Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the cigarette break

Marcel Duchamp

I was out of a job for two and a half months at the beginning of the year. During that time, I nearly stopped smoking cigarettes. I'd only buy a pack of American Spirits during my weekly or fortnightly visits to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, and afterwards I'd give away most of the cigs that hadn't disappeared in pursuit of Johnnie Walker. This isn't to say I went completely cold turkey: I did invest in a vaporizer, but it's hardly a replacement. For one thing, I only use it at home. There's really no way to suck on one of those things in public without looking like a goober, so I deposit mine in my desk drawer whenever I go out.

In March I rejoined the workforce and resumed blackening my lungs. You might guess, prima facie, that this means I'm dissatisfied with my new gig. You'd be wrong: I can't complain too much about what I'm doing for money (and where I'm doing it) these days. But it's rarely the case that a member of the working class truly savors his time on someone else's clock, and even if he finds his wage-earning activities more or less agreeable, he'll probably need a few moments of respite from time to time. Sitting in a break room and absorbing photons from a personal device seems to be the most popular method of on-the-job decompression these days. That's not for me, thanks: I'll take a good old-fashioned cigarette break.

Look. I know it's the twenty-first century. I know the mystique and glamor of the smoker has all but dissipated. I know smoking is awful for one's health, I know that nicotine is tremendously addictive, and I know that someone who's just smoked a cigarette smells awful to anyone who isn't currently smoking one. But the cigarette break is an edifying, even ennobling thing, and I'd like to say a few words on its behalf.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mar Saba & Melville's memory


For the last month or so I've been taking my time wending through Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville's last major work and the single longest poem in American literature. (Longer than the Iliad, longer than Paradise Lost.) I'm still thirty-one cantos from reaching the end, and maybe I'll have more to say about the book as a whole at a later date. For now I'd just like to share something that surprised and touched me.

Likening Clarel to Canterbury Tales would be a mostly facile comparison, but there are areas of overlap in the bare outlines of the cast: the cavalcade we follow on a tour through the environs of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem is composed of archetypal figures with differing perceptions of the nineteenth century's accelerating social transformations and the state of Christianity under the siege of science. We have the benignant but ineffective liberal clergyman, the biblical literalist millennarian, the disillusioned European revolutionary, the atheistic man of science, and so on.

The titular Clarel plays the part of the sheltered, privileged theological student who takes the trip to bolster his flagging faith and ease his doubts. But it is not Clarel into whom Melville breathes the most of himself: that would be Rolfe, a middle-aged dilettante who speaks with volubility and exuberant frankness, and who paradoxically combines a penchant for austere theology with a distrust of religious and moral absolutism. And, like Melville, Rolfe was a mariner in his youth.

During a visit to the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba, we have a sequence in which five of the pilgrims, positioned at different heights upon the cliffs and terraces, regard a lone palm tree on a ledge, reputed to have been planted by Saint Sabbas himself over 1300 years before. The soliloquy Rolfe delivers here is by far the most interesting, and it's eye-popping for a Melville fan.

Before we go any further with Rolfe and the palm, we'll need to revisit Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Melville's first (and most contemporaneously successful) novel.