Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A sad day for John-Paul

One can’t help feeling that a little (or perhaps a lot) of the image of the French has been lost today---fumeurs are now forbidden to light up at will in cafes. Some ingenious methods have been suggested to get round this tiresome new law. A cafe-owner in Lyon, Liberation reports, will himself pay the fines of his smoking clients, financed by the sale of used ashtrays over the Internet. The ashtray becomes a work of art, but one wonders just how many people will buy such ‘art’, with a reserve price of 200 euros.

I smoked my first pipe on my sixteenth birthday, having been enthralled since about the age of ten by a series of George Simenon’s detective novels Maigret on the television. My father used to watch Maigret with regularity on the hand-me-down black and white set we had, and sometimes we kids could sit in on the show. In the introductory part of each episode, you see Maigret walking down a little cobble-stoned alley in foggy darkness, pause, light a match using the sole of shoe, get his pipe going, then walk on. It was extraordinarily romantic. I don’t smoke with any regularity at all now, but I still have some pipes in a drawer. I can’t remember whether this early Maigret was dubbed or made by a British company. Certainly it wasn’t in French.

There is a newer version (in French), starring Bruno Kremer. The pipes are still smoked but the match-striking has gone. You can still watch some of the series on MySpace. Incidentally, at the end of the war, Simenon was worried about being labelled a collaborator because three of his books had been made into films by a German company. Nothing happened, of course.

From experience, I can say that drawing on a well-lit pipe does seem to promote a reflective state of mind, but that might be that there is little else you can do with a piece of briar stuck in your mouth. But the question remains: if we lose the ability to smoke in cafes, do we lose some of the insights that might go along with the smoke? Think of John-Paul Sartre, puffing away at the same table year after year, thinking and writing the most original of thoughts. What if we could carry on smoking?

There are two main objections to smoking: the habit causes respiratory diseases, and some people don’t like the smell. Now, try this thought experiment: let’s say that the combination of genes that allow lung cancer to develop can be identified and ‘turned off’, meaning that I could smoke with impunity. Would I go back to my pipes? Would anyone have any reason to stop me?

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