[The following is the first draft of an essay I "blurted out" last night in one sitting. Having been copied from a document into Blogger, it has lost all italics, etc., but I would appreciate any constructive feedback. I'm hoping to submit this piece to a "real" periodical, maybe even First Things. With notes, it's about 2,850 words.]
On the Perverse Excellence of Smoking and Drinking
by Elliot Bougis
by Elliot Bougis
Is there any species besides Homo sapiens which purposely generates fire and fermented fruit? It seems not, and so might Homo sapiens equally well be called Homo ignis**. I know of one beetle which can expel a stream of scalding chemicals from its posterior to ward off predators. I also know of elephants getting drunk by eating fallen, rotting fruit from the ground. But I know of no other species that willfully, much less gleefully, produces fire or harnesses the obscure powers of decay to produce wine and strong spirits.
Thus it seems highly ironic that secularists and atheists take Prometheus as their patron.[#1] For it was Prometheus who asserted his humanity despite the gods by stealing fire, that is, making fire into a human possession. Only slightly less ironic is it for leading secularists to champion classical polytheism against regnant theism, insofar as Bacchus is among the classical gods of antiquity; and if Bacchus inspires one thing, it is the suppression of reason, supposedly a pagan and secularist value par excellence, under the sway of inebriation.
Nevertheless, Old Man Tobacco and the Spirit of Spirits persist as perverse human diversions. And their staying power, despite their prima facie perversity, stems from the connection they have with our sense of ourselves as “value-driven” beings. “Part of what it means to value some activities,” writes Gary Watson, “is this: we judge that to cease to have such appetites is to lose something of worth.” He goes on, “It would be impossible for a non-erotic being or a person who lacked the appetite for food and drink fully to understand the value most of us attach to sex and dining. … Or consider an appetite that is in fact 'unnatural' (i.e. acquired): the craving for tobacco.” Watson explains, “To a person who has never known the enticement of Lady Nicotine, what could be more incomprehensible than the filthy practice of consummating a fine meal by drawing into one's lungs the noxious fumes of a burning weed?”[#2] What does this tell us about ourselves? Poetically, a cigarette is nothing less than the hand-held mastery of fire, as, likewise, a goblet of wine or a fifth of whisky are nothing less than hand-held signs of power over the exigencies of decay in our entropic world.
These totems of human mastery are no less trinkets of humankind's hard-won and ever-evolving mastery of exact physical science, and thus signs––nay, “wonders” (semeion)**, akin to the sense of the word St. John's Gospel––of the reign of Homo sapiens qua Homo faber. Modern humans thus express their hominid “wisdom” principally in their hominid “fabrication.” From the cultivation and breeding of the finest tobacco and the cultivation of the finest vineyards, to the harvesting and manufacturing of that fine weed and the processing and distillation of that fine drink to the packing and bottling and shipping and selling of those small diversions––all along the way humankind demonstrates its scientific mastery over unruly nature. What greater sign of a man's transcendence over nature could there be than converting a weed, normally a scourge to agriculture, into a hallowed, domesticated habit called smoking? Likewise, what more clever way could there be for man to flout the wiles of corruption than to convert the imperfection of decay into the perfection of strong drink?
Certainly much of the lasting appeal of tobacco, despite the by now nearly global anti-smoking crusade, lies in the physiologically addictive character of nicotine, as much of the enduring attraction of liquor lies in the addictive power of alcohol. Yet there is more to both smoking and drinking than mere physiology. Otherwise we would have long ago switched to direct infusions of nicotine and alcohol by injection or something similar. Intrinsic to the enjoyment of smoking and drinking is the psychological pleasure of manually holding fire tamed and manually holding a glass of wine rescued from the claws of decay. This manual absorption in smoking and drinking is all of a piece with one other feature which might be said to separate man from other animals, namely, our fabulous hands with their even more fabulous opposable thumbs. It is those beautifully thumbed hands which make exact science possible––the construction and calibration of scientific instruments like telescopes and spectroscopes––and which, thus, make the very holding of cigars and shot glasses possible on a large scale.
And yet, we all know smoking is bad for us and that, in the long run, drinking in any more than a “cultured” way (“Red wine is good for your heart”) is detrimental to our longevity. Nevertheless we continue to smoke and drink, if not like there is no tomorrow, then at least like there is no yesterday, like there was never a time in which humans were subject to the vagaries of rampant weeds and rotting fruit. Tobacco (as well as marijuana) may both be “natural” in the sense of being found in nature, but cigarettes (and any joint) are natural products only by the defiantly unnatural intervention of human technology. Wine may be the fruit of the vine, but only because humans carefully, craftily make it so. Actual fruit of the vine is much less thrilling (hence, we give children grape juice as a substitute for wine) and certainly much less intoxicating and only lasts so long before decay sets in.
