Life Kills

The West needs to relearn how to live well, not long

Terrorism, it turns out, is a many-headed beast. A raving, hirsute lunatic making tiresome home-videos in his medieval cave has brought the world’s military and economic superpower to its knees.

But terrorism of the Islamic variety is not the most sinister threat to our civilization. Rather, a morbid and cowardly fear of our own mortality, a wretched animal attachment to a life that has lost all richness and meaning, is far more insidious precisely because it arises from an inner corruption and not from the paroxysms of zealots halfway around the world. One of the most brazen examples of this malaise is the current hysteria about cigarette-smoking that is sweeping through the west.

There was a time when the Europeans scoffed at cigarette bans as the prerogative of prudish American hypocrites. But under the homogenizing pressures of the European Union, nearly every Western European country has adopted similar, if not more stringent, policies. The British banned the hoary pastime of Sir John Walter Raleigh last July; smoking indoors now carries fines of £600 for the offending party, and twice that for the publican. The formerly indomitable French, for whom smoky left-bank cafés and ennui are cultural staples, will follow suit beginning January 1, 2008. And cannabis-fans in the once surreally tolerant Netherlands will have to take their joints down to the banks of the canals and out of the world-famous coffee houses by next July.

A smoker touring through the continent will be subjected to a polyglot rendition of “Smoking Kills,” amongst other dire warnings, emblazoned in gigantic letters across their packs. Pubs in London, cafés in Paris—once the setting for centuries of nicotine-fueled repartee by Europe’s great literary and artistic geniuses—are or will soon be smoke-free. Soon, one suspects, the intellectual fervor and the romantic intrigue of these places will be stamped out along with the social ritual of smoking. People will still smoke—but despondently, at home. One small valuable part of human experience will have been abolished.

The crusade against smoking is succeeding through an unholy alliance of the joyless left and the pious right, Christians wary of vice and anemic secularists terrified of their own extinction. Their campaign to stave off death at all costs does not stop at smoking, which, after all, only kills the smoker. Sex, alcohol, and food are all equally suspect. Thus we see efforts to implement “trans-fat” bans, repressive drinking-age laws, and masturbation advocacy programs such as the Masturbate-a-thon in Clerkenwell, London in 2006 or books such as Walter O Bocking’s “Masturbation As a Means of Achieving Sexual Health” and Betty Dodson’s “Sex for One: The Joy of Self-Loving,” all of which seek to do away with the physical and emotional risks of sex. If the purists had their way, we would all live virtuous lives as smokeless, teetotaling, celery-stuffed, masturbating wimps—lonely, bored, and cowering in fear.

But the enemies of life will never fully crush the human spirit. It is true that even a dedicated young slob like me occasionally feels the pressure to succumb to head to the gym, forgo red-meat, or give up my beloved beer and cigarettes. But I take heart from the words of my Shakespearean avatar, Falstaff: “I was as virtuously given as a gentleman need to be, virtuous enough: swore little, diced not above seven times a week, went to a bawdy house not above once in a quarter of an hour, paid money that I borrowed three or four times, lived well, and in good compass, and now I live out of all order, out of all compass.”

Shakespeare knew and lived Falstaff’s wisdom. The author of the most sublime tragedy and poetry is rumored to have died in a ditch, syphilis-ravaged and drunk, at the ripe old age of fifty-two. He lived, unlike the cautious creatures of the modern bourgeoisie, not wisely, but too well.

David L. Golding ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Dunster House.