Cigarettes and the Killing (of Time)

In Cigarettes are Sublime (Duke University Press, 1993) Richard Klein writes:

The cigarette kills time, chronometric time, the stark mechanical measure of mortality….The series of moments the clock records is not only a succession of “nows” but a memento mori diminishing the number of seconds that remain before death. But the cigarette interrupts and reverses the decline, accomplishes a little revolution in time by seeming to install, however briefly, a time outside itself….Smoking cigarettes…is permanently linked to the idea of suspending the passage of ordinary time and instituting some other, more penetrating one, in conditions of luxuriating indifference and resignation toward which a poetic sensibility feels irresistible attraction….The moment of taking a cigarette allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and time of heightened attention that gives rise to a feeling of transcendence, evoked through the ritual of fire, smoke, cinder connecting hand, lungs, breath and mouth. It procures a little rush of infinity that alters perspectives , however  slightly, and permits, albeit briefly, an ecstatic standing outside of oneself.

Klein’s book, as the passages excerpted above may lead us to surmise, is entertainingly whimsical in terms of the claims it makes on behalf of cigarettes. As someone who smoked the damn things on and off, for almost twenty years before giving them up, I can testify to their power to influence the nature of temporal experience, perhaps by virtue of that powerful alkaloid, nicotine, that they send coursing into our lungs and bloodstream, perhaps by virtue of the visual entertainment the bluish-gray smoke we inhale and exhale provides.

In 1993, the year Klein’s book was published, I rented, for a month, a room in an under-renovation building in Newark. I shared the top floor with another tenant; the staircase that ran up to our rooms lacked a banister, so a climb up to my lodgings always provided a little frisson of daring adventure (especially when the building was, late at night, unlit and dark, and I was not eager to awaken my notoriously cranky landlord.)

It was August, and my room lacked a fan or an air-conditioner. I was too broke to buy either, and resigned myself to trying to sleep–on the couch that served as bed–with an open window as the only source of cooling air.  Sleep, in that stifling room, that miserable building, that desolate neighborhood, did not come easily. I had no internet connection with which to while away the time, no phone line with which to call friends. (And who would have wanted to talk to an insomniac in the middle of the night anyway?)

But I had cigarettes. So night after night, once I had had dinner and done all the reading I could, I would sit by my open window, lighting and smoking one cigarette after the other, idly watching my exhaled smoke drift out of my room, sneaking up along the walls of the building and finally dissipating outside in the warm. humid night.

Sleep came late; the only reason I had stopped caring about its exact hour was because I had cigarettes for company.

5 comments on “Cigarettes and the Killing (of Time)

  1. breslico says:

    Your piece reminds me of something Russell Brand said in his recent piece on addiction – something like, “the drug was never my problem, reality was my problem.” For me, the hard part of living clean is figuring out how to be in the grey area (or the space in between the light and dark). My adult self realizes that those moments are wisely spent attending to the mundane. In those spaces, I am reminded of my insignificance and so my morality. I am uncomfortable there. Thanks for exploring so honestly.

  2. […] I excerpted a couple of passages from Richard Klein‘s Cigarettes are Sublime, and wrote of a little episode in my life centered on smoking cigarettes as a way to kill time.  Once I had written the post and published it here, as is usual, I posted links to it on my […]

  3. I dearly wish cigarettes weren’t so bad for you. I don’t smoke them now, but I did briefly, and I always enjoyed how they seemed to give otherwise boring moments a sense of worth.

  4. sidvee says:

    Hey Samir,

    As I have told you, I lurk around your blog but rarely comment (a flaneur of sorts). But thought I must share this bit from Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful book “Nickel and Dimed” about the life of low-wage workers in America.

    This is from a chapter about working in a restaurant in Key West, Florida. Here’s the brief bit that’s related to this post:

    “… the function of the pen-toilet area is to house the ash-trays in which servers and dishwashers leave their cigarettes burning at all times, like votive candles, so they don’t have to waste time lighting up again when they dash back here for a puff. Almost everyone smokes as if their pulmonary well-being depended on it. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them.”

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