The Aura of Smoking

The Ambiance of Coffee and Cigarettes. An Image from the Archive of Romance?

Paul Henried, Bette Davis

In movies like Now Voyager, an dapper Paul Henried would light a cigarette for Bette Davis, and set hearts beating.

There are moments when it seems as if the times are changing beneath our feet – as it does now that non-smoking tables are appearing in even the most traditional Viennese coffee houses and restaurants. Don’t get me wrong; like everyone else, I’ve seen my share of ugly illnesses and early death from the fatal attractions of tobacco. And I’m relieved I never got started myself back in college, when it seemed the height of sophistication.

But as the new ethic of smoke-free public spaces becomes increasingly accepted in Austria as elsewhere in Europe, it’s difficult not to feel a passing sense of aesthetic regret.

I am going to miss the mood of smoking. I will miss the aura of romance and reflection that inevitably accompanies the muted, intimate places where smoking is most at home.

I will miss the silver ribbons of smoke that fold in on themselves and spiral up from a burning tip, turning a gentle gold in the soft glow of a shaded wall sconce.

I will miss the rich vapours of an idea being formed as the aura circles around a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of a nose and waved away by the gestures of an argument.

It all goes together, the Melange or der kleine Brauner, the wine, the beer… and the cigarettes, the cherished moments of friendship and the meanderings of the life of the mind.

What is the interval going to be like at the theatre without the shared ritual of cigarettes to go with a glass and a trenchant summation of the success or failure of the first act? It’s an evening gown without perfume, midnight mass without the incense. An early morning on the lake with no mist rising.

What is a brandy and a great story after dinner without the pungent aroma of a good cigar? But what kind of argument is that, you ask? When’s the last time I had a brandy or smelled a good cigar?

Now I have to tell the truth. To me, the smell of a cigar instantly brings my father back to life, after what is now 30 years. I can walk around a corner, or come through a doorway and in a single whiff, he is standing beside me, in mid-sentence of a conversation that has continued on in my head all these years.

So I admit it. I’m not exactly objective.  But what has objectivity got to do with the things that create meaning in our lives?

The aura of smoking has seeped deep into the culture of all of our lives; it is part of our most private moments, our deepest yearnings and in many cases, our greatest loves.

A lot of people blame the movies for making smoking so attractive. They talk about the seduction of film, and I won’t say they are wrong.

But I don’t think it begins with film – but rather that the films captured the essence of emotional gestures best expressed in our staging of private moments around smoking that meant an enormous amount to a lot of people.

Cigarettes were an important tool of pleasure and intimacy that could be shared with wine or champagne in moments of celebration, or alone in moments where intimacy alone  defined the scene, where a shared cigarette had the presence to fill the space with suggestion that a later era trampled to death with directness and over exposure. Cigarettes are deeply personal, sensual without being crude.

I understood this even better not long ago when I saw Now Voyager again, in the opinion of many the finest film of Bette Davis’ prime years.  In the film, she learns to know herself through a shipboard romance with Paul Henreid (best known for his role as Victor Lazlo in Casablanca). Against the background of his unhappy marriage and Davis’ choice to become the mentor to his unhappy teen-age daughter, their relationship evolves into a devotion of unconsummated but very real love, deep emotion expressed but kept under control by the gesture of shared cigarettes – he puts two in his mouth, lights both, inhales to get the burning started, and passes one to her. So they smoke their cigarettes across from each other, together drawing in the sensation of the love that can be known only at arms length. It’s an unforgettable gesture, and in its day must have – like the yellow scarf of Young Werther – been imitated by many.

But I maintain that the film did not create the power of the moment, the tension-filled, yet intensely pleasurable emotional distance granted by the shared smoke. It is rather that perspective that we recognize and are stirred by — a metaphor for an emotional truth through a gesture recognized by anyone who has ever lived in a world of reflective smokers.

Dramatist Bertold Brecht understood this too, I discovered recently. He had an idea for something he called the “Smokers’ Theater,” which would break the taboo in the ordinary German theatres of his day and allow audiences to sabotage the pomposity of the high minded by lighting up during the performances,

“One man in the stalls with a cigar could bring the downfall of Western art!” he claimed gleefully. But he longed for it mainly for the performers’ sake. “It is quite impossible for the actor to play in the unnatural, cramped and old-fashioned style of traditional theatre to a man smoking in the stalls,” he wrote.

So I will miss all those smoke filled rooms, the sweet pungent odors of smoldering tobacco leaves that have enveloped so many scenes of reflection and romance. And comfort myself that after the disasters of Prohibition, my glass of Zweigelt is probably safe.

At least for now.

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