Tuesday, November 20, 2012


This post is about smoking, but first we need to talk about snakes.  Not the little syringe-fanged vipers in the grass, but the big boa constrictors that drape over tree limbs.  In my animal control days I handled maybe a dozen of them and they always surprised me, because they don’t feel at all like a garden hose in chain mail -- rather more like a sequined stocking with the leg still in it.  One can feel their ribs and organs inside, moving, pulsing, breathing.

Wilshire uses “serpentine” to describe the winding, implacable force of addiction, but also as a kind of synonym for “visceral,” the limbless body that contains the organs: the heart, guts, and lungs.  He describes addiction as “the failure to stand trustingly open to circular power returning periodically and regeneratively into itself through ourselves -- body both suffused by the environment yet able normally to contrast itself to it.”  And then he defines ritual thus: “the deliberate intensification and clarification of ourselves.”  I watch the vids of Tim’s boys doing that French thing of emitting smoke through their mouths and then taking it back in through their noses.  Intense, clear, and deliberate.  To them.

Once I was in the laundromat with a Blackfeet woman who stopped folding her clothes to light a cigarette.  “My husband hates me to smoke,” she confided.  “He thinks I’ll die of cancer.”  She was near weeping, feeling  patronized and controlled, like a child.  Almost owned.

I asked, “Is he enrolled?”

“No, he’s white.”

“Then he doesn’t understand that Indians have a special relationship with tobacco.  They’ve used it in rituals for thousands of years and tobacco protects them.”

She smiled.  I was fantasizing, of course, but I thought it would give her a feeling of being special instead of wicked.   It seemed to me the real danger was not the nicotine but the husband.  Wilshire says, “Body-self’s course is ecstatic, serpentine, vulnerable, and so can be thrown off-balance.”  I wasn’t lying about the ritual part.  The Blackfeet way was not “three cups of tea” but rather three bowls of tobacco -- not so much to declare peace as to mark a space in which to settle and feel safe.

Wilshire again:  “We buy or roll the cigarette, place it in our mouth, destroy its substance as it is transmuted by fire and the smoke is inhaled.  The smoke emerges again with the reality and mysterious message -- even with a hint of the volume -- of one’s private bodily self as it crosses into public reality.  The self creates and recreates itself in the world’s interfusion and excitement.”

When my mother had retired from teaching, she went back to smoking, but it was a very private not-quite-secret ritual for her, though my brother -- who lived with her -- chain-smoked in front of the TV, the serpentine curl of smoke rising from the ashtray beside his perpetual coffee cup.  He built a little deck for her in the backyard and rigged a tarp so that it both kept off the rain and hid her from the neighbors.  The ‘hood had gone bad by that time.  They found brass shells in the street every morning and had to watch for used syringes in the compost.  When she came to visit me, she made sure to smoke outdoors and to shred the evidence, which didn’t work entirely because of the filters.  I hadn’t criticized her, though I don’t smoke -- never have.  My addiction is books.

Wilshire says, “Smoking involves destruction, and this figures in who we are.  Typically the supreme divinity is conceived to be the supreme Destroyer as well as creator.  In smoking the fire is birthed and dies then birthed-again, a faint echo of the most ancient of all cultural-biological-religious themes -- birth, death, rebirth.

“In the immensity of space and time and the all too frequent spiritual distance that divides us from other body-selves, there is nevertheless this little light and fire to call our own in the midst of this immensity.”  

Wilshire was a smoker, but he’s not personal on this subject except to describe a moment in a restaurant when he looked over his shoulder and glimpsed a young woman exhaling a cloud of smoke that caught the light and wreathed her face.  His grandiose impression was that she appeared as a “goddess of epiphany.”  Everyone used to love cigarettes in movies -- the slipping of the pale cylinder between moist lips, the narrowing of eyes and flaring of nostrils, the handing off of the little fire, once lit. One cold rainy day I walked on a city street behind a man smoking a cigar and it smelled so good that if he had turned and offered me to buy me coffee, I would have accepted. 

Wilshire likes that writhing smoke:  “. . .the serpentine curl of smoke exhaled from the inner cavities of one’s body negotiates the boundary between the private inner cavities of body-self and the public world.”  If two smoke together, the gauzy patterns mingle.  Evidence of the private viscera is made public.  But he cautions:  “Fragmented and shallowly rooted, riteless, contemporary secular and scientific culture presents itself naked, almost totally out of sync with the regenerative rhythms of Nature.”  “Sadly, tobacco smoking in urban cultures is not explicitly ritualized and easily degenerates into mindless mechanical addiction.”

In a way, the fact that smoking marijuana is illegal for the most part means that it is often covert and shared at the very verge of ritual.  Wilshire calls smoking “kundalini” which literally means coiled, an unconscious, instinctive sexual force that lies coiled at the base of the spine. It is envisioned either as a goddess or else as a sleeping serpent, hence renderings as “serpent power”.  I won’t mention Freud.

Smoking as unconscious habit is countered by smoking as conscious ritual. 

I was once introduced to a boa constrictor named “Fat Albert.”  He was reacting to something threatening -- possibly me, since I was wearing my AC uniform and smelled of dogs.   Albert had woven himself back and forth through the spindles of the bannister on the stairs.  The only way to get him out would have been either to saw through the spindles or dismember the snake.  But if he had begun to feel safe, he would simply have moved on.  I left so he could.

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