The idea of slavery was fundamental to William Blake’s art and writing. He was fervently opposed to it, and during his own lifetime (1757 – 1827) spanned successful campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade, leading towards the abolition of slavery itself within the British domains in 1807.
But for Blake slavery was also a mental state. Limited perceptions and following conventional religion or science was akin to enslavement, to being held with ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of one’s own making. Blake represents these notions through the contorted body; mentally restricted figures are enclosed within themselves, while those free of mental shackles fly upwards like birds. The image of enslavement is associated above all with the suppression of sexual desire and the desire for unity, represented in Blake’s imagery by chained figures. Many of the most dramatic and complex images show a confrontation between the forces of repression and those seeking freedom.
This morning I thought that the restrictions of smoking bans are very like being constrained by (invisible) chains and manacles, and that smoking bans are a form of slavery.
I think that’s why I hate being inside pubs or cafés these days: I can feel the invisible chains stopping my hands reaching for the tobacco in my pocket.
It’s something I feel as strongly now as I did when the English smoking ban came into force on 1 July 2007, and the pubs became unwelcoming prisons from which I had to escape.
But most other smokers don’t seem to be as bothered about it as I am. And I often wonder why that is. I know that they don’t like the ban, but they seldom talk about it, even if it’s the only reason why they’re sitting smoking outside a pub rather than inside as they used to do.
I suspect that one reason for it might be that they were used to smoking bans in ways that I wasn’t. For until 1 July 2007 I’d hardly ever been banned from smoking anywhere. I smoked at home, and I smoked at work, and I smoked in pubs, and I smoked on holidays, and I smoked round at friends’ houses, and so 1 July 2007 was a terrific shock for me. But for other people, it was something they’d already got used to, and so the 1 July 2007 ban was just an extra ban.
And really, the smoking bans had been slowly creeping in for decades. First bans on smoking in some carriages on trains, and then on all carriages. First at the front of aircraft, and then everywhere.
And it’s not just that the bans came creeping in very slowly, almost unnoticeably, but also that a lot of people were more than happy to voluntarily put chains on themselves, in an act of ‘self-control’, like wearing a cilice. Such people usually believed – the product of decades of conditioning – that smoking was ‘bad for them’. But it was always a shock when you arrived at some dinner party to be told that smoking has been banned henceforth by your welcoming host or hostess, as she ushered you to your place at the table. It is your own friends and family who put the manacles around your wrists, with an indulgent smile, as if they are doing you a favour. And they are the hardest to resist, particularly if they’re your very best friends.
The chains are fitted little by little, and at first only for a little while. Those who are to be enslaved must first wear manacles for the 20 minutes or half hour that they’re on a train or bus. And they’re not bothered about it because they know they can have a smoke when the journey ends. The loss of freedom is temporary. They can take the chains off.
But as the gradual process of enslavement continues, the chains are kept on for longer and longer. They are kept in chains while at work. And in chains in cinemas and restaurants and pubs. What started out as part-time enslavement becomes almost full-time enslavement, with a few minutes in each day when it’s possible to have a quick smoke outdoors.
And the bans are now extending outdoors too. There are smoking bans outside hospitals. And for ever-increasing distances outside places where smoking is banned. And in the UK local more and more local councils seem to be thinking about introducing outdoor bans. And they’re also extending into people’s homes. And they’re extending to e-cigarettes – because vaping ‘looks like’ smoking.
What happens when there’s nowhere you can smoke? Not indoors, not outdoors, not in your car, and not in your own home. What will the smokers I know do then? To date, their response to all the various bans has been to find a way round them in one way or other. But what if there’s no way round?
The success of the gradual introduction of smoking bans is now leading to calls for restrictions on other products. It won’t be long now before alcohol is also gradually restricted. And sugar. And any number of other things, as new sets of chains are added to the existing set.
Perhaps all that will happen will be that people will patiently wear their chains all day every day, completely enslaved, and they won’t mind at all. And over a period of 40 or 50 years formerly free men and women will have all been very gradually reduced to slavery, with everyone doing exactly (and believing exactly) what they’re told, and very often doing it willingly, even enthusiastically.
Or maybe the slaves will finally revolt when the last vestiges of their freedom are being snuffed out, as what had once been a tolerable nuisance had finally become intolerable.