Thus, smoking and drinking persist as two of the most perverse “anti-sacramentals” of modern human life.[#3] It is not simply an assertion of one's “individuality” or “personal rights” to keep smoking no matter how stringently society poo-poos it and to keep drinking no matter how scrupulously Medicine and Fitness scold drinkers. A more basic impulse behind the perverse persistence of smoking and drinking is surely the desire to assert one's humanity as such. To make fire and wine are two exclusively human powers––akin to the long-sought quest of alchemists––and so to indulge in smoking and drinking is to indulge in one's exclusively human prerogatives, good sense or natural longevity be damned. What a properly human marvel it is to ignite fire in one's hand with the mere flick of one's precious opposable thumb, and then willfully to inhale the acrid, chemically saturated smoke of a tiny roll of paper––only then, even more audaciously, to flick one of nature's most elemental forces, fire, away like a god after a feast! What a marvel it is to walk into an ordinary convenient store and clutch with one's articulate hands a six-pack of perfected decay, and then guzzle its contents without being poisoned––adding, in some cases, an equally godlike flair by pouring a mouthful of the wondrous fluid onto the ground “for my homies”! To be Homo faber is not necessarily to be Homo sapiens––which is, paradoxically, an integral feature of being Homo sapiens. From that feature of our human nature arises what I call the perverse excellence conveyed by cigarettes and spirits: we demonstrate our excellence in the animal kingdom by harnessing nature's weak points for our own degradation and diversion.
Despite the tone of my exposition so far, I must admit that I am not in principle opposed to drinking and smoking, two diversions I myself have enjoyed on more than one occasion. Yet I think the word diversion is very telling in this context. To the apparently unique features of humans, such as firecraft and “moonshineology,” we might just as well add our perverse dread of boredom, that is, our incurable taste for diversions. Some drink to escape, others to strengthen social bonds; some smoke to blow off steam, others just to pass the time. In every case, though, drinking and smoking are things we do to divert ourselves from something more mundane. Why do we divert ourselves? What might we find if we strictly avoided diversions, of which smoking and drinking are only two of the most colorful examples? I once had a youth pastor who said that “only boring people get bored.” I have found him to be right ever since I internalized his dictum. If you are feeling bored, certainly you can “relieve your boredom” by drinking it off or taking a few drags, but at bottom it is because you can't find anything within yourself to make existence more enjoyable that you are bored in the first place. This is why prayer is considered by so many to be “boring”––for one thing, in prayer we aren't “doing” anything and, and for another, we are stuck with ourselves. Prayer forces us into reality, free of diversions, and more often than not illustrates to ourselves just how boring, how shallow and lifeless, we are on the inside. Far easier is it to divert our attention from this inner secret about ourselves with the must of tobacco and the warmth of wine.
Humans' pathetic flight from boredom may seem flippant, or trivial, but I believe it signals an important truth about ourselves. We exult in the diversions which Science, our greatest invention to date, and certainly our age's chief diversion, delivers us precisely because they deliver us from ourselves. Video games, notably also dependent on opposable thumbs, is probably the latest instance of our obsession with technological diversions. Indeed, the ultimate hope of most gamers would be to don a “virtual reality” helmet and immerse themselves in the gaming world––which is to say, out of this world. Is it any wonder that The Matrix trilogy seized the popular consciousness with a spiritual gravitas for transcendence?[#4] Such a helmet would, interestingly, allow us to transcend even the archaic limits of our hands, hand-held controllers being notoriously clunky instruments for “leet” gaming. In any case, the impulse remains the same––transcendence by diversions––and it attains almost mystical dimensions when combined with the other two diversions I have mentioned: gaming while drinking and smoking with buddies, in, say, a “LAN party,” ranks among the highest pleasures of the technologically minded.
