Authorship and the Romanticism of Smoke

It seems to be that, for some reason or another, the act of smoking attracts authors like flies to honey— there is something deeply profound about taking the product of flame into one’s own body to the detriment of health, as humans have done for centuries, but we must understand that there are limitless explanations for this phenomenon; this analysis serves as a tool not to distinctly explain why authors smoke, but to rather engage in the topic in a way that might be useful for the reader. Through understanding how those who perpetuate and capture culture through the art of written world see the world, we might learn to better understand our own motives. It may be that, by looking at the world as a jumble of thoughts, objects, and moments to be collected, we become wrapped up in the external. Let us, together, build a framework upon which we might see the world through the author’s eye.

Before attempting to break down the inner workings of any particular author’s mind or work, we must make clear the what and the who of authorship. Any person reading this particular work is likely to feel that these attributes are somewhat easily defined, but the importance of creating concise, accurate definitions cannot be undermined— we cannot (and should not) place value on the undefined, and often the simplest questions hold incredible depth.

So, what is authorship? The word author can be misleading and intimidating in this context, as it requires the labelled individual, by definition, to have published work. This is perhaps unimportant, though— the author’s mindset is not exclusive to those with the time, ability, and resources to commit to writing as a profession. No, in this context, we refer to the “author” as a person profoundly dedicated to the act of immortalizing thought and object through language. The authors we will glance at, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Haruki Murakami, and Ayn Rand, are important not because they were and are wildly successful in captivating vast audiences, but because they are masters of the moment. Like an insect to their amber, moments are grabbed from the ether of their minds and given permanence and form. During Vonnegut’s early days, when he was supporting his family of eight on nothing but his varied and inconsistently-successful short stories and the mixed reception of Player Piano (his first novel), he noted the following in a letter to his editor at Scribner’s:

“If I could write another pretty good book, Harry, I would. The trouble seems to be that I’m a compulsive, irrational writer, rarely on top of the creative process, but that my id, or whatever it is that Hemingway and Faulkner get in touch with way down deep, down among the dead men, isn’t a very interesting one— not even to me” (Letters, 50).

At this point, Vonnegut was clearly a skilled writer, but he had only truly began his foray into technical authorship. It is this example that gives the definition we use here rapport. It should be noted, of course, that Vonnegut did get in touch with his “id”, a Freudian term for his deepest level of consciousness, pervaded by the sexual and primal, but this is something to be touched on later.

The who is perhaps where the majority of our focus should lie, if we are to consider this mission statement of this text— to better understand how our most romantic thoughts impact our behaviors. The author is one who brings together the stories of the world around us and turns them into experiences that may be shared. While writing is a skill that can certainly be mastered by the the jaded and greedy (one only has to glance at the likes of Oscar Wilde to see this), the authors who we turn our attention to are the ones who write not exclusively as a method of stroking the ego or acquiring capital, but to those who write as a way to appreciate culture, connect with others, and express themselves. It is this nature that draws authors to a behavior as loaded with emotion, symbolism, and expression as smoking.

The act of writing is one that is deeply personal— the words that grow on the page are a product of a nothing but a few keystrokes and the creative energy of the keystroker. As Vonnegut addressed in his letter to his editor, he felt that there was an element of consistent and effective writing that required use of the the “id.” So, it may not be much of a stretch to interpret the act of writing through the use of Freudian thought, and indeed, it would be remiss not to. In a not-so-subtle way, the act of writing is very similar to that of dreaming. As ideas form and twist and come into being, we can discover things about ourselves that would be otherwise impossible. In this way, writing is a method of growth and self-discovery. Freud asserted that “the meaning of every dream is the fulfillment of a wish” and that “there cannot be any dreams but wishful dreams” (134). If we are to continue with our analogy between the art of writing and dreaming, we must accept for argument’s sake that this is true in both cases. This is the crux of our foundation.

Haruki Murakami is perhaps the one of the most prolific writers of his time, and although he grew up in a world that was aware of the negative effects of smoking, nearly every main character featured in his fiction smokes frequently. So frequently do they smoke, in fact, that it could be easily be considered a major element of all of Murakami’s works. In Norwegian Wood, which is widely considered to be Murakami’s most successful work, the main character, in spite of representing Murakami’s more scholastic and romantic side, begins his story by reminiscing about his time in the university dormitories— an experience that would not be complete without mention of cigarettes.

