The Cigarette's Powerful Cultural Allure

Nearly 20 percent of Americans still smoke, in spite of what we know about the dangers. Part of the reason is the allure of a cigarette, so elemental to classic scenes in movies, television shows and books. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Richard Klein, author of Cigarettes are Sublime, about smoking and American culture.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

So people still smoke in spite of the many good reasons not to. It certainly is addictive, but the cigarette also has a certain allure. Think of a man leaning into to light a lady's cigarette, or the pack preferred in a tense moment. Cigarettes are part of our culture. Richard Klein has written a book about that, "Cigarettes are Sublime." He joins us from New York City. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD KLEIN: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: One of the things people notice when they see an old movie these days is that everybody's smoking. And in this book you talk about "Casablanca," for example, which a lot of us grow up thinking is a kind of a common cultural experience.

KLEIN: "Casablanca" is a kind of dictionary or sort of encyclopedia of ways of smoking. But the film begins, you may recall, with a smoking cigarette in an ashtray and all of a sudden we see a hand sort of pick it up and bring it to the lips of Humphrey Bogart who takes like a really deep puff on this cigarette and then you see him sort of fight off the nicotine high and then blow out this gorgeous stream of smoke at the beginning of the film, and that tells you everything you need to know.

SIMON: Yeah. And it's hard to think of Rick's Cafe without seeing smoke.

KLEIN: Oh, absolutely. It's smoking, and as you pointed out, there's that remarkable silent moment when two very beautiful people stand in profile against the hazy background of the smoky nightclub and the man lights a match and the woman's face is suddenly illuminated and they look into each other's eyes and smoke sort of fills the screen. It's a gorgeous moment.

SIMON: And I guess we should remind ourselves, too, there was a time in popular entertainment when, let's say in a medical drama, somebody noticed a spot on a lung in an x-ray. The doctors would get together and talk about it while smoking.

KLEIN: Innocently, absolutely. In "Dr. Kildare," which was an early TV series, in the very first episode Dr. Kildare goes dashing up the steps of the hospital and before he opens up the main doors he stops to get a pack of cigarettes from the machine that's in the lobby there. And at every crucial moment, the doctors can be seen to be smoking.

You know, doctors have known for hundreds of years, they can see the difference between their patients who smoke and the patients who don't. One of the great poets in the 19th Century who considered himself to be a cigarette dandy spoke about this murderous pleasure. He knew already that it was bad for his health.

SIMON: Danger is part of the allure of which we speak.

KLEIN: And that's precisely what allowed me to say that cigarettes are sublime. It wasn't sort of intended to be a joke. It was intended to refer to the strict philosophical definition of the sublime as you find it in Kant's "Third Critique" where he associates a certain kind of aesthetic pleasure with the experience of a danger overcome, of a confrontation with mortality with infinity that you nevertheless survive. And what I try to argue is that every time you take a puff you're ingesting a small bit of poison, but it's that poison that you quickly learn to love.

SIMON: I think a lot of people listening to us might wonder, well, if smoking's so all fired - pun intended - great, why did you give it up?

KLEIN: It's bad for you. It's poison. It's not good at all. But on the other hand, it's got a lot of advantages and a lot of benefits and it does a lot of things for you at certain points in your life, I found. But the older you get, the more it hurts your body. And eventually, I think, most people will find the pain outweighs the satisfactions. But that doesn't mean there aren't satisfactions and pleasures associated with it.

SIMON: Richard Klein who is a professor emeritus at Cornell University and author of the book, "Cigarettes are Sublime." Thanks very much for being with us.

KLEIN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CASABLANCA")

INGRID BERGMAN: (as Ilsa Lund) - Sing it, Sam.

DOOLEY WILSON: (as Sam) (Singing) You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss...

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, we'll hear from a country where smoking is as popular as ever - Greece - where more than 40 percent of the population lights up even though smoking is banned in bars and cafes. And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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