The Eternal Question – Why Smoke?

Many of you who regularly read my posts will know of my fascination with the history of pipe smoking. I have been fortunate once again to unearth an essay written in the mid 1960s regarding the question of why we smoke, that in large part is still relevant today. As always please let me know your thoughts…

WHY SMOKE?

No one really knows why, though theories are as abundant as the number of brands of cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobaccos on the market. It may be safely said, however, that the majority of smokers smoke because they enjoy it.

Motivational studies, reports on the personality factors that characterise the smoker, essays on the psychosocial, behavioral, and other aspects of smoking have engendered controversies as confusing as those about life on mars and the origins of the universe! Public Health Service Publication No. 1103, the infamous ‘Surgeon General’s Report, Smoking and Health’ contends that while many investigators have attempted to define the smoker’s personality, such a definition “. . . has not emerged from the results so far published in literature.” One positive conclusion offered by the Surgeon General’s report however is that stress seems to be related to smoking, as it is to a score of other habits. The report claims that “there is additional evidence that the experience of stressful situations contributes to the beginning of the habit, to its continuation and to the (amount) consumed.” Following a cautious discussion of the possible relation between stress and tension on the one hand, and smoking behaviour on the other, the report poses the troublesome questions: “Is smoking merely an expression of tension, or does it serve as a reducer of psychic tension?” and “. . . would tension actually be less while smoking . . . than while not doing so?”

Of more direct interest to the pipe smoker however are some of the studies described by the report. Almost without exception, they tend to paint a flattering picture of the pipester. One study found that pipe smokers have fewer psychosomatic disorders than other smokers. Another report suggests that “inhaling may be more prevalent among the more neurotic and emotionally disturbed,” a comment likely to invite a complacent smile from the non-inhaling pipe smoker. In still another study, the general picture of the pipe smoker is one of a person who tends to live at a slower and more relaxed pace than other smokers – it may be argued that scientific evidence tends to confirm the impression that the pipe smoker is the less hurried, less worried, and more fully mature man. In support of this argument is the theory of a world-famous manufacturer of pipes, who argues: ‘The pleasure of pipe smoking comes from the taste and aroma of the tobacco and the relaxing overtones of pleasure that create an atmosphere of enjoyment. This has nothing to do with the inhaling of tobacco into the lungs.’

The prime appeal of the pipe comes from the taste and aroma of the tobacco — sensory gratification. There is also an added sensory experience, the tactile one of holding the pipe in the hand and in the mouth. But a greater pleasure of pipe smoking is a generalised, but measurable, atmosphere of enjoyment. Beyond the pleasure it affords the senses, a pipe appeals aesthetically, philosophically, and therapeutically. Designed for a highly specialised function, a pipe needs only a bowl and stem to fulfill its purpose. These two components may take any imaginable shape and size, as long as the pipe will function. Pipes may be long, short, straight, curved, slender, or fat. They may boast the haughty beauty of the church warden, with its long, clean lines, or arrest the eye with elaborate carvings, as do many briars. Indeed, Napoleon presented a friend with a meerschaum shaped like a mortar being wheeled into action. Ornamented with diamonds, its original value was 30,000 francs! Whether fashioning a pipe from delicate porcelain or from coarsely textured corncob, the pipe maker has, through the centuries, added a dimension of beauty to everyday living. As for the pipe’s appeal to the reflective man, literature is rich with evidence. Each century has prompted a new generation of poet-philosophers to sing the praises of their pipes in paeans that, while sincere, range in quality from pedestrian to Parnassian. The flowering of tobacco-orientated leaves of poetry in the 19th century in particular was truly heroic. Byron, Burns, Scott, Lamb, Tennyson, Thackeray, and Lowell, to name but a few, ranted and rhapsodised. Many smokers know of Lord Buiwer-Lytton’s glowing tribute to the pipe in his ‘Night and Morning’, which appeared in 1841. It is terser and more to the point than most panegyrics: “A pipe! Is a great soother, a pleasant comforter. Blue devils fly before its honest breath. It ripens the brain, it opens the heart; and the man who smokes thinks like and acts like a Samaritan.” And anecdotists chime in from the wings of that colorful stage. One story celebrating the philosophical significance attributed to the pipe is recounted by W.G. Hutchinson in his book Lyra Nicotiana, published in London in 1898. Hutchinson wrote, “Think of that eloquently silent evening at Craigenputtock in 1833 when Carlyle and Emerson, on either side of the fireplace, puffed soberly with never a spoken word till midnight and then parted shaking hands with mutual congratulation on the profitable and pleasant evening they had spent.” Apocryphal though this tale may be, the pipe has always been associated with the man of a philosophical turn of mind. Nor have the 20th and 21st centuries altered this image; for example, a famous photograph of Einstein shows him posing in profile with his favorite pipe. That pipe smoking is now enjoying something of renaissance may be largely due to its appeal to the “thinking man”.

It is also possible that smokers are turning to pipes in reaction against the nature of the age in which we live. Although leisure time becomes increasingly abundant, man’s use of it, paradoxically, becomes less leisurely. Vacationers jet from place to place; weekend wanderers seek high-speed expressways to quicken their journeys; “instant” foods beckon from the billboards that affront the landscape. In this age of rocketry and gimmickry, the pipe alone has stubbornly resisted technological innovation, requiring, as it always has, hand-stoked fuel and manual ignition. The pipe, in fact, is at odds with many of the touchstones of Madison Avenue culture. As there is nothing “instant” about it, so there is nothing “disposable.” The useful characteristic of disposability has promoted the sale of nappies, dinner napkins, minnow buckets, and even in a way, cars, but it is fundamentally incompatible with the pipe, which is cherished for its durability. A new pipe may outlast all of a man’s earthly possessions. The therapeutic aspects of pipe smoking are powerful, but difficult to define. They assume, in the aggregate, the proportions of a mystique. Ritual secrecy, superstition, myth, legend, and practices as elaborate and esoteric as voodoo ceremony sometimes attend the use and maintenance of a pipe. In a world obsessed with automation, pipe care may prove to be the last stronghold for the man in search of do-it-yourself therapy. As fishing paraphernalia exercises an almost hypnotic effect upon the angler, so too does pipe equipment fascinate the pipe smoker — reamer, sweetener, cleaner, pouch, humidor, rack, tamper, spoon and windcap, curer and cure-all. It may be that one day a formula will be propounded that equates the need to putter with the need to escape the push-button monotony of modern-day life. This is an overstatement, admittedly, but in the care and maintenance of a pipe there is the reward of performing tasks that require manual skill, judgment, deliberation, and experience — acts of tender, loving care that prompted one author to write, “There is something in a pipe that can make a man stable in mind.”

Nevertheless, in the face of the accusing arguments marshalled by modern medicine — why smoke? The pipe smoker can cite the sensory, aesthetic, and reflection-inducing virtues of a fine blend in a favorite bowl. And if these fail to convince, no one can dispute his final, defiant proclamation, “I smoke because I enjoy it.”

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