While the main character, Watanabe, eventually finds love in a girl named Naoko, much of his attention in the first several chapters of the book are focused on a girl named Midori. Midori being a hypersexual eccentric smoker, a description that matches many of the ephemeral love interests featured in the works of Murakami, fills the former of what we might consider to be the two forms of love that we see represented in all corners of humanity— the immature and the mature. Midori exists as a highly conflicted and complex character in the story, but we might posit that she represents the repressed sexuality of Murakami; if the main characters of these stories represent Murakami himself, then this process of writing is Murakami’s way of expressing and mulling over his conflicting desires. Watanabe ends up loving Naoko, who is far more reserved and “sweet” than Midori. She represents the mature love that Murakami sees as an ideal. Midori, though, is who Murakami is drawn to— and we can see this because she fits a stereotype found in almost all of Murakami’s novels. Midori’s cigarette smoking is what gives this away. The cigarette, producing fog-emulating smoke, holds an aire of mystery and intrigue. Like a mystery novel, the smoker holds our attention and makes us want to know more. On top of this, we might add a layer in the Freudian semiotician’s perspective: that the cigarette is a blatantly phallic object, holding direct meaning in the sexual lives of the smokers (Danesi, 4).

Murakami’s writing as an expression of desire is further reinforced by Watanabe’s relationship with an upperclassman character, Nagasawa. Nagasawa is a couple of years older than Watanabe, and most likely represents Murakami’s ideal self. Throughout the book, Nagasawa coaches Watanabe on how to properly get women to sleep with him, all-the-while talking about the incredible professional development opportunities that he secures. Even when congratulated, Nagasawa maintains his cool and confident demeanor:

“That’s it. Officially, it’s called the ‘Foreign Affairs Public Service Personnel First Class Service Examination.’ What a joke!”

“Congratulations!” I said, and gave him my left hand to shake.

“Thanks.”

“Of course, I’m not surprised you passed.”

“No, neither am I.” Nagasawa laughed (201).

Although it occasionally comes off as grating to the reader, it isn’t difficult to see why Watanabe (Murakami) would look up to the character.

Ayn Rand, in contrast, was confident in her knowledge of the sexuality of herself and others: “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” Rand wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life” (“The One Argument”, 3). Rand, though, had an insecurity that was likely a compound of her mental illness and her womanhood. Following the publishing of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Rand fell into a depression. “John Galt wouldn’t feel this”, she lamented (“The One Argument”, 1). This particular combination of identities likely lent Rand to feel powerless, and smoking reinforced the identity of power that she wished to hold.

Rand’s appreciation for smoking, in fact, can be found in Atlas Shrugged:

“I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind—and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression” (56).

This romantic description of the act of smoking, the connection to the primal force first harnessed by man, fire, is a clear indication of Rand’s love for the concept. It was only when Rand was diagnosed with lung cancer that her perception of the power associated with cigarettes was shattered; what once gave her control of her life threatened to take it away. The story goes that she put out the cigarette she was smoking in the doctor’s office and never touched one again.

As we read with these things in mind, we see incredible compounding evidence of the author writing as a method to express repressed emotion. Murakami writes of a sexuality he wishes to obtain. Vonnegut writes to escape trauma. Rand writes to regain control. Murakami writes of cigarettes because, to him, they represent a coolness, mystery, and sex appeal. Vonnegut smokes to express and assert his masculinity in a world that embraces him as an immasculine figure. Rand smoked and writes of smoking in order to feel powerful. By seeing these methods of coping with our internalized desires, perhaps we can see our own repressed desires and emotions. The author, who feels deeply and more often requires a method of escape and empowerment, who has their thoughts and desires written plainly for all to see, offers a case study through which we might improve ourselves.

Works Cited

Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Penguin Books, 1991.

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Translated by Jay Rubin, Vintage International, 2000.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New American Library, 2016.

“The One Argument Ayn Rand Couldn’t Win.” NYMag.com, nymag.com/arts/books/features/60120/index1.html.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Letters. Edited by Dan Wakefield, Vintage Books, 2013.

 

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