It is hardly my goal in this essay to “cure” the invert human desire for diversions, merely to diagnose it, and, if possible, suggest a contrary “therapeutic” practice. Assuming the perverse excellence of our modern diversions is a form of transcendence, perhaps there is a way to channel, nay, hallow, our “urge to diverge” into something truly transcendental. As a Catholic, I would say “the way” is nothing less than sacramental spirituality as the great Christian Tradition has always presented it. Surely it is not insignificant that both fire and smoke, wine and spirits, are integral to Catholic devotion and properly human pleasure. To the Catholic eye, it should seem no less a technological marvel that fire is harnessed at every Mass and in every chapel by the lighting––and then godlike dousing––of candles around the altar, or for prayer intentions at the base of an icon. (The use of “sacral fire” is especially evidence in the “candle light” vigil Masses at Easter and Christmas.) In related fashion do we see fire harnessed for the glory of God at solemn Masses in the form of incense smoke wafting upwards as marvelously as that from any ordinary cigarette.[#5]
Similarly does the Church recall the technological marvels of winemaking and agriculture in its liturgy when, just before consecrating the Holy Gifts, the priests thanks God: “Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. … Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.”[#6] Here, then, we find the ordinary human diversions of smoke and alcohol elevated to a truly transcendent level. Unlike cigarettes and booze and video games in the consumerist world, fire and wine and bread are not treated as merely human trinkets, since, in the Catholic faith, humans are not merely human trinkets. Humans, each one and altogether, are signs of their divine origin, and as such, the highest act they can offer is the offering of their greatest signs of earthly supremacy to Him Who is truly supreme in all the earth. Notably, at no Mass (but at every Black Mass) is enough wine consumed by anyone to deliver them over to Bacchus or out of “the ordinary world.” Nor at any Mass (though at many a Black Mass, as in the burning of animals, feces, and infants) is fire generated for human consumption, or merely to pass the time, but rather for human inspiration, and radically to hallow the time.
As in the Kingdom of God swords shall be beaten into plowshares, so in the Liturgy of the Lamb the smoke of cigarettes, the savor of bread, and the glint of liquor are transformed into the scent of transcendence and the signs of divine love given for all humanity. This is a marvel––to wit, a transubstantiation––that outstrips any marvel of natural science insofar as it is a pure gift of divine wisdom. If more Homo sapiens could see this, perhaps they would put away their cigarettes and cigars, shelve their fifths and shot glasses, shut off their game consoles and PCs––and come to drink from the wine that never ages, to eat the bread that never spoils, and to enjoy the game of eternal life. Perhaps the best gift the Catholic Church can offer the world is the conversion of diversion.
[#1] There is a meaningful distinction between the two, insofar as atheists positively deny the real existence of God, while secularists might refrain, agnostically, from the answer about His existence, and maintain that if He does exist, He should not be allowed to intrude on the autonomy of human concerns qua purely human.
[#2] “Free Agency,” as cited in Free Will (Oxford: University Press, [2nd ed.] 2003), ed. by Gary Watson, pp. 344–345.
[#3] As sacred as they may be many people, I insist smoking and drinking are but “anti-sacramentals,” and not “anti-sacraments,” since I believe the anti-sacraments of Homo faber are the Faustian harnessing of fire in warfare and the pouring of wine in the bloody slaughter of others, inside and outside the womb. It is hard to imagine a more flagrant perversion of the death of Christ, in which water and blood flowed forth from His pierced side, than the death of the innocents at the hands of “health care workers,” in which amniotic fluid and infant blood pour forth from pierced bodies that see no light in this world but surely shall in the next. In this sense, contraception and abortion are just two more related examples of humanity's scientific glee over against nature. We can thwart the fundamental process of sexual procreation with the mere ingestion of a pill, or the slightly less mere intrusion into the womb, thus enjoying the spoils of sex without actually having to tend its fruit.
[#4] The techno-spiritual transcendence portrayed by The Matrix must, of course, be qualified by the fact that future humanity's gnosis consisted in breaking free from the illusions spun by its robotic masters. I believer, however, that this anti-technological message was lost, paradoxically, by the breakthrough CGI technology which made films' fabled “slow-motion fighting” such a landmark diversion. Surely The Matrix phenomenon is a case of the medium muddling the message.
[#5] I realize that incense and candles are not exclusive to Catholic piety; indeed, they seem to be universal elements of religious practice, as in Buddhism and Hinduism and even paganism. This does not detract from my argument, however, since the every universality of fire in religiosity seems but a fitting correspondence to the equally human thirst for the universality of the divine. It suffices to show that “sacral fire” is a key part of Catholic
[#6] “Liturgy of the Eucharist,” as cited in Daily Roman Missal (Huntington, IN: Our Daily Visitor, 2003), pp. 689, 91. Let it also be noted that the link between the fruits of science and the worship of God is no mere coincidence in Christian theology. For, as the work of Pierre Duhem, Stanley Jaki, Thomas Torrance, Thomas Woods, Reijer Hookyaas**, Rodney Stark, and James Hannam, among others, has shown, it was precisely in the theological matrix of Catholic civilization that modern exact science was born. The rationality of Creation, as the work of the Divine Reason (Logos), is integral to the axiomatic scientific belief that nature is a proper object of human reason (or, conversely, that human reason is a proper instrument for exploring natural reality). As Fr. Jaki argued many times, only insofar as this belief––this cult––was maintained and generalized to become the Zeitgeist of medieval European civilization could science emerge as a mainstay of modern praxis––or culture.
1 November 2009