This Christmas break I was blessed to be wed, and so did not write anything. So a re-introduction may be required–The fine folks at The Catholic Dormitory have graciously accepted my request to write occasional thoughts on the website. And, since I am a tobacconist (as well as a student), naturally I thought that smoking would be an excellent starting point.
The war on smoking today in the media and the general culture constitutes a war not only on a scapegoat, but also a war on the art of leisure. Oscar Wilde (a troubled but sincere deathbed convert to Roman Catholicism, by the way, so we may be sure to hear his delicate and flowing prose among the chorus of angels) once quipped, in his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray that “All Art is Completely Useless.”
Smoking is an art. It is also completely useless. There are, of course, benefits, just as there are benefits to friendship. But just as in friendship, if you smoke only for the rush of nicotine, you are missing the point. If you were to approach some person and say “I would like to be your friend because there would be discreet benefits to such an arrangement,” you would be missing the point of friendship. If you approached a beer and said to the beer “I shall drink you not because you taste delicious, but rather because I shall be drunk having consumed you,” you are missing the point.
There are benefits to living beautifully, but the beauty mysteriously disappears before the stomp of the ugly tennis shoes of utilitarianism. Rather, beauty must be sought, consumed, inhaled, for its own sake.
This view of beauty undercuts the utilitarianism of our society. Even our half-hearted ecstasies are “escape valves” or “therapy.” Drinking has become “self-medication with alcohol.” Smoking has become “tobacco use.” The Wilde view of beauty countermands this vocabulary and asks us to accept God’s gifts for their own sake, because they shiver with his grace, because they are given and not traded, because they are Beautiful.
Perhaps this is a Catholic view of art. Perhaps this is a Catholic view of life! Our every word becomes an act of worship. Useful things transform themselves, and glimmer with new gravitas. And the smoke exhaled from our parted lips becomes a prayer without words, basking in an utterly useless activity whose sole purpose is to fill time beautifully.
Leisure is not an art, Leisure is art.
Look at the time that goes into creating a pipe. After allowing Erica arborea to grow on rocky windy cliffs on the Mediterranean for fifty to a hundred years, Briar is harvested, cut into pipe-shaped blocks called ebauchons, which are then allowed to age for another four to fifty years before being carved by master carvers, have stems cut drilled and fitted to each pipe, and finished in various ways to make them beautiful only to ship them out to all corners of the world for the sole purpose of stuffing dried leaves in them to be set on fire.
This does not make sense for any utilitarian.
But it makes perfect sense to those who appreciate art–who delight continuously, as all humans do, in witnessing a pointless activity completed with incredible skill. How else are we to explain our great love of sport, or hunting, or kite-flying?
The defense of smoking must always, however, be completely threatening to our modern American culture, especially if one defends not only smoking but the entire philosophy of leisure that supports its continued enjoyment. Rather than enjoyed, our culture believes, tobacco is merely consumed, thus implicating “users” of tobacco in the “throw-away culture” that Pope Francis rightly admonishes. To truly fight this argument, to truly defend the Smoke, we must also defend leisure. Sport, hunting, art, literature, and the vast catalogue of useless activities in which humans naturally participate (stamp-collecting, cross-stitching, board games) become invested with a vast philosophical importance.
Religion itself is a useless activity. Its benefits, of course, are nigh uncountable, but again, if one worships and confesses and prays and goes to choir practice only to reap the benefits of religious life, the point has been missed. The useless expense of leisure time mirrors our desire to worship in that we smoke not only to reap the benefits of smoking, but we smoke for no other reason than smoking itself. We worship God for no other reason than that He Is.
And, with that thought, I’m off to enjoy a pipe. Castello hawkbill, McClelland’s Christmas Cheer. Match made in heaven.