I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
In fact I’ve actually been re-reading it for the first time in nearly 40 years. At that time I had a motorcycle – a 250cc BSA Starfire – which I’d occasionally partly disassemble and reassemble. The main thing I remember about doing that was that I’d always wind up with my hands covered in black engine oil. I was never quite sure why the oil was black, because when you first poured it in it had the colour and very nearly the consistency of golden syrup. But within a few weeks or months it always turned black. And you needed a special green gel to remove it from your fingers and arms. It often took two or three applications of the gel. And even then there’d be black oil under your fingernails.
The book was oddly familiar as I began re-reading it. But I seemed to notice a few things that I don’t remember noticing 40 years ago. There are no real fully developed characters in the book (something the author candidly admits part way through). They’re all cardboard cut-out, matchstick men and women. But this time I noticed that they were all artists or musicians, and they were all on the run from a technology they didn’t understand. They didn’t know how to disassemble engines. They didn’t even know how to fix light switches. If they needed something fixing, they called in a mechanic or electrician. Or maybe they just bought a new one.
But when I arrived at it, on page 66 of my battered old copy, as he began to climb into the high country of the mind, I remembered very well the author’s distinction between classical and romantic understanding:
A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.
The classical motorcycle was the assemblage of pistons and cylinders and crankshafts and valves and gears. Those are the classical forms from which it was constructed. The romantic motorcycle was the complete, shiny, chrome-plated beast that throbbed and revved and roared. And while the author had a classical understanding of the world, and knew how to pull it apart and put it back together into its classical components, the other characters in the book were all romantics who didn’t want to get their hands dirty (or scuffed or bruised) doing that sort of thing…
Reading this, it occurred to me that antismokers are romantics who don’t want to get their hands (or hair or clothes) dirty. If antismokers had ideal engines, they would be oil-free engines. Because the stuff really does get all over your fingers and arms and clothes and face. And you have to clean them two or three times with green gel to get it off. Furthermore that black oil is laden with about 4,000 chemicals. If you drank any, you’d probably die. And it’s always leaking out of engines, to form little black puddles under them.
But what happens to an engine after it’s been “cleaned up”, and all the nasty black oil has been drained out of it? Well, the oil is an essential lubricant for the engine. The oil keeps the moving parts of the engine fractionally separated from each other, so that they slide past each other easily. It keeps the pistons fractionally separate from the cylinders, and the crankshaft separate from the gears, and so on. And if the oil is drained out, all these things start rubbing against each other. And as they rub against each other, they heat up. And as they heat up, they expand, and press against each other more tightly. In the end, the engine seizes up. It may then be beyond repair.
And the same is true of tobacco smoke. That also acts, among other things, as a lubricant – a social lubricant. It puts a veil between people, that prevents them from seeing each other too clearly, or encountering each other too closely. Dim lighting has the same effect. So also does alcohol. And mascara and lipstick.
One school I went to was on top of a hill, and from time to time the hilltop would be completely shrouded in cloud or mist. And in that mist you could only see a few yards. And the effect of that was to make the place you were standing seem like a small private room into which other people couldn’t see, even though you knew you were standing in the middle of the extensive school playing fields.
Smoke has the same effect, of veiling people from each other, and creating intimate private spaces within it. Taking away the smoke removes the concealment, and removes the intimacy, and exposes everyone to the bright, harsh, unforgiving light of day.
And so when the dirty, filthy smoke has been drained out of a social environment, and people can see each other clearly, they see each other warts and all. Every blemish is magnified. Everything looks uglier. And people become more critical of each other. They cease to get along quite so easily. There’s more friction. Tempers are shorter. Anger is quicker.
A smoke-free society is just like an oil-free engine. I don’t know how long it takes for an oil-free engine to seize up, or how long it takes for a smoke-free society to break down. But essentially the same processes are at work. They will only be amplified by alcohol restrictions, lighting regulations, and sound level restrictions, and other supposed “improvements”.
We humans can’t take too much reality. It’s cold and austere and ugly. And so we disguise it in every way we can. We don’t want to see everything brightly lit. We don’t want bright sunshine all the time. We are creatures of darkness and mist and smoke.