Evelyn Waugh, Smoking and Contemplation

An essay on The American Conservative’s website, entitled “Why George Will is Wrong about Smokers”, opens with this:

Smokers, George Will says, lack “common sense.” In a late December opinion column in the Washington Post, Will declared, “Filling one’s lungs with smoke from a burning plant is dumb.”

The essay, by Notre Dame graduate student Casey Chalk, defends smoking (up to a point) which, “despite its deleterious effects, is one of our few remaining tools to facilitate reflective contemplation and fully human social interactions unencumbered by [digital] screen technology.”

According to Chalk, among those who have benefited from the comtemplative effects of smoking are writers:

Smoking, despite its evils, facilitates something our modern culture has largely failed to replace: contemplation and face-to-face social interaction. To … cite Jack Taylor of the New Oxford Review, “musical scores have been written, calculus problems solved, and philosophical principles discerned by smokers while smoking. Good conversations have been had, and many a friendship forged, under rich clouds of tobacco smoke.” C.H. Spurgeon, Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, among many others, all smoked while plying their craft.

Waugh was, of course, a cigar smoker and is frequently seen photographed while smoking a large Havana. In 1938, he went so far as to contribute to a newspaper advertisement sponsored by the Cuban Government’s promotional apparatus. This appeared in The Times for 22 November 1938 (p. 13) and is headlined “Vivat Havana !” above a rather crude drawing (not Waugh’s work by the looks of it) of a man sitting in an easy chair next to his wife and puffing on a cigar. Below that is written in heavy type “By EVELYN WAUGH: The author…dedicates this message to the Younger Generation.” There follows a text, in which it looks as if Waugh at least had a hand and some of which seems relevant to the point made in The American Conservative:

… Cigarette smoking is a habit, pipe smoking a hobby, but smoking Havana Cigars is a delicate and profound delight. I think perhaps the reason why, in fiction and films and caricatures, we always see cigars associated with the elderly and opulent, is that it is one of the pleasures we can all share with them. How little we count most of their possessions and habits; their great traffic-logged motor cars; their secretaries and surgeons, their divorces and remarriages, their supertaxes and death duties, their air-conditioned offices and penthouse apartments! And how much in their harassed routine they need those exquisite hours when the Tobacco of Havana comes to calm their apprehensions and woo them into self esteem. We, too, have our worries and we, too, turn to the same source of comfort. The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when it is reviewed through the blue, fragrant smoke of a Havana cigar. 

The last sentence, attributed to Waugh, appears even today in both news and advertising copy relating to cigar smoking. See earlier posts. On the other hand, that last sentence is perhaps the one most likely to have been written or edited by one of the advertising agency hacks. It doesn’t somehow sound like Waugh. But then irony and satire has little chance to appear in advertising copy.

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