, driving through a roadblock, coming out the other side. This genre is destined to be diaristic, tediously personal, acutely experiential. This is the voice that voices vice. A voice that resonates the sensory, years of roll-your-own and scotch, throaty, self-indulgent, writing the blues. A conventional voice. Roll your own: you’ve made your bed, now lie on it. But I don’t want to sleep alone. And so I must write for someone else. I write to elicit recognition, for the pleasure of sharing the illicit. Though you’re all alone when you go through it (it’s not called withdrawal for nothing), paradoxically it’s an unutterably common, profoundly cultural experience. Unvoiced, though. Somatized as eccentricity. Those repressed gestures of the voice emerge as temperamental snarls, idiosyncratic whines, and murderously solipsistic mutterings. To engender a voice – gravelly, generically traced by its own dissolution: this is to not-give-up.


Something curious is happening. Writing is now a guarantee of not-smoking just as smoking, once upon a time, was a guarantee of writing. Both guarantees (as forms of insurance, fetishistically contractual) are neurotic, symptomatic of obsession.

Yet to say this, write this, does nothing to alleviate the terror of not-smoking, its association with not-writing.

Writing per se? Perhaps, but then again … I’ve become attached to this particular tract. Attachment literalized, I’m in traction, my body’s breath is drawn along the surface of the page, everything is surface, an absence of verso. I am written into this writing. A new addiction, compelling, all-consuming. Through a process of reversal it’s become a way of avoiding smoking – but more significant than this, it’s become a deviously ironic method for avoiding writing itself. That is to say: any writing other than itself.

—”A Lycanthropic Age (the writing cure)”


© Cristina Álvarez López, July